A white car—to be specific, a white 1970 Dodge Challenger—speeds down a desert highway toward a roadblock so forbidding that it looks as if even the Challenger’s (possibly) supercharged engine won’t be able to muscle through it. Along the way, it passes a black car headed in the opposite direction. The film pauses and lets the white Challenger fade away. With it fades a few hours of time. We’re with the black car now, speeding toward a destination that will bring its driver (Barry Newman, playing a character named simply “Kowalski”) to Denver. There, he’ll pick up the Challenger that will eventually bring him hurtling back toward the roadblock. His seemingly straight path becomes a circle in the end.
Directed by Richard C. Sarafian from a script by exiled Cuban postmodernist writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante under the pseudonym Guillermo Cain, Vanishing Point is one of a handful of early-’70s road movies that exist in the space opened up by Easy Rider in 1969. But where Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper went looking for America, Vanishing Point sends Newman on a quest even harder to define. Working for a car-delivery service, Newman arrives in Denver, picks up the Challenger, then decides—against his employer’s advice—to drive it to San Francisco in 15 hours. Stopping long enough to pick up the pills he needs to keep going, he hits the road, fast. When police attempt to stop him, he goes faster still.
What makes him drive? The movie never really answers the question, but a series of flashbacks fill in some of the blanks, providing elliptical glimpses of his past as a disillusioned cop, racecar driver, and doomed lover. Life hasn’t left him much but the road. As to what’s put him on this particular path… Like much of the movie, that remains an open question.
Newman picks up speed and symbolic baggage as the movie progresses, and much of the film’s brilliance lies in the way Sarafian balances the two elements. It works brilliantly as an action movie, its chase scenes and stunts filmed with an eye toward distressing angles and heat-distorted shots of roads stretching out to infinity. (The great cinematographer John Alonzo does some of his best work here.) But it works even better as a four-wheeled variation on the final sequence of 2001, with post-’60s America subbing in for outer space. It’s as meditative in its own way as Two-Lane Blacktop, but with action enough to satisfy any drive-in crowd, as Newman’s desert journey takes in side-trips involving faith, sex, friendship, and—in a sequence involving Charlotte Rampling as a hooded hitchhiker—death.
Fox excised that scene from Vanishing Point’s American release, and though it’s a better film with the sequence intact—the new Blu-ray version include both cuts—even without it, there’s no shaking the feel that Newman’s journey is ultimately about final things. He picks up a vocal admirer in the form of a blind DJ named Super Soul (Cleavon Little, pre-Blazing Saddles) who dubs him “the last beautiful, free soul on this planet” as he guides him away from the cops. Maybe Little is right. Maybe the film shows Newman speeding through the last moment before it all slipped away. Or maybe it’s a journey destined to start again the moment it ends.
Key features: Sarafian provides a thorough, frank commentary. He wanted Gene Hackman in the lead, but Richard Zanuck knew somebody who knew somebody who knew Frank Sinatra, who co-starred with Newman, etc. The Challenger wasn’t his choice either. Other features include a fine short making-of, and plenty of Blu-ray-exclusive fodder for car freaks.