70s Cinema: Runaway Trains, Racing toward oblivion, psycho-sexual machinations and ‘the self loathing whore’ Part 3

Vanishing Point (1971)

It’s the maximum trip… at maximum speed.

Watch carefully because everything happens fast. The chase. The desert. The shack. The girl. The roadblock. The end.

Director Richard C. Sarafian (prolific television series director, The Twilight Zone ep. Living Doll 1963, Fragment of Fear 1970, The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing 1973). With a screenplay by Guillermo Cabrera Infante, story outlined by Malcolm Hart. Cinematography by John A. Alonzo (Bloody Mama 1970, Harold and Maude 1971, Lady Sings the Blues 1972, Chinatown 1974, Norma Rae 1979). Alonzo offers up a minimalist vision not unlike Steven Spielberg’s first film Duel (1971).

Vanishing Point (1971) conjures an image of Americana with it’s dusty realism yet the landscape seems to exist on a desolate otherworldly planet.

The groovin’ sound track is a collection of various artists who create the perfect fabric of seventies resonance. The singer/songwriter (of Bread fame) plays the piano with the J. Hovah singers during the revival scene in the desert. Other songs include Mississippi Queen sung by Mountain, Welcome to Nevada by Jerry Reed, Nobody Knows sung by Kim Carnes and So Tired sung by Eve. Carnes’ most notable song is the cult hit, Betty Davis Eyes.

DJ Super Soul: “And there goes the Challenger, being chased by the blue, blue meanies on wheels. The vicious traffic squad cars are after our lone driver, the last American hero, the electric centaur, the, the demi-god, the super driver of the golden west! Two nasty Nazi cars are close behind the beautiful lone driver. The police numbers are gettin’ closer, closer, closer to our soul hero, in his soul mobile, yeah baby! They about to strike. They gonna get him. Smash him. Rape… the last beautiful free soul on this planet.”

… speed means freedom of the soul. The question is not when’s he gonna stop, but who is gonna stop him.”

Vanishing Point stars a very gruff and sexy Barry Newman (The Moving Finger 1963, The Salzburg Connection 1972, Fear is the Key 1972, Petrocelli 1974-76) as Kowalski, dynamic Cleavon Little as blind radio DJ Super Soul, Dean Jagger as the prospector, Paul Koslo as Deputy Charlie Scott, Robert Donner as Deputy Collins, Severn Darden, Karl Swenson, Anthony James as 1st gay hitch-hiker, Arthur Malet as 2nd gay hitch-hiker, Gilda Texter as Nude Rider, and although she was deleted from the U.S. version, Charlotte Rampling as hitch-Hiker.

The film has a beautiful bleak vision and atmosphere of “Dead-already-ness” in the narrative that foreshadows Kowalski’s ultimate destiny. The film doesn’t contribute much essential dialogue, in the way The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) thrives on it’s repartee. Vanishing Point is fueled by it’s visual movement.

Vanishing Point seems to reject the sensibilities of a contrived ‘road movie’ that embodies or symbolizes liberation, but in actuality “the road is not ‘open’ but merely a channel through which the vehicle hurtles.” (John Beck)

Vanishing Point is an inauguration of the New Hollywood road/chase movies of the 1970s and one of the most significant cult road movies of the mythic ‘wandering hero’ archetype and ‘the outsider’ roles of that decade. What makes Vanishing Point stand out from other more mainstream Hollywood rebels and road movies is it’s resistance to embrace the glorification of films boasting the (as writer John Beck puts it) “freedom to drive.”

[Warning: SPOILERS]

Director Sarafian employs the use of freeze frame. One notable moment at the top of the film occurs when the black car’s path is crossed by a white challenger that foretells his predestination. There is also the use of symbolism throughout, one notable is the omnipresent appearance of blondes that all seem to resemble his dead love.

“Two Days Earlier” in Denver, Colorado, on Friday at 11:30pm.

Kowalski (Barry Newman) is an auto deliveryman who has spent his life exploring the thrill of danger and is drawn to auto-annihilation.

He drives up in a black Chrysler into Argo’s Car Delivery Service where he picks up the white 1970 Challenger R/T hopped up to over 160 mph from Sandy McKeese (Karl Swenson). Kowalski is given the job to drive the muscle car “from Denver to San Fransisco.” He bets his friend Jake, who gives him the amphetamines, that he can deliver the car at top speed in fifteen hours. The Challenger is banged up to shambles along the way.

The film then takes us back from where it opens when it tells us “California, Sunday, 10:04 am” at the moment before Kowalski collides with the bulldozers.

