Vanishing Point (1971)

Genres - Action  |   Sub-Genres - Action Thriller, Chase Movie  |   Run Time - 107 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - R
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The late 1960s and early '70s had no shortage of symbolically charged road movies, and if Vanishing Point isn't quite the same caliber as Two Lane Blacktop or as culturally significant as Easy Rider, in its best moments it comes close. A huge drive-in hit, the film turns its modest budget to its advantage, making a virtue out of its plot's simplicity, and in the process becoming a beautiful example of the now-vanished B-movie avant garde. As Barry Newman's benzedrine-powered drive from Denver to San Francisco progresses, it becomes less about getting a job done than an almost allegorical journey toward death, a sort of Pilgrim's Progress for a time of post-Woodstock disillusionment. Director Richard Sarafian stages the near-constant chase scenes hypnotically, aided by the expert cinematography of John A. Alonzo, and he gracefully incorporates flashbacks to Newman's past life, explaining a bit more of what's brought him to his present state. Elsewhere, sequences featuring hipster D.J. "Super Soul" Cleavon Little makes the counter-cultural relevance of Newman's desperate journey clear. If anything, a little too clear: Vanishing Point's greatest flaw may be its tendency to overstate its case. Is it really necessary for Little to refer to Newman as the "last American hero" and "the last beautiful free soul on this planet"? Does Little really need to be nearly-killed by a racist mob to make clear what's at stake? Also puzzling is an archaic scene in which Newman battles a pair of stereotypically gay bandits. But even with such moments, Vanishing Point still works beautifully, aided by Newman's quiet, beautifully understated performance: his world-weary expression and grizzled visage make it nearly impossible to romanticize his trip, and equally difficult not to sympathize.