There’s a transcendental point you reach when driving fast down a straight, deserted country road, turned on and tuned out. At one with the car, you forget your problems and switch all primary brain functions to moving as smoothly and effortlessly as possible. Check yourself in the mirror. That introspective face reflected back is Kowalski’s face. The face of a man leaving his demons behind in a cloud of dust.
Kowalski (“Christian name…and last name”) agrees to deliver a white 1970 Dodge Challenger from Colorado to Frisco in less than 15 hours. Such a high-speed run is welcomed by a man on the run from the ghost of a dead lover (a discarded newspaper reveals she died surfing at sea), a nihilistic career racing cars and a job in a corrupt police department that has left him disillusioned. On the road he is pursued by police from state to state as his journey intersects with drugs culture and the rawness of life in modern America.
The imagination of Super Soul, a blind radio DJ, is fired up by Kowalski’s challenge. He offers spiritual support in the form of a gloriously uplifting soundtrack of soul and gospel music and evangelical words of encouragement. They never meet except for a few reality-blurring moments when Kowalski talks back to him through the car radio.
Vanishing Point’s other major character is the Dodge Challenger itself. Richard C. Sarafian directs with a pornographer’s eye, always choosing the sexiest angle to shoot from, fetishising every wheel spin and drift. “Look at the curves down there.” “Look at the headlights on that!” This is the director showing you a thing of beauty in all its lascivious detail. And sitting emotionless in her driver’s seat is Kowalski; a god of the freeway. Living the American dream as a naturalised Polish immigrant, driving through the heart of the country where you get what you want, how you want, as fast as possible.
Despite the 1971 release date this is absolutely a product of the 1960s. Super Soul might be like a prophet to his fans (one child tries to touch his hand before a policeman pulls him away) but he is not immune to the racism of the era. His radio station is ransacked by white supremacists who smash the windows and equipment and beat up his engineer. Only Kowalski notices the hint of coercion in Super Soul’s performance after this, sensing that something bad has surfaced from the old days of America.
When Kowalski is forced by police road blocks to take a detour into the desert, he uncovers more facets of America. Nature nearly ends the journey there when he is bitten by a rattlesnake, but he is saved by an old man. Later the same man introduces him to the “new people” of America – young Christians singing of love and harmony in the wilderness. They are curiously unfriendly and ignore him in favour of the hedonism of their spiritual lifestyle. One strange interlude has Kowalski picking up two overly camp men on their honeymoon. They pull a gun on Kowalski who ejects them forcibly from the car. Is Sarafian saying that the new America is fostering gay men who represent danger? Or exploiting them to highlight the unbridled masculinity displayed by Kowalski? The intent is strangely garbled in these scenes.
Within the film, Kowalski meets several women who seem to remind him of his lost love, all of them displaying her defining long, fair hair or freckles. A petrol station attendant fascinates him briefly early in the journey. At a later stop-off, a naked girl on a motor bike rides out of the desert. They exchange friendly words and as he tries to leave she offers herself to him, suggesting he might be happier if he stays there with her, taking drugs and making love all day. Kowalski refuses and rides out. The third woman comes at night on the side of the road. A young Charlotte Rampling stands waiting for a ride dressed in a black shawl. Her loose, dark clothing suggests ancient times. Perhaps she represents the death of Kowalski’s lover in contrast to the life and freedom represented by the naked motorbike girl. Kowalski lets her in and in mystical tones she reveals that she has always been waiting for him, always wanting him. They get stoned and have sex. When Kowalski wakes in the morning there is no sign of her. Kowalski shrugs it off and the quest resumes. Curiously, this scene was cut from US prints of the film and was only present on the UK version. Although it has recently been reinstated in the US, it is odd that such an important scene was ever left out. Maybe it was thought too supernatural for a film setting out to tackle real issues.
The film ends where it began. The prologue to Vanishing Point finishes with two cars passing just before they reach a road block of unyielding bulldozers. The film freezes and one of the cars, the Dodge Challenger, fades out, leaving the other, a black Chrysler. Kowalski is now in the Chrysler, delivering it before his next mission begins; the chase back to Frisco in the white Dodge Challenger. This is one of many vanishing points in the film, where black and white cross. The haze on the horizon where the road disappears represents a physical vanishing point. The end of one phase of American history as it morphs into the next represents another. Maybe the wanton destruction witnessed in Kowalski’s racing career was his Vietnam. A place of extremes that leaves young men desensitised and emotionally wrecked. The analogy would be understandable given the mood of the country at the time the film was made.
In the small-town scenes the camera picks out the faces of old men watching on from behind screen doors or through their windows. Some wear cowboy hats, symbols of the old America. They don’t understand what’s going on. They remember the spirit of the old west: to ride out and explore the country. Kowalski represents that pioneering spirit, but he is largely indifferent to what he finds. It’s clear that the new America bears only a superficial resemblance to the old. Kowalski takes drugs to recapture the thrills of his racing days and to escape from the truth of his past. The lawless interstate journey inspires others to see him as a symbol of freedom. An outsider who has shaken off laws and social norms. Look closely at the end scene and you might be lucky enough to see the escape he yearns for. Or is he doomed to repeat events? The answer to that will require your interpretation and a scroll back to the start of the film.
Kowalski is a romantic hero living a life of hedonistic individualism that no one can tame. In refusing to obey the laws of the old order, he achieves near mythical status. In the telling of this story, Vanishing Point becomes an important film about the death of innocence in the wake of Vietnam, personal liberty, freedom of expression and the changes in American society from the 1960s onwards.
Steve Thompson is a writer, cartoonist and film critic. Follow him on Twitter.