RETRO FILM REVIEW – Following the recent passing of Barry Newman, one of the last great stars of Hollywood’s golden age at the age of 92, we take a retrospective look at a monumental film. We accelerate the time machine of film history and the speedometer as well, to commemorate a movie that, much like Newman’s career, never stopped on the highway. Thus, as the asphalt blurs on the horizon, we recall that tangled yet brilliantly simple story in which a man and his car face a challenge. 1971’s Vanishing Point is a cinematic creation in which the speedometer hasn’t stopped since its first frames, until the final scene unfolds.
Vanishing Point was released in 1971 and initially didn’t garner much success with critics or audiences. However, over time, the film achieved cult status and influenced the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Steven Spielberg, and Edgar Wright. The story of the film is simple: Kowalski (Barry Newman), a former police officer and race car driver, is tasked with delivering a Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco. Along the way, he makes a bet with a drug dealer to complete the journey in three days. This draws the attention of the police and leads to a chase. Kowalski’s only assistance comes from a blind radio DJ (Cleavon Little) who encourages him over the airwaves.
The film not only showcases the speed of Kowalski’s car but also his internal state. Kowalski is a man who has lost the meaning of his life, finding joy only in speed. The film presents flashbacks of Kowalski’s past, filled with disappointments and traumas. He was a soldier, a racer, and a cop in Vietnam, but he failed or witnessed injustice in each role. Now, Kowalski seeks his last challenge in life, unconcerned with the consequences.
The Symbol of Fuel-Guzzling Freedom
However, Vanishing Point is much more than a film about the art of asphalt, tires, and gasoline haze. The 1971 movie revolves around a classic, mighty Dodge Challenger equipped with a massive V8 engine. This beastly car becomes the central element and the emblematic symbol of boundless freedom, uncontrollable speed, human will, and triumphant self-realization. Under Kowalski’s control, the vehicle becomes more than just a four-wheeled means of transportation; it becomes one of the main characters, the silent star of the film.
Barry Newman portrayed Kowalski with his own remarkable method acting techniques, delivering a performance that was simple yet enthusiastic. He appears on the screen together with the Challenger, and they leave it together as well. The Challenger roars across the American landscape like fate, relentless and unstoppable. No matter the turns, hills, or slopes that lie ahead, the Challenger confronts them and always prevails.
Vanishing Point, therefore, is much more than a typical action film. The movie doesn’t provide clear answers as to why Kowalski does what he does or what his goal is. It serves as a metaphor for how a person who is lost in life and doesn’t find their place in the world might feel. The iconic and open-to-interpretation ending allows for multiple meanings: Kowalski symbolically breaking through barriers, reaching the pinnacle of speed, and more. The director leaves it up to the viewer to assign significance to that scene. The film is not just an exciting adventure; it poses a philosophical question: what is the meaning of life?
The brilliance of Vanishing Point lies in its simplicity, which, through the relentless pursuit on an infinite road, the unfettered speed of the Dodge Challenger, became a symbol of freedom and adventure for an entire generation.
Kowalski, the stoic hero who has overcome everything and is only interested in the thrill of speed, is portrayed by Barry Newman with exceptional power and sincerity. He embodies the myth of speed and endless travel, more than just a routine and perilous driver. He is a peculiar and captivating philosopher who dedicates his life to understanding something that may be incomprehensible to many: speed is only an illusion, and the true goal is the endless road, the journey itself.
Kowalski’s every move is guided by this philosophy. Newman’s portrayal showcases the character’s personality, decisions, and reactions, all testifying to the fact that the journey to the infinite is not only a physical voyage but also an internal path of continuous discovery and growth. He is a rare individual who lives every moment in a rush toward the infinite.
Newman, like Kowalski, is not seeking the end of the road leading to the infinite; he seeks the road itself, the path that leads to the infinite. His beloved Dodge Challenger becomes his companion on this journey. He embodies freedom and the imaginary statue of speed, a living symbol relentlessly speeding on the infinite road.
Unusual Encounters: The Other Characters
Kowalski’s journey is enriched by encounters with various characters along the way, each radically different from one another. These characters are not mere players in the story but also symbolic representations of the film’s philosophical content. Whether it’s Super Soul (played by Cleavon Little), the blind radio show host; the naked motorcycle rider (Gilda Texter); the gentle motorcyclist (Timothy Scott); or the mysterious woman he meets on the road (Charlotte Rampling), each adds depth and complexity to the film.
Super Soul, the blind radio show host, serves as Kowalski’s personal muse and emotional support, a kind of early prototype of the internet: an immediate source of news and a community of speed enthusiasts who provide life-saving information for Kowalski. The voice on the radio, the watchful eye that has never seen, yet possesses sharp vision. Cleavon Little’s performance creates a sharp contrast to Newman’s portrayal of the silent and lonely Kowalski, while they complement each other.
The naked motorcycle rider, played by Gilda Texter, symbolizes complete freedom and liberation from constraints. Her rebellious and unconventional character represents the growing feminist movement of the 1970s and the desire for women’s freedom. Here, the pursuit of speed is not just about velocity but also a metaphor for breaking personal boundaries.
Timothy Scott’s portrayal of the gentle motorcyclist symbolizes spiritual seeking. He is the “healer” of the film, living in harmony with nature and himself, capable of helping even in the most unexpected situations. Through Scott’s performance, the character becomes a contemplative sage who finds tranquility and peace in a world speeding towards its limits.
Charlotte Rampling’s mysterious character, who swims in a sea of questions, doesn’t provide answers to Kowalski but poses additional questions that serve as important mirrors for the protagonist. The depth and enigma of Rampling’s role reflect Kowalski’s inner quest and perhaps the feeling of inaccessibility. Their encounter shows that even on the road, in the utmost freedom, it is difficult to escape our own loneliness and internal questions.
The Symphony of Speeding Freedom
Vanishing Point is not just about the magic of visuals and performances; it is also a perfect symphony of music, sound, and rhythm. This symphony is just as important, if not more so, than the visual presentation itself. The film’s soundtrack, encompassing rock classics and alternative songs from the era, reveals a unique expression of freedom and provides an experience that ignites a burning desire for freedom in the hearts of the audience.
The music is inseparable from the film’s visual elements. The beautifully composed camera angles, expertly crafted editing, dramatic play of light and shadow, and images depicting the relentless speed all work together to enhance the viewer’s experience. In harmony, these elements create a film experience that elevates our adrenaline levels and awakens within us the kind of yearning for freedom embodied by Kowalski and the Dodge Challenger.
Vanishing Point, therefore, is a film that not only captivates the eyes and ears but also touches the heart and soul. This symphony of speeding freedom, masterfully created by the filmmakers, offers an experience that is not easily forgotten. The film itself is freedom, speed, and the anthem of the infinite road. It is a must-see and must-hear for every film enthusiast.