There is no pursuit of an answer, no critical mission, nor understanding that will be opened up to awareness. The only measure of his determination is more speed. Theoretically Vanishing Point isn’t categorically a ‘chase’ flick, as he has initially done nothing wrong. He is not an outlaw yet when suddenly he arouses the attentions of the police and highway patrol and continually outrunning them. When he is called “quite a mother,” by a Nevada sheriff he is only guilty of dangerous driving and “failure to stop.” The stubborn and illogical behavior of Kowalski’s defiance confounds the police. Kowalski’s friend Sandy McKeese (Karl Swenson) is interviewed by the press, “he was No.1 then and he’s No.1 now. Leave the guy alone!”

Kowalski takes along a reserve of uppers and hits the road on his nihilistic journey. The film is transformed by a visceral aesthetic into an existential metaphor for ‘free will’ and a strong current of individualism and alienation. He is soon pursued zealously by the establishment systems, represented by a multitude of blundering corrupt police. The allegorical story features a variety of metaphorical yet vague, encounters. In the spirit of a similar seventies anti-hero R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) McMurphy is on an unrelenting journey watched over by a spiritual companion Chief Bromden (Will Sampson) along his death trip in director Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest (1975). 

There is an absurd, homophobic confrontation with a couple of gay hitchhiking bandits played byAnthony James (In the Heat of the Night 1967, High Plains Drifter 1973) and character actor Arthur Malet. Both appeared on episodes of Columbo. The pair’s car, with the ‘just married’ sign on the back, has broken down. Kowalski stops to give them a ride. James sits in the front, while Kowalski smirks, “Is there something wrong? You’re so silent and moody.” He proceeds to pull a gun on him. The film holds a sarcastic view of stereotyping ‘queers’, with Malet even referring to Kowalski as “Mary”.

Kowalski connects with a snake charming prospector in the desert painted with quirky verve by Dean Jagger acting almost as an Oracle and guide along the way through the desert, a netherworld inhabited by specters. The prospector trades rattle snakes for sugar, coffee and lots of beans. His sage advice to Kowalski “the best way to get away is to root right in, just root right in.”

A band of love generation revivalists in the middle of the desert. And a desert nymph, a naked blonde on a motorcycle who offers him a doobie, though he declines it for a ‘straight’ cigarette. All the characters Kowalski encounters are more like imaginary apparitions he meets along his death trip.

Also featured is Charlotte Rampling symbolizing death as a hitch-hiker. She is dressed like a beautiful grim reaper, the visage of death. “I’ve been waiting for you everywhere and since forever. “Patiently. Patiently, that’s the only way to wait for somebody.” Kowalski makes love to the enigmatic stranger as if he is reverent toward embracing his death. In the morning she has disappeared.

He also keeps his car radio tuned to KOW (also an abbreviation of his name), a station that is used as a temple by blind D.J. Super Soul who sermonizes to a growing audience of listeners, turning Kowalski and his renegade spirit into an instant cult legend. The connection between Kowalski and Super Soul might suggest that the station and the DJ’s meditations are a conduit tuned into Kowalski’s journey. Super Soul is somehow a sort of fatalistic mystic and clairvoyant, psychically connected to the doomed driver. Close to the end of Vanishing Point Kowalski reacts verbally to Super Soul’s broadcast now bringing forth more of a link between the two characters. Super Soul refers to him as a “demigod of the golden West” and the “last beautiful free soul on the planet.” pursued by “blue blue meanies.” The character apparitions like the biker and his nude nympth are part of his death trip. How else can they hear Super Soul on the radio if they aren’t part of his voyage?

The most visible of the police is prolific young character actor Paul Koslo (The Omega Man 1971, Rooster Cogburn 1975, The Drowning Pool 1974) as the rabid Deputy Charlie Scott who, with the rest of Nevada police, fails to catch Kowalski as he continues to elude them. The backlash of Scott’s failure comes in the form of his brutal racist attack on Super Soul, his engineer (John Amos), and the radio station. Deputy Scott- “As far as the law’s concerned, he’s clean as Kleenex… freedom faggot.”

Super Soul’s interpretation of Kowalski’s quest doesn’t flow from direct knowledge of his motivations. The assumptions he makes about Kowalski’s intentions are accurate. His drive represents a broader scope of people than just his own self-justifications. He has embraced counter-culture’s condemnation of an oppressive ‘system’ and embraces the American paradigms of freedom, the passage to freedom, and strategies of escape. As reflected in the flashbacks, Kowalski is not a ‘free spirit,’ yet Super Soul continues to mythologize his blatant refusal to stop driving toward his destination.

Extracted within the narrative are brief flashback sequences that give us little glances into Kowalski’s past, which is summoned up by the various run ins with the police. We find out that he is a Vietnam veteran who won the medal of honor, a demolition derby driver, a stock-car racer, a dirt biker, and a police officer who witnessed and prevented his vile partner (Val Avery) from assaulting a young girl in the back of the squad car. We find out that he was in love with a blonde surfer who drowns. Perhaps these memories are offered as hints into his inclinations toward speed and ultimately self-destruction. Regardless of his motivations, his actions serve to intensify our awareness of Kowalski’s alienation. Kowalski’s past does nothing to reinforce an affinity with counter-culture.

