Well, Vanishing Point is definitely a movie of the seventies. Don’t be deceived by the DVD case, which proclaims this to be “the Ultimate Car Chase Movie” – yes, there is certainly car chases, but this film is more art gallery than speed shop. To contextualize the film, it was originally released in 1971 – the Vietnam war was crawling towards defeat for the U.S., the summer of love had come and gone, and disaffection and disillusionment had become the twin staples of the America.
V…nishing Point isn’t a satire, nor is it a critique of 1970’s Americana – its more like a guided tour that shows the viewer – with an unapologetic eye – the seediness that lies off the beaten path. The focus of the movie is “Kowalski” (first name unknown) – the “last American hero,” on a cannonball run from Denver to San Francisco. Consider him Holden Caulfield with a drug problem and a fast car. As film goes on, you’ll find out more and more about Kowalski – how he went from being young, in love, and a cop, to being old, suicidal, and a junky, in only five years. Yup, tough life for the heroic anti-hero. Kowalski’s life story is handled with consummate skill and tenderness by director Richard Sarafian… with little dialog, Kowalski’s past is divulged in timely vignettes who’s quietness and implied meaning add huge emotional depth to Kowalski’s character.
In another good inversion, Kowalski’s car – a 1970 Challenger R/T that he is delivering to San Francisco for a broker in Denver – becomes a symbol of impotence. For all it supercharged power, Kowalski is unable to escape either the police, his skeletons in the closet, or his own indifference towards his life. There certainly are some good car scenes, and the Challenger’s exhaust note is captured perfectly – but the car, and to some degree all of the chases, are secondary to the rest of the film. Interestingly, the director’s commentary tells us that Sarafian had the Challenger chosen for him (implied against his will?) – in perhaps an early product placement example. Turns out that the filming of the movie, including the dusty desert scene’s killed 7 Challenger R/T’s – they finished the film on the last of their fleet.
Now, here’s something very interesting – 1997 saw the release of a made for TV movie called “Vanishing Point” penned by the same authors – Malcolm Hart (primary), and Guillermo Cain. Malcolm Hart’s only writing credits are these two Vanishing Points. The 1997 TV version follows the story of “James Kowalski” trying to get back to his pregnant wife by driving fast across the USA in … a 1970 Challenger R/T. Reading the IMDB synopsis of the made-for-TV version is bizarre – the movie and TV version share a great deal in common, but are also fundamentally different – no need for disaffected anti-hero’s in the nineties apparently. Anyway, for interest’s sake, I’m putting the 1997 TV version on my list of things to watch. I wish the DVD had included that, instead of the mysterious UK version on the flipside. Oh – and Viggo Mortensen plays the 1997 Kowalski – ROTKowalski.
The video has been cleaned up extensively. Compare the film to the included trailer and you’ll see what I mean. The movie has a great deal of contrast in it – switching from urban night scenes to daytime desert scenes, and all are handled very well – there’s no graininess or other visual problems that seem to plague 1970’s films. Finally, there’s little to no particulate damage – not sure if the master was just stored very well or if a particularly thorough restoration was done – in any case, it looks fantastic.
Not too much to say here – its straight 2.0 or mono. The sound is flat and listless. For the dialog scenes its fine, for the car chase scenes its fine, but for the soundtrack, its terrible – the film has a groovin’, funkin’ “Super Soul” soundtrack that is completely lost in the 2.0 presentation. Likewise, the crazy desert fanatic band (you’ll know it when you see it) would have definitely benefited from a better audio track. That and the concept of “ambient sound” is completely lost on this DVD – not too disappointing as there isn’t a whole lot of it, my I’m sure a modern post-production crew could have done something interesting with the road noise that predominates.
The disc is more or less bereft of special features. There are the obligatory TV spots and trailers, that really aren’t that interesting. Director Richard Sarafian does a commentary track, which is interesting, but not spectacular. Sarafian seems to get sidetracked with reminiscences about his film crew and whatnot, which is disappointing. With such an existential movie, I’d hoped for more in the way of political discussion. The other special feature is the UK version of the film, contained on the flipside of the disc. I haven’t had time to watch the movie again through Brit-vision, so I’m not sure what this is all about. It is 7 minutes longer. Perhaps the UK version of this DVD release features the US version on its flipside??
Vanishing Point is an interesting and thought provoking movie. While its not the most amazing DVD release ever, it’s got a high quality video transfer, and a decent commentary track. Recommended for fans of the early seventies post-Vietnam “disaffected America” genre. Muscle car fans and Gumball street race fanatics will also find this enjoyable on a more superficial level.
Special Features List
- Trailers and TV Spots
- Director’s Commentary