Vanishing Point (1971 film)

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Vanishing Point
Theatrical release poster
Directed byRichard C. Sarafian
Produced byNorman Spencer
Screenplay byGuillermo Cain
Story byMalcolm Hart
CinematographyJohn A. Alonzo
Edited byStefan Arnsten
Cupid Productions
Distributed by20th Century Fox
Release date
  • March 13, 1971 (1971-03-13)
Running time
98 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$1.58 million[1]
Box office$12.4 million

Vanishing Point is a 1971 American action film directed by Richard C. Sarafian, starring Barry Newman, Cleavon Little, and Dean Jagger.[2] It focuses on a disaffected ex-policeman and race driver delivering a souped-up car cross country to California while high on speed ('uppers'), being chased by police and meeting various characters along the way. The film has become a cult movie.[citation needed] Its rock music score includes performances by Delaney and Bonnie and others.


Car delivery driver Kowalski (Barry Newman) arrives in Denver, Colorado, on a late Friday night with a black 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 (supposedly supercharged) 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 Sunday, even though the delivery is not due until Monday.

Through flashbacks and the police reading of his record, we learn that Kowalski is a Medal of Honor Vietnam War veteran, former racecar driver, and motorcycle racer. He is also a former police officer.

Driving west across Colorado, Kowalski is pursued by two motorcycle police officers who try to stop him for speeding. He forces one officer off the road and eludes the other officer by jumping across a dry creek bed. Later, the driver of a Jaguar E-Type roadster[3] pulls up alongside Kowalski and challenges him to a race. After the Jaguar driver nearly runs him off the road, Kowalski overtakes him and beats the Jaguar to a one-lane bridge, causing the Jaguar to crash into the river. Kowalski checks to see if the driver is okay, then takes off, with police cars in pursuit.

Kowalski drives across Utah and into Nevada, with the police unable to catch him. During the pursuit, Kowalski listens to radio station KOW, (as 2011 is KGFN 89.1) which is broadcasting from Goldfield, Nevada. A blind black disc jockey at KOW, who goes by the name of Super Soul (Cleavon Little), listens to the police radio frequency and encourages Kowalski to evade the police. Super Soul seems to understand Kowalski and seems to see and hear Kowalski's reactions. With the help of Super Soul, who calls Kowalski "the last American hero", Kowalski gains the interest of the news media, and people begin to gather at the KOW radio station to offer their support.

During the police chase across Nevada, Kowalski finds himself surrounded and heads into the desert. After he blows a left front tire and becomes lost, Kowalski is helped by an old prospector (Dean Jagger) who catches rattlesnakes for a Pentecostal Christian commune. After Kowalski is given fuel, the old man directs him back to the highway. There, he picks up two homosexual hitchhikers stranded en route to San Francisco with a "Just Married" sign in their rear window. When they attempt to hold him up at gunpoint, Kowalski throws them out of the car and continues on his journey.

Saturday afternoon, a vengeful off-duty highway patrolman and a group of thugs break into the KOW studio and assault Super Soul and his engineer. Near the California state line, Kowalski is helped by hippie biker Angel (Timothy Scott), who gives him pills to help him stay awake. Angel's girlfriend (Gilda Texter), who rides a motorcycle nude, recognizes Kowalski and shows him a collage she made of newspaper articles about his police career. Kowalski suspects that Super Soul's broadcast is now being directed by the police to entrap him. Confirming that the police are indeed waiting at the border, Angel helps Kowalski get through the roadblock with the help of an old air raid siren and a small motorbike with a red headlight strapped to the top of the Challenger, simulating a police car. Kowalski finally reaches California by Saturday at 7:12 pm. He calls Jake from a payphone to reassure him that he still intends to deliver the car on Monday, while acknowledging he won't win their bet, and offering to double it for the next time.

On Sunday morning, California police, who have been tracking Kowalski's movements on an electronic wall-map, set up a roadblock with two bulldozers in the small town of Cisco, where Kowalski will be passing. A small crowd gathers at the roadblock, and as Kowalski approaches at high speed, he smiles as he crashes into the bulldozers in a fiery explosion. As firemen work to put out the flames, the crowd slowly disperses.[4]




The screenplay for Vanishing Point was written by G. Cabrera Infante, under the pseudonym Guillermo Cain. The story was based on two actual events: the disgraced career of a San Diego police officer and a high-speed pursuit of a man who refused to stop and was killed when he crashed into a police roadblock.[5] Infante modeled the character of Super Soul after legendary rock and roll singer The Big Bopper.[5] His script reflected the popular counterculture lifestyle of the time, containing elements of rebellion, drugs, sexual freedom, and rock and roll.[6]

