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Vanishing Point: A Car Movie Done Right

Remembering and reliving the cult classic

Arthur St. AntoinewriterTim Marrsillustrator

I was barely six hours into a 12-hour flight across the Pacific, and I'd already finished my book. Ugh. I checked my iPad. Dammit, forgot to load any e-reading. I sighed, tucked the book and iPad away, and unfolded the multimedia screen.

Let's see. "War for the Planet of the Apes." Nah, all that hair might land on my semi-faux Salisbury steak. Hmmmm. "Transformers: The Last Knight." Uh, not when I could already picture the sequel: "Transformers: The Very Last Knight. Promise." I flipped absent-mindedly through more pages of CGI-inflated, Dolby-drenched pablum and then suddenly had to blink twice.

There amid all the robots and superheroes was Richard Sarafian's dusty, existentialist 1971 car classic, "Vanishing Point." I first saw it as a wide-eyed teenager on late-night TV but hadn't seen it in years. I pulled on my headphones and cranked up the volume.

In case you haven't heard of it, let alone seen it, here's "Vanishing Point" in a nutshell: Kowalski, a sleepless car-delivery driver amped up on amphetamines, bets the pusher who supplies his pills that he can drive from Denver to San Francisco in less than 15 hours.

How's that for a Cliffs Notes plot? Except Kowalski isn't just a car-delivery driver. He's a man with a past—ex-race driver, decorated Vietnam vet, and disgruntled, disgusted ex-cop who's sick of the law preying upon the weak. This is getting interesting, no?

Let me toss in the "coupe" de grace: The car Kowalski happens to be delivering this time is a 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T with a 440 six-pack "hopped up to 160." Yeah, now you got it. An angry man with racing, disillusionment, and a handful of bennies in his blood heads out across the wide-open West against the clock in one of the most bad-ass muscle cars of its time. This ain't gonna be a Sunday drive.

Naturally, Kowalski exercises his powerful mount to its 160-mph full. Naturally, law enforcement does not approve—leading to a series of extended chases across the shimmering expanses of Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and even California's Death Valley.

Yet to call "Vanishing Point" a car-chase flick would be to seriously undermine this gritty, painterly picture's uniquely American themes: the epic, untouched grandeur of our country's far-flung plains; the rhythm and introspection of a man alone and out there amid the scrawling Joshua trees and the fading light and the surge of a powerful V-8; the altruistic, tall-riding cowboy righting the world's wrongs himself, true to his sense of self as best as he knows how to do it; the strangeness and hallucinogenic power of the desert, where heat waves and sallow-eyed hitchhikers and tie-dyed, gospel-singing communes can push even a well-grounded man to the brink—and beyond.

"Vanishing Point" has soul, see? Actually, it has Super Soul, a blind desert radio jock (played to the preaching hilt by Cleavon Little) who, through his powers of perception, deciphers the impulses behind Kowalski's mad run (which has now made the national papers) and, via his radio show, reaches out to Kowalski with words of support and police-evading assistance.

"Carey, can you roll the car three times and have it land right here?"And Carey would just look back and say, "Yep." And then he'd go out and do it.

It's the poet-DJ Super Soul who deconstructs Kowalski: "The vicious traffic squad cars are after our lone driver, the last American hero, the electric centaur, the super driver of the golden West, the last beautiful free soul on this planet!" He also spins out a slew of funky, rollicking '70s hits (from "Mississippi Queen" to an early ballad by Kim "Bette Davis Eyes" Carnes) that continually fuel Kowalski's charging heart (and brilliantly accompany the Challenger's roaring exhaust).

Years ago I got to hang out with Kowalski, actor Barry Newman—the first time when I brought him the reborn 2006 Dodge Challenger concept car to ogle and drive. Two years later, we tooled around Beverly Hills together in a production Challenger R/T, Newman relaying tales of filming the movie—and sharing stories of dating the likes of Raquel Welch and Lynda Carter. (I had to yell, "Barry, please stop! You are killing me!")

Soulful, yes, but "Vanishing Point" is also one helluva great action flick, loaded with spectacular (and real) driving sequences. "We had this great stunt driver, Carey Loftin [of 'Bullitt' fame]," Newman told me way back when. "And Richard Sarafian, the director, would ask, 'Carey, can you roll the car three times and have it land right here?' And Carey would just look back and say, 'Yep.' And then he'd go out and do it. Hit the mark every time."

Newman also fondly recalled the original Challenger R/T. "The engine was so strong, the car would just stand up and go," he said. "And those skinny tires—you could light 'em up just by touching the gas. It seemed like it had too much power for the body." He also recounted how, while filming a high-speed pass, a motorist somehow drove onto what was supposed to be a closed road. "We almost had a big head-on! I had to drive off the road," Newman said, shaking his head even all those years later.

Although a cult classic today, "Vanishing Point" didn't do particularly well at the box office—at least in the U.S. "But in Europe ... biggest box office success of the year! They double-billed it with 'The French Connection,'" Newman told me, laughing. "The search for existence, man's meaning, his relationship to the Earth, all that stuff. They ate it up!"

"Vanishing Point" has a powerful ending, and for the uninitiated I won't spoil it here. That said, Newman surprised me with his interpretation. "I never saw Kowalski as being reckless or, you know, nihilistic. That's the absurdity. Why are all these people after me? I've only committed misdemeanors. But then, when Kowalski sees that light near the end, he's thinking, 'I've made it. I've found the way through. '"

"Fast & Furious" it isn't. Never once does Kowalski drive the Challenger out of an airplane or though an atomic mushroom cloud. But that's precisely why, if you haven't seen it—or haven't seen it a while—you should sit down for 106 minutes and take a look. Because "Vanishing Point" is an ode to the mythic, sunbaked American West. It's Clint Eastwood riding into infinity in "High Plains Drifter." It's James Dean driving into immortality in his 550 Spyder. It's a car movie made the way they don't make car movies any more. With Super Soul.