Vanishing Point (1971)

Been awhile since I recommended a movie, so….

Vanishing Point, Richard C. Sarafian. Long recognized as a masterwork by cult-film cognoscenti, I first encountered VP in a cocktail bar in Leeds with a buddy in 1999. It played on a screen over the bar without sound; we made up the story as the visuals unfolded.

Not long ago I re-watched it on DVD and the effect was largely the same. Spare and allegorical yet crafted out of the well-worn genre of road trips, the film is largely a scaffold on which the viewer can construct his own meaning. There’s something there about American outlaws, the “Old West” ethos, the lone maverick making his own rules.

The main character famously drives a white Dodge Challenger (get it? the name of the car and the character-type are…).

In the real Old West, it was the coming of cities, of settled life and paved roads, that ended the romance. Here it ends by crashing into bulldozers then exploding into a fireball. VP’s influence ranges from everything from campy crap like TV’s Dukes of Hazard to soundtracks without films like Tom Waits’s growling “Going Out West” from his 1992 record Bone Machine. Quentin Tarantino is apparently a fan of the film, but don’t let that dissuade you…it really is a serious movie.

Despite the critical love, the movie has some spoilage on the edges. The hippie-dippie scenes are very dated and the hero’s sad back-story feels disconnected, but Vanishing Point still merits viewing for its audacity to strip bare American iconography. Nota bene: watch the British release version that includes nudity, drug use, and Charlotte Rampling as the angel of death.

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