In 1969, director Richard C. Sarafian turned down an offer to make Robert Redford's Downhill Racer in order to direct Vanishing Point. He was drawn to the counterculture themes in Cain's script.[5] Originally, the director wanted Gene Hackman to play Kowalski, but 20th Century Fox studio executive Richard Zanuck insisted on casting relative unknown actor Barry Newman in the lead role.[7] The film marked the first major screen appearances of Cleavon Little and John Amos.[6]

The car[edit]

According to Sarafian, it was Zanuck who came up with the idea of using the new 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T. He wanted to do Chrysler a favor for their longtime practice of renting cars to 20th Century Fox for $1 a day. Many of the other cars featured in the film are also Chrysler products.[8] Stunt Coordinator Carey Loftin said he requested the Dodge Challenger because of the "quality of the torsion bar suspension and for its horsepower" and felt that it was "a real sturdy, good running car."[9]

Five Alpine White Dodge Challenger R/Ts were lent to the production by Chrysler for promotional consideration and were returned upon completion of filming. Four cars had 440 engines equipped with four-speeds; the fifth car was a 383 with automatic. No special equipment was added or modifications made to the cars, except for heavier-duty shock absorbers for the car that jumped over No Name Creek.[9] The Challengers were prepared and maintained for the movie by Max Balchowsky, who also prepared the Mustangs and Chargers for Bullitt (1968). The cars performed to Loftin's satisfaction, although dust came to be a problem. None of the engines were blown.[9] Loftin remembers that parts were taken out of one car to repair another because they "really ruined a couple of those cars" while jumping ramps between highways and over creeks.[9] Newman remembers that the 440 engines in the cars were so powerful that "it was almost as if there was too much power for the body. You'd put it in first and it would almost rear back!"[9] The Challengers appear in the film with Colorado plates OA-5599.


Principal photography began in the summer of 1970 with a planned shooting schedule of 60 days.[10] Financial troubles plaguing the studio at the time forced Zanuck to shorten Sarafian's shooting schedule by 22 days. In response, the director decided not to film certain scenes rather than rush through the rest of the shoot.[11] An average day of filming involved the actors and the crew of 19 men spending many hours traveling to the remote locations, shooting for an extended period of time and then looking for a motel to spend the night.[12] The shoot had a few mishaps, including Newman driving a Challenger equipped with three cameras into the bushes in order to avoid a head-on collision when a "civilian" driver ignored the traffic blocks installed to ensure the safety of the crew.[13]

The film's cinematographer John Alonzo used light-weight Arriflex II cameras, that offered more free movement.[14] Close-up and medium shots were achieved by mounting cameras directly on the vehicles instead of the common practice of filming the drivers from a tow that drove ahead of the targeted vehicle.[14] To convey the appearance of speed, the filmmakers slowed the film rate of the cameras. For example, in the scenes with the Challenger and the Jaguar, the camera's film rate was slowed to half speed. The cars were traveling at approximately 50 miles per hour (80 km/h) so that when projected at normal frame rate, they appeared to be moving much faster.[9]

Vanishing Point was filmed on location in the American Southwest in the states of Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California.

Dean Jagger's scenes were shot on the Salt Lakes of Nevada.[11] Super Soul's radio station was filmed in Goldfield, Nevada. All of Cleavon Little's scenes were completed in under three days.

Carey Loftin was the film's stunt coordinator and responsible for setting up and performing the major driving stunts.[citation needed] Loftin's resume at the time included work on Grand Prix (1966), Bullitt (1968), and The French Connection (1971). Barry Newman learned from Loftin and was encouraged by the stunt coordinator to do some of his own stunts. In the scene before Kowalski crashes into the bulldozer, Newman drove and performed a 180-degree turn on the road himself without the director's knowledge.[9]

The 383 car was also used as the tow vehicle in the crash scene at the end of the movie. A quarter-mile cable was attached between the Challenger and an explosives-laden 1967 Chevrolet Camaro with the motor and transmission removed. The tow vehicle was driven by Loftin, who pulled the Camaro into the blades of the bulldozers at high speed. Loftin expected the car to go end over end, but instead it stuck into the bulldozers, which he thought looked better.[9]


The ending (and implicitly the theme of the film) has been the source of much debate, including one interpretation that the entire film is a post-death flashback after the car crashes into the bulldozers. The viewer is left guessing why Kowalski insists on driving to San Francisco immediately and then drives heedlessly across four states to his death. Kowalski says only, "I gotta be in Frisco 3 o'clock tomorrow afternoon." When Jake scoffs that Kowalski is putting him on, Kowalski says, "I wish to God I was."

