There are some great chase scenes in films but 1971’s Vanishing Point is one long chase film. Starring Barry Newman, the film travels the highways and off-road between Denver and San Francisco by way of a 1970 Dodge Challenger.
America in the early 1970’s was a collision between the older, conservative culture and the younger generation wanting peace, love and untying the repressive bonds. The cultures were clashing on a more frequent basis, on the streets of America, on college campuses and around the dinner table.
Vanishing Point is the story of a man who tried and failed to live a traditional life as a solider in Vietnam, by the book police officer who resisted corruption and easy drugs, but in the end his career unfairly unravels and he’s blamed in the death of a girlfriend. He becomes a race driver but loses his license and must live on the fringe of the law to get by. Now, he ferries cars across the country under the influence of amphetamines to get him there on time. In addition to taking speed, he uses the speed of his cars to make the deadline.
Barry Newman was a known actor around town, who had studied with Lee Strasburg, performed in a number of stage productions, and appeared in some television programs. In 1970, he had the lead role of Tony Petrocelli in the film, The Lawyer. The film tells the story of a big city lawyer who leaves his successful practice to move out west to the land of ranchers and cowboys. Petrocelli is a bit of a maverick, so the career choice offers a nice setup.
In his next film, he portrays Kowalski in Vanishing Point, a role that would literally shift Newman’s career into a higher gear. He would then star in two crime mystery films, before taking another shot at the Petrocelli character in a television film, and then a series based on the character. The series would air for two seasons, and both Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for Newman. Newman became a mainstay on television in TV films, mini series and guest appearances. Later in his career he would shift toward more film roles.
Kowalski was a different role for Newman, more of a counterculture role. He had long hair, took drugs, drove dangerously and evaded the law. He wasn’t out to hurt anyone, in fact, when another driver or pursuing law enforcement officer went off into a ditch, Kowalski stopped to check on their safety. In his earlier life, Kowlaski was a soldier and policeman, it was the world around him that was crooked and unfair.
The soundtrack for Vanishing Point is a potpourri sounds from folk to gospel to hard rock to R&B. The radio disc jockey in the film, Super Soul, is played by Cleavon Little (Blazing Saddles) who plays an eclectic range of music in what appears to be a melting pot of cultures, which boils over at the end of the film.
Vanishing Point is Easy Rider in a sports car with less hippy vibe. Kowalski does meet a variety of characters in his travels, from an old man collecting snakes to trade at a revival meeting, to a hippy couple (nude girl on motorcycle and stoner who helps Kowalski run a road block), two gay robbers, to a hitchhiking illusion, to a fellow racer in a Jaguar. In Vanishing Point you get a clash of different cultures as you see very different parts of America across the desert landscape.
As Super Soul says, speed is freedom of the soul. The characters in the film are mostly searching for something, as many were in the early 1970’s. Searching for freedom, enlightenment, the ultimate high, escaping the traditional trappings, freedom of The Man, freedom from your own past. Many of these characters live on the fringe of a society that does not jive with what they want or need. Hippies were not accepted by main stream America. There are racial tensions in the film, as well as drug themes. Young people are depicted as either searchers or straight-laced and unsympathetic to hippies. This conflict may have been dramatized, but it was a genuine slice of America at the time.
Upon release, Vanishing Point was not a great success, it earned money but had mixed reviews. As a junior high schooler, I remember seeing it with a friend. The nudity and drug use was pretty hip and the music was very interesting. The chase scenes and the general anti-authority vibe were appealing. The ending was downbeat, like a lot of life in those years.
Barry Newman is probably more defined by Petrocelli than he is by Kowalski. Both characters were out of step with their old lives. The decade of the 1970’s embraced the rebellion of characters like these, although by the end of the decade the pendulum was swinging the other direction, as it usually does. Vanishing Point was remade as a 1997 TV movie starring Viggo Mortensen. It was a reasonable facsimile, but it never came close to the originality or the vibe of the times.
Kowalski wasn’t out to change or knockdown the world, nor was he trying to make a statement, he just wanted the freedom to pursue his life. He had tried the traditional paths and it hadn’t worked. He didn’t want to be a hero, that wasn’t his trip. His trip was from Denver to San Francisco, he just didn’t want people getting in his way.