It is with much excitement and enthusiasm that I present you all with the first of what will be a recurring review of automotive films! You could say that I am ideally suited to author these criticisms, since long before writing for StreetMuscleMag, I attended and graduated from New York University’s film school in 1992, and subsequently worked in the movie business for twenty years as a documentarian and screenwriter. Combining my two great passions in life – films and cars – and writing about them is surely a dream assignment for me! So without further ado, I present to you my critique of one of my personal favorite car films, Vanishing Point.
Released in 1971 by 20th Century Fox, Vanishing Point stars Barry Newman, Cleavon Little, and Dean Jagger, and was directed by Richard C. Sarafian. It is one of those films that could have only come out of Hollywood during the halcyon days of the Vietnam War era, when existential, drug-induced films found a niche amongst the increasingly youthful audiences of the day. Much in the manner of that other classic road movie of the era, Easy Rider, Vanishing Point features a minimalist, stream-of-consciousness narrative, and focuses on a most unconventional anti-hero as he attempts to subvert the rules of the road and the will of The Man.
Barry Newman as Kowalski.
Kowalski (we never learn his first name) is a car delivery driver tasked with getting a 1970 Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco in an absurdly short period of time. With driving non-stop being the only way to accomplish his mission, Kowalski visits his drug dealer, procures a handful of Benzedrine pills which he duly takes all at once, and then bets the dealer the price of the speed that he can make it to San Francisco in thirteen hours.
Clevon Little as the blind DJ, Super Soul.
As far as plot is concerned, that’s about all there is! The rest of the film concerns Kowalski’s journey, in which he is urged on by a blind, prophet-like radio DJ named Super Soul, pursued by the police forces of several states, has several flashbacks to seminal moments in his life, and meets a strange collection of odd-ball characters along the way.
Did I mention that he encounters a completely nude hippie girl riding a motorcycle in the desert? Yup, that actually happens. But I digress…
Strange encounters on the road.
Aside from the allegorical, mystical style of the film, what really makes it stand out in the well-populated genre of car-movies are the cars themselves that are featured throughout. The main star is of course Kowalski’s Challenger R/T, a big, brash 440 Six-Pack powered beast described in dialog as being supercharged.
Mopar enthusiasts will drool over the scenes of Kowalski’s white colored steed as it tears through the desert at breakneck speeds. In addition, we get copious glimpses of the interior of the car, as Kowalski manhandles the steering wheel and Hurst pistol-grip shifter; so much so that it behooves anyone restoring a Challenger of this vintage to watch the film if for no other reason than to use it as a means to get the interior appointments correct.
The real star of the movie: Kowalski's Challenger R/T 440 Six-Pack.
Other cars featured in the film include a blue-gray Jaguar E-Type convertible driven by an unnamed maniacal street-racer in a bright-orange racing helmet, and a host of different vintage Mopar sedans used by the cops to hunt down and stop Kowalski.
Left: Kowalski races a a determined street racer in a Jaguar E-Type. Right: Some of the pursuit Mopars used by the police in the film.
They include 1968 Dodge Polaras, 1970 Plymouth Belvederes, and 1970 Dodge Coronet 440s. This was back in the day when the police forces ran Mopars to catch the bad guys, because, “it takes a Mopar to catch a Mopar.”
The police close in on Kowalski. Would you keep running or give up?
While the film comes off as rather dated with its 1960s hipster slang dialog and ludicrous fashions and hairstyles, it is nonetheless an entirely watchable diversion, with chase sequences featuring iconic American muscle that will make your hair stand up on end. As such, I give Vanishing Point a solid seven out of ten piston rating.
About The Author: Rob Finkelman is a freelance writer for Street Muscle Magazine. He attended and graduated from New York University’s film school in 1992, and subsequently worked in the movie business for twenty years as a documentarian and screenwriter. Combining his two great passions in life – films and cars – and writing about them is a dream job for him. He will be bringing us a Car Movie Review each month, and he’s open to suggestions so list yours below.