Barry Newman offered his interpretation of the film's ending in an interview printed in the March 1986 issue of Musclecar Review, "Kowalski smiles as he rushes to his death at the end of Vanishing Point because he believes he will make it through the roadblock." The August 2006 issue of Motor Trend magazine has a sidebar with Newman, in which he explains that Kowalski sees the light glinting from between the two bulldozers. "To Kowalski, it was still a hole to escape through. It symbolized that no matter how far they push or chase you, no one can truly take away your freedom and there is always an escape." Newman also thought that the entire film was an essay on existentialism. Kowalski drives to drive, with no real purpose for doing what he's doing. He decides to give his life its definition and meaning, with complete freedom over his actions.

Sarafian explained that he wanted to make Kowalski appear otherworldly and that the world within the film was a temporary existence that he was just making a stop in. At the end of the film, he was ascending from this existence into another. The lyrics of the end song underscore this interpretation: "Nobody knows, nobody sees, 'til the light of life stops burning, 'til another soul goes free."

UK theatrical release[edit]

The UK theatrical release of the film differs slightly from the US release in plot and running time. In the UK release, Kowalski picks up a mysterious hitchhiker (Charlotte Rampling) toward the end of the film. Kowalski accepts marijuana from her, despite refusing marijuana in several previous scenes. He stops the car when he starts feeling stoned. She says she has been "waiting for him, everywhere and since forever." When he awakens the next morning, she is gone without a trace. According to interviews with Barry Newman and commentary from the director, the hitchhiker was meant to be an allegorical figure representing death.[6] This scene was removed from the final US version, reducing the film from 105 minutes to 98 minutes. Newman felt that the scene gave the film "an allegorical lift" but the studio was afraid that the audience would not understand.[9][15]


Vanishing Point
Soundtrack album by
Various Artists
ReleasedMarch 13, 1971
Professional ratings
Review scores
Allmusic4/5 stars link

Sarafian wanted to score the majority of the film from an album called Motel Shot by Delaney, Bonnie & Friends.[11] Lionel Newman, head of Fox's music department at the time, denied Sarafian's request because the studio did not want to spend a substantial amount of money obtaining rights to the tracks. The director then suggested that musician Randy Newman score the film, but Fox refused this request as well.[11] After watching the film, musical supervisor Jimmy Bowen wrote three original songs. Delaney, Bonnie & Friends ended up performing a musical number in the film.[11]

A soundtrack of the film was released in the United States by Amos Records. The original vinyl album is long out of print. There have been reissues of the soundtrack compact disc in the United States by various record companies including A&M Records and in Europe by Amos Records.

Track listing[edit]

1."Super Soul Theme" (The J.B. Pickers)Jimmy Bowen1:50
2."The Girl Done Got It Together" (Bobby Doyle)Mike Settle2:47
3."Where Do We Go From Here?" (Jimmy Walker)Mike Settle2:53
4."Welcome to Nevada" (Jerry Reed)Barnhill, Lanier1:52
5."Dear Jesus God" (Bob Segarini and Randy Bishop)Segarini, Bishop3:57
6."Runaway Country" (Doug Dillard Expedition)Doug Dillard, Byron Berline4:09
7."You Got to Believe" (Delaney, Bonnie & Friends)Delaney Bramlett3:00
8."Love Theme" (Jimmy Bowen Orchestra)Jimmy Bowen2:40
9."So Tired" (Eve)Creamer, Sliwin, Temmer2:10
10."Freedom of Expression" (The J.B. Pickers)Jimmy Bowen5:48
11."Mississippi Queen" (Mountain)West, Laing, Pappalardi, Rea2:32
12."Sing Out for Jesus" (Big Mama Thornton)Kim Carnes1:47
13."Over Me" (Bob Segarini and Randy Bishop)Bob Segarini, Randy Bishop3:04
14."Nobody Knows" (Kim & Dave)Mike Settle2:22
Total length:40:51

"Nobody Knows" is the first ever recording by Kim Carnes, credited on the soundtrack as "Kim & Dave" (with husband Dave Ellingson). Carnes also wrote the song performed by Big Mama Thornton. The pop music group Delaney, Bonnie & Friends had a small role as a Christian music band, which included singer Rita Coolidge and singer/songwriter David Gates at the piano. The baby held by one of the singers is Bekka Bramlett, who later replaced Stevie Nicks in Fleetwood Mac.