Not only is Kowalski not a hippie, it is merely out of necessity that he interacts with the desert long hairs. He is sardonically belligerent to the gay hitchhikers. It is all together baffling why he would cease his relentless onward motion in order to allow them into his car in the first place. Unlike the time of free love, he has no desire to accept the offer to have sex with the naked flower child on the motorcycle. The one vice that aligns itself with the drug culture is his use of speed to stay awake.

In fact it can be said that Super Soul’s construction of Kowalski’s rebel identity is a creation of the DJ’s own wish-fulfillment. Super Soul warns that while he might beat the police, the road, and even the clock, “you can’t beat the desert. Nobody can.” Kowalski’s response is, predictably, “go to hell.”

Throughout, the film our mythic American outlaw is sort of nonchalantly dismissive of the counter-culture that rises to greet him during his odyssey. He takes help from the biker because he needs more uppers. Kowalski is not a hippie, he is a melancholy individualist racing toward oblivion with the mysticism of the desert as his landscape.

When Kowalski detours into the isolation of the desert it forms a barrier between him and the police. The police don’t pursue him by car once he travels deeper into it’s seared wide view. They maintain their chase from the vantage point from the sky above the terrain in helicopters. Deputy Scott’s malicious comment, “he’s jumped the mean road. Headed out to the desert, let him cook for a while.”  The desert itself becomes part of the mythical odyssey where the system’s corrupt tendril’s cannot reach him. Super Soul reckons on his broadcast out to Kowalski that the police are “all too happy to see you vanish…{…} “the question isn’t when he’s gonna stop, the question is who’s gonna stop him?”

An element of premonition and synergy augurs Kowalski’s predetermined conclusion. On Friday he first drives a black car on the way to pick up the white Challenger, and there is a white Challenger on the highway going the other way, passing him like a wraith foretelling of his death on the road. On Sunday, near Kowalski’s end he is passed by a black Chrysler as if the journey has come full circle.

The film opens with him at the site of the roadblock. When the film returns there, Kowalski accelerates toward the bulldozers with an unhesitating smile. The protagonist commits suicide by crashing head on into road block bulldozers. The end comes as the self-destructive culmination of his resistance to being stopped.

“Kowalski’s annihilation is entirely an act of self-willed and euphoric vanishing – the explosive suicide of a man whose understanding of the logic of his administered identity is clear enough for him to, aggressively and ironically, accede to moving under the force of gravity and becoming a legendary projectile.”-John Beck

RESISTANCE BECOMES BALLISTIC: VANISHING POINT AND THE END OF THE ROAD by JOHN BECK (select excerpts)

Richard C. Sarafian’s Vanishing Point (1971) is the apotheosis 
of the Vietnam-era exploitation/arthouse existentialist road movies produced in
 the wake of Easy Rider. Vanishing Point is about speed and technology, surveillance and control, acceleration and catastrophe, roads, deserts, and perspective. It explores the compression of time through the acceleration of movement and measures the velocity of a counterculture that has “hopped up” the machinery of repression as it approaches final impact…

Cohan and Hark argue …in periods whose dominant ideologies generate fantasies of escape and opposition, as in the late 1960s They go on to note that cycles of outlaw road movies seem to emerge as a critical response to a “just-closed period of national unity focused on positive, work-ethic goals,” giving as examples post–Second World War film noir, anti-establishment films of the 1960s and 1970s, and crisis-of-masculinity films of the immediate post–Cold War period (ibid.). In at least the first two of these periods it is perhaps also revealing that the rethinking of the road movie narrative is made possible through the intervention of non-American influences: expressionism in noir via European émigrés and in the 1960s the feeding back of early Hollywood films through the filter of postwar European cinema, most notably in the work of Jean Luc Godard. (Godard’s own meditation on auto-destruction…

…Vanishing Point is clearly a film that responds to the collapse of Eisenhower-era certainties and is in many ways a typical post–Easy Rider , collision of Roger Corman youth exploitation movie and film school nouvelle vague-influenced New Hollywood, undoubtedly part of the studios’ scramble to capitalize on Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s crossover success (Hill 1996; Biskind 1998; Pascoe 2002). The film combines the familiar stock characteristics of many such movies, including a disaffected protagonist, automotive destruction, drug taking, hippies, bigoted police officers and small-town thugs, a tone of inchoate profundity, desert landscapes, and a rock sound track. It would, however, be a mistake to write off the film as little more than a cash-in. While Easy Rider is an obvious development of the more explicitly “wild” biker and racing movies that preceded it, that film’s distinctiveness and influence lay in its unapologetic combination of counter-cultural cheese and verité politics.

