By Kerry Fristoe
In 1970s films, nothing signified independence and a disdain for authority like a muscle car with a V8.
Driving a car is a rite of passage. Teenagers are thrilled the first time they can take the car out without Mom and Dad. Owning your first car is an even bigger deal. It means you get to decide where you’re going. It also means you can go there alone. The makers of counterculture car films of the 1970s took that desire to go your own way further than most teenagers. For them, hitting the open road was less of a weekend pastime and more of a lifestyle. In vehicle-centric films of the late 1960s and 70s, the car was an extension of the man. Insulting a guy’s car was akin to questioning his manhood and stealing his wheels was like rustling in the wild west—punishable by hanging (or the modern equivalent).
After outsiders invaded and eventually ousted the last holdouts of the studio system, Hollywood and a few independent filmmakers made a string of road films featuring unusual casting choices and cars that would make a motorhead drool. Peter Fonda drove a 1969 Dodge Charger as he and Susan George rushed to catch a train in Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974). Musician James Taylor raced all corners in a 1955 Chevrolet 150, modified by Beach Boy Dennis Wilson in Two-Lane Blacktop (1971). Eleanor, a customized 1971 Ford Mustang got star billing after H.B. Halicki drove her in his car chase extravaganza, Gone in 60 Seconds (1974). Walter Hill’s minimalist film The Driver (1978) had Ryan O’Neal’s getaway driver pilot a variety of cars to elude crooked cop, Bruce Dern. In that film, the act of driving matters more than the make of the car. All these films and characters have something in common. They all go against the grain. They all exert their independence by pulling away from civilization. And they all love to drive.
That love for cars and driving inspired filmmakers to create Westerns on wheels. Often, in a Western, the hero stands alone against the forces of evil or rides off into the sunset to prevent more heartache; think Gary Cooper in High Noon or John Wayne in The Searchers. The rogue anti-hero of 1960s and 70s films added his own spin to the Western. He didn’t necessarily want to fight the establishment; he just wanted the establishment to leave him alone. Like Kirk Douglas’ cowboy in Lonely Are the Brave (1962), the car film anti-heroes don’t want to wreck the joint; they just want to live their lives peacefully without interference. Like Douglas’ cowboy, peace eludes them and they find themselves butting heads with forces that want to take them down.
Vanishing Point (1971), pits Kowalski (Barry Newman) against pretty much every police officer in Colorado and Nevada as he bombs through on his way to California. Kowalski makes his living delivering cars between Denver and San Francisco. Clearly a veteran of these runs, he simply gets to it. Preparing little and surviving on Benzedrine and not much else, he speeds his way west leaving a trail of foiled hotrodders and angry policemen in his wake. Determined to get the car, a 1970 Dodge Challenger, to its new owner in less than three days, Kowalski doesn’t bother with rest stops or food. He fills the gas tank and moves on. His only companion for this race to the coast is Super Soul (Cleavon Little), a blind DJ who listens to a police radio and clues Kowalski in to law enforcement’s movements. Super Soul also lends his moral support to the driver who has nothing but his thoughts to keep him company. He says, “This radio station was named Kowalski, in honor of the last American hero to whom speed means freedom of the soul. The question is not when he’s gonna stop, but who is gonna stop him.” Super Soul’s poet-philosopher serves as the conscience of the film.
As Kowalski races along long stretches of highway, thinking about his life, the audience catches glimpses of his past. We don’t really get to know him, but we do see a few crucial events that shaped his life and brought him here. Through flashbacks and snippets of conversation, we learn a little about the man behind the wheel. Director Richard C. Sarafian keeps Kowalski’s motivations purposely foggy. That’s okay. We know enough about him to root for him. We want him to get to San Francisco on time. That empathy for the main character along with the quick pace of the film keeps the mood taut. Vanishing Point isn’t a perfect film, but it gets a lot right. The endless, barren straightaways accompanied by the hum of that powerful motor hypnotize Kowalski and the audience. It sucks us in. It should. Modern life gets complicated. It’s romantic to think of miles of road ahead of you and just one goal. Maybe that’s why road films and westerns have such a strong allure. They appeal to the adventurous loner in us.