Vanishing Point premiered in January 1971 and did not receive positive notices.[16] In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Charles Champlin wrote, "Vanishing Point might have had a point, but it ... ah ... got lost. What's left is sophisticated craft and fashionably hokey cynicism".[17] Variety magazine said, "While stock car addicts may be able to maintain interest in the ultra-fast manipulation of the car, many viewers will just get car-sick ... or sick of the car, which isn't the same thing".[18] Larry Cohen, in the Reporter criticized the film for being "calculated, tedious and in desperate need of tightening, the picture, produced by Norman Spencer, is uninvolving and devoid of a cohesiveness that might have made it work".[19]

Newman recalls that Fox had no faith in the film and released it in neighborhood theaters only to disappear in less than two weeks.[9] However, it was a critical and commercial success in the UK and Europe which prompted the studio to re-release it in the United States on a double bill with The French Connection. After completing its run at the cinema box office, the film gained extended life as it became a second feature favorite in drive-in theaters across the US. A cult following began to develop, due in large part to a broadcast on network television in 1976.[9]

The film earned rentals of $4,250,000 in North America.[20]

The film currently has a rating of 79% on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 19 reviews.[21] In 2014, Time Out polled several film critics, directors, actors and stunt actors to list their top action films.[22] Vanishing Point was listed at 70th place on this list.[23]



Steven Spielberg named Vanishing Point as one of his favorite films.[24]

Death Proof (2007), the Quentin Tarantino contribution to the faux-exploitation "double feature" Grindhouse (2007), features a chase involving a Dodge Challenger resembling the one seen in Vanishing Point (not being an R/T model and having an automatic transmission). Death Proof also references the film by name, repeatedly calling it "one of the best American movies ever made". The car in the film also has the license plate OA 5599.[16]

Edgar Wright named Vanishing Point one of his 1,000 favorite films, and used it as inspiration for his 2017 film Baby Driver.[25][26][27][28]


Vanishing Point was the inspiration for Primal Scream's 1997 album of the same name.[16] It is meant to be an alternative soundtrack to the film. Lead singer Bobby Gillespie said, "The music in the film is hippy music, so we thought, 'Why not record some music that really reflects the mood of the film?' It's always been a favourite of the band, we love the air of paranoia and speed-freak righteousness ... It's a pure underground film, rammed with claustrophobia".[29] In addition, a track from the album was named "Kowalski" after the character from the film. The track also featured samples of Super Soul's "last American hero" speech from the film. Author Irvine Welsh scripted the video for "Kowalski" which was directed by musician Douglas Hart. The video features a Dodge Challenger and super model Kate Moss beating up the band.[29]

Super Soul's "last American hero" speech was also incorporated into the lyrics of the Guns N' Roses song "Breakdown", from their album Use Your Illusion II (1991).[30]

The film was the basis for Audioslave's music video "Show Me How to Live" (2004), directed by the AV Club and which included members of the band in the 1970 Challenger traveling across the desert, following the plot of the movie.[16] Cleavon Little also appears in the video.


In an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, comedian Jerry Seinfeld takes friend and fellow comedian Brian Regan for coffee in a 1970 Dodge Challenger, stating it was "all the rage" in the 1970s due to Newman and Vanishing Point.

In an episode of Top Gear, presenter Richard Hammond road tests a 2008 Dodge Challenger across Nevada and fondly refers to the film as the inspiration for him choosing that car.

Video game and other references[edit]

The video game Grid 2 (2013) features a trophy/achievement called Vanishing Point, with the description reading "You've won a race in a white Dodge Challenger but lived to tell the tale, unlike Kowalski."[31]

The video game ‘’Driver: San Francisco’’ includes a Movie Challenge entitled “Vanishing Chance” which involves piloting a white 1970 Dodge Challenger.[32]

Virgin Atlantic's safety film "Trip: The Virgin Atlantic Safety Film" pays homage to the Challenger @ 1:31.


A remake of the film was created for Fox television, first airing in 1997, and also featuring a 1970 Dodge Challenger.[16] The film stars Viggo Mortensen as Jimmy Kowalski (in this version, the character has a first name). Kowalski is rewritten as a suspected militia sympathizer from Idaho, and Jason Priestley as "The Voice", a white libertarian talk radio shock jock who replaces Super Soul. The sequence of events in the two films is vaguely similar, but the remake removed all of the original's mystical, existential elements,[16] replacing them with a religious motivation for Kowalski's actions. Among many other changes, it also added a sequence in which two cops attempt to chase down the Challenger in a black 1969 Dodge Charger (coining the phrase "it takes a Mopar to catch a Mopar", which makes little sense in context, given that both cars have the same engine but the Charger is heavier). The remake got extremely poor reviews.