…During the 1970s more mainstream films would flesh out the narrative potential of the counter-cultural road movie in its picaresque and epic modes, many relying on the chase and outlaw motifs established in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), and Bullitt (1968)… and often gesturing, albeit often in politically diluted form, toward the residual socially critical undertow awakened by Easy Rider.

Some of the more memorable Hollywood films of the 1970s are road movies of this ilk, including Peckinpah’s The Getaway (1972), Mallick’s James Dean homage Badlands (1973), Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), and two early Spielberg features, Duel (1971) and The Sugarland Express (1974).

Vanishing Point, by contrast, is infinitely more alienated, blank, and affectless. The names of Easy Rider’s protagonists, Billy and Wyatt, place the characters firmly inside the tradition of the Western, while Vanishing Point’s Kowalski, with echoes of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, is a name more likely to suggest an urban immigrant identity out of its element in the open spaces of the West. This makes a difference, since the shooting of Wyatt that concludes Easy Rider, however jarring, is consonant with the Western’s penchant for elegiac closure. By comparison, Kowalski’s crash, accompanied by the quixotic smirk we are offered in the moment before impact, is ecstatically final as the driver merges with the terminal velocity of the machine. Vanishing Point appears to be less about an imagined lost freedom (the Western topos) and much more concerned with the annihilation of the individual by the logic of acceleration…

…The road, then, is no symbol of liberty in Vanishing Point but an expression of managerial control and death. If the road is the acme of control, the persistent presence of the desert either side of the road in Vanishing Point functions as its dedifferentiated other. It might be expected that, as in other road movies, the desert would serve as an unregulated alternative to the directionality of American space.

IMDb Trivia

The color white was chosen for the car simply so the car would stand out against the background scenery in the movie. White was not symbolic in any way except to contrast the black Chrysler that acts as a counter omen.

Director Sarafian’s original choice for the role of Kowalski was Gene Hackman, but the studio, 20th Century Fox, insisted on using Barry Newman if the movie was going to be made. Kris Kristofferson was also considered for the part. Wife Rita Coolidge has a part in the desert revival band.

The hitch-hiker in the uncut version is Charlotte Rampling who symbolized “death” as she tells Kowalski that he’s slipped her grasp a few times over the years and that he is expected soon to meet her for the final time. There are two versions of the film. The U.S. and U.K version.

Dialogue at the beginning of the film foreshadows the ending. After Kowalski tells Sandy that he intends to drive to San Francisco without a break, Sandy tells him he’s going to “Kill himself” one day.

The speedometer and tachometer are never shown just the fuel gauge.

This is your EverLovin’ Joey saying– never slow down when you know where you’re going… To The Last Drive In of course. And I’ll see you there!

5 thoughts on “70s Cinema: Runaway Trains, Racing toward oblivion, psycho-sexual machinations and ‘the self loathing whore’ Part 3

  1. Great review of a very enigmatic film that requires several viewings. 70s movies I can take of leave, most of them leave, but I love Vanishing Point. (I love Pelham 1 2 3 even more).

    I like that Kowalski is “nonchalantly dismissive of the counter-culture”. It’s very refreshing in a 70s movie. So often we get either a complete hate for it, or more often, unquestioning glorification which is in itself a cliche. As you say, he is the ultimate individualist. Kowalski is a favorite of mine.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wooh! I saw Vanishing Point in the theater with my Dad. I was a teenager, itching for my own car. It made quite an impression on me then. Now I need to get my hands on the UK version with the beautiful Rampling. Thank you for reminding me of this treasure. Now I’m off to read Part One !

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  3. I can totally see why you’d want your own slick car! Vanishing Point has such a cool edge to it. I cannot fathom why the U.S. version doesn’t have Charlotte Rampling as the mysterious hitch-hiker in it. It adds so much context to the plot in such a small yet vital scene. Hope you enjoy Part One… Cheers, Joey

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  4. I have to thank you, Joey! I stumbled upon your marvelous blog while reading about Lee Grant, and was so excited by your interview with her, I kept reading other articles. Now I own the complete Thriller set, and Boris Karloff and his show has been such a comfort during these past months. THANK YOU for your love of film and television and for sharing it with us!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hey there! I am so thrilled that you found The Last Drive In. I’m also glad that you enjoyed the interview with Lee Grant. She is so iconic and it was an incredible experience for me to talk with her. I still need to upload the actual audio conversation we had, so you can hear her wonderful laugh. How cool is it that you’re delving into Boris Karloff’s Thriller. I can watch those episodes over and over they are so captivating and completely ahead of their time. A mixture of noir, horror and suspense. I know these are times of struggle for so many. Please stay safe and keep watching classic film and television to keep you company and bring you joy! Cheers, Joey

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