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Vanishing Point (1971)
Vanishing Point is a 1971 American action road movie directed by Richard C. Sarafian and starring Barry Newman, Cleavon Little, and Dean Jagger. The film is notable for its scenic film locations across the American Southwest and its social commentary on the post-Woodstock mood in the United States. The film is especially popular with Mopar auto enthusiasts because it prominently features a classic 1970 Dodge Challenger muscle car. A car delivery driver, Kowalski (Barry Newman), arrives in Denver, Colorado late Friday night with a black Chrysler Imperial. The delivery service clerk, Sandy (Karl Swenson), urges him to get some rest, but Kowalski insists on getting started with his next assignment to deliver a white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T 440 Magnum to San Francisco by Monday. Before leaving Denver, Kowalski pulls into a biker bar parking lot around midnight to buy Benzedrine pills to stay awake for the long drive ahead. He bets his dealer, Jake (Lee Weaver), that he will get to San Francisco by 3:00 pm Saturday, even though the delivery is not due until Monday. Kowalski is a Medal of Honor Vietnam War veteran and former race car driver and motorcycle racer.
Kowalski (Barry Newman) is a pill-popping speed-freak who runs cars from Colorado to California for a delivery service. A former derby car racer, Vietnam vet, and police officer, Kowalski rejects the oppression of the coppers who try to stop him as he speeds toward his destination for no other reason than he's a lone man on the open road of freedom and he has to make good time. From scene one, the white Dodge Charger moves at breakneck pace while of the film's character information is told in flashbacks. The car chase action is furious, unrelenting, and is often peppered by a blind, black radio DJ named Super Soul, who updates us on Kowalski's actions and frames them as the last American hero.
As Kowalski avoids the fuzz, he runs into a host of characters that foreshadow the impending death of America's 1960s counter-culture in the early '70s. From highjacking homosexuals to snake-charming religious hippies banished by society to the desert, America's free-thinkers are segmented and confused. Once the drugs and free love are gone, disillusionment follows. The clearest example is the helpful druggie who warns Kowalski of a police blockade and evokes Easy Rider's Peter Fonda. Although the anti-hero helper rides in on a hog worthy of Dennis Hopper's 1969 film, he rides into the sunset on a nearly-comic, mostly-embarrassing mini-bike after helping Kowalski. And while the naked girl riding a motorcycle is a gearhead's wet dream, she serves a larger purpose as the film's example of unsupported free love devolving into drug-numbed sadness.
Much of the counter-culture killing is done by the conservative cops in their finely-pressed uniforms, who build upon Kowalski's crime of not yielding to their authority. Meanwhile, the white conservative cohorts of the cops go as far as to silence Super Soul's support of Kowalski by breaking down the radio studio door and beating the blind man. There is hostility in their censorship that outweighs the film's heavy-handedness. Vanishing Point builds on these contradictory emotions of cinematic preaching and social truthfulness right to the explosive end that, at once, enrages and anesthetizes. While the constant visceral car chases (and crashes) of Vanishing Point are exciting to be sure, it's the film's disregard for authority and passion for the individual that still excites today.