Following the release of his 2006 film Southland Tales, Richard Kelly wrote a remake of the film for 20th Century Fox.[33]

Home media[edit]

There were two theatrical releases, a U.S. version and a UK version. Both are included on the Region 1 DVD and Blu-ray

Fox released Vanishing Point in the United States on Blu-ray on February 24, 2009.

It was also released on Blu-ray in Germany in 2013 under the title Fluchtpunkt San Francisco and has a running time of 99 minutes with English soundtrack.

Fabulous Film's released a 2-Disc Blu-ray in June 2019 in the UK featuring both US and UK versions of the film and a load of special features.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Solomon, Aubrey. Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History (The Scarecrow Filmmakers Series). Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1989, p. 256. ISBN 978-0-8108-4244-1.
  2. ^ Greenspun, Roger (1971-03-25). "Vanishing Point (1971) A Lot of Speed and Loads of Hair". The New York Times.
  3. ^ Hollywood’s Hottest Car Chases – Vanishing Point (1971), Speed TV, November 1, 2010, archived from the original on July 25, 2012, retrieved 2012-03-23
  4. ^ "Vanishing Point Credits and Transcript". Corky. Archived from the original on November 26, 2011. Retrieved December 2, 2011.
  5. ^ a b c Siegel, Mike (Autumn 2008). "The Freedom of Speed". Cinema Retro. p. 26.
  6. ^ a b c Richard C. Sarafian (Director) (February 3, 2004). Vanishing Point Commentary (DVD).
  7. ^ Siegel 2008, pp. 26–27.
  8. ^ Siegel 2008, p. 27.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Zazarine, Paul (March 1986). "Kowalski's Last Ride". Muscle Car Review.
  10. ^ Siegel 2008, p. 28.
  11. ^ a b c d e Siegel 2008, p. 30.
  12. ^ Siegel 2008, pp. 29–30.
  13. ^ Siegel 2008, pp. 28–29.
  14. ^ a b Siegel 2008, p. 29.
  15. ^ Wheeler Winston Dixon: Missing in Action: The Lost Version of Vanishing Point. Film International 3.3.2014
  16. ^ a b c d e f Siegel 2008, p. 31.
  17. ^ Champlin, Charles (March 18, 1971). "Chase is on in Vanishing". Los Angeles Times.
  18. ^ "Vanishing Point". Variety. February 1, 1971.
  19. ^ Cohen, Larry (February 1, 1971). "Vanishing Point". Reporter.
  20. ^ Solomon, Aubrey. Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History (The Scarecrow Filmmakers Series). Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0-8108-4244-1. p231. Please note figures are rentals accruing to distributors and not total gross.
  21. ^ "Vanishing Point". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved January 23, 2012.
  22. ^ "The 100 best action movies". Time Out. Retrieved November 7, 2014.
  23. ^ "The 100 best action movies: 70-61". Time Out. November 3, 2014. Retrieved November 7, 2014.
  24. ^ Breznican, Anthony (December 2, 2011). "Steven Spielberg: The EW Interview". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved July 28, 2013.
  25. ^ Sam DiSalle. "Edgar Wright's 1000 Favorite Movies". Mubi. Retrieved July 7, 2017.
  26. ^ Zack Sharf (June 6, 2017). "'Baby Driver': 10 Classic Car Chase Movies That Inspired Edgar Wright". IndieWire. Retrieved July 7, 2017.
  27. ^ Mark Olsen (June 23, 2017). "'Baby Driver' fever: More movies with cars, action and music". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved July 7, 2017.
  28. ^ Ethan Anderton (June 29, 2017). "Edgar Wright Gushes About 10 Movies That Influenced 'Baby Driver' (Part 1)". /Film. Retrieved July 7, 2017.
  29. ^ a b Kessler, Ted (May 3, 1997). "Vortex, Drug & Rock n Roll". New Musical Express. Retrieved 2008-11-16.
  30. ^ "Guns N' Roses: Breakdown from Use Your Illusion II".
  31. ^ "GRID 2 Trophies".
  32. ^ "Driver San Francisco strategy guide". IGN.
  33. ^ Kelly, Richard (February 12, 2007). "Southland Tales Teaser Trailer". Richard Kelly's MySpace blog.

External links[edit]