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Vanishing Point

(1971) *** R
106 min. 20th Century Fox. Director: Richard C. Sarafian. Cast: Barry Newman, Cleavon Little, Charlotte Rampling, Dean Jagger, Victoria Medlin.

/content/films/3361/2.jpgAn essentially critic-proof cult classic of the car-movie genre, Vanishing Point merged the appeal of Bullitt with that of, say, Zabriskie Point. For those with no interest in fast cars and dusty existentialism, there are topless (and bottomless) blondes who appear in steady succession, as well as wall-to-wall music: soul, country and deep-fried rock from artists like Delaney & Bonnie & Friends and Jimmy Walker. Screenwriter Guillermo Cain (working from a story outline by Malcolm Hart) and director Richard C. Sarafian put a counter-culture archetype into a supercharged white 1970 Dodge Challenger and don't look back.

Barry Newman plays Kowalski, a mysterious delivery driver taking the Dodge from Denver to San Francisco. On a whim, he makes a blithe bet, with his drug supplier, that he can make the delivery in fifteen hours; hence, though he has more time, he determines to make the drive in a fifteen-hour race with fate. As Kowalski races across state lines and round the hairpin turns of mountain passes, a DJ with a police scanner gets wind of the madman's actions, which are tantamount to a philosophical statement or anti-establishment protest. A blind prophet straight out of Sophocles, "Super Soul" (Cleavon Little), cautions Kowalski over the airwaves, while describing the epic battle of "blue meanies" versus "the last American hero, to whom speed means freedom of the soul...the last beautiul free soul on this planet" (not coincidentally, "speed" is also Kowalski's drug of choice, one that keeps sleep at bay).

That old, dusty '70s open-road movie existentialism fuels the film: Kowalski's what's between a rock and a hard place. When Kowalski drives into the desert, Super Soul asks, "What's he trying to prove now?" It's that same question at every turn, and by way of an answer, Sarafian keeps cutting to laughable flashbacks establishing Kowalski's past lives as a motocross and stock-car racer, Vietnam vet, and SDPD cop. He's also loved and lost a few times, and it all goes to explain his death-wish fatalism and desire to stick it to "the man." Memories of his dead girlfriend harsh the vibe when he's propositioned by a Lady Godiva on a motorcycle and (in the U.K. cut only) Charlotte Rampling's brunette hitchhiker, a spectre of his impending fate.

On the rare occasions that the film does stop for dialogue, one understands why they are so rare: the dully nonsensical drivel of an old girlfriend shows the film's half-hearted interest in anything not powered by an engine. A drifter (Dean Jagger) briefly guides the movie by a desert revival meeting, the better to throw in a bit of live performance and some cheap symbolism of snakes loosed into the wild. An episode involving creepy homosexual bandits dates the picture in the worst way

What makes Vanishing Point endure is the driving, from the opening scene (a tease of the climax) establishing Kowalski absconding from Highway Patrol helicopters and cruisers to the highway drag race with an open-top Jaguar to the symbolist finale. Top cinematographer John A. Alonzo (Chinatown) brings a lot to the driving sequences, in concert with the astonishing work of stunt driver Carey Loftin. When the banjo and fiddle kick in, we understand what inspired diluted demolition-derby knockoffs like The Dukes of Hazzard and Smokey and the Bandit, but more often than not the impressive driving stunts amount to pure cinema of the testosterone variety (explaining all those inserts of Kowalski tightening his fist around his phallic pistol-grip shifter). In a nice touch, Kowalski always stops to make sure his vanquished opponents aren't dead when they spectacularly crash. This stylish B-movie became a grindhouse/drive-in hit by sounding a rebel yell from the counter-culture.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio, Dolby Digital 1.0

Street date: 2/24/2009

Distributor: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

New to Blu-ray, Vanishing Point gets a spectacular high-def upgrade. The image is all but flawless as a rendering of a film that's over thirty-five years old. The print source is remarkably clean, resulting in a colorful and detailed image with few distractions (a bit of edge enhancement here, a touch of digital noise there). Sound is likewise fantastic, whether in the essential original mono offering or a well-done DTS-HD Master Audio mix; the two options collectively make for a definitive audio presentation of the film's soundtrack.

With the Theatrical Version comes a commentary by director Richard C. Sarafian; Virtual Dashboard feature to watch the film with displays for speed, mileage, and fuel, a radio with soundtrack info, and a map in the overhead visor; Cars, Cops and Culture 70s Trivia Track; and Vanishing Point Trivia Challenge.

The Interactive 1970 Dodge Challenger offers four different angles on a virtual model, specs, and "video pods in which auto experts reveal their insights about the car."

Super Soul Me BonusView (30:40 with "Play All" option, HD) comprises 22 segments of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews from the film's musical contributors, accessible as a PiP track during playback or from the menu individually or in a "Play All" option).

Best-in-set among the bonus features is the making-of doc "Built for Speed: A Look Back at Vanishing Point" (17:50, HD), which covers all the bases of the film's concept, casting, and execution, paricularly in the driving stunts. Barry Newman, Serafian, Chris Cornell, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, stunt coordinator Luke Elias, and Gilda Texter (the nude motorcycle rider) sit for interviews .

"OA-5599: All About the Car" (10:20, HD) lives up to its name, with muscle car collector Joe Young, Affordable Classics owner Neal Polan, Challenger owner Michael Urso, automotive artist Frank Cardoza, South Bay Mopar Club President Robert Burnstein, and King of the Kustomizers George Barris waxing enthusiastic about the Dodge Challenger.

Rounding out the disc are "TV Spot A" (:22, SD), "TV Spot B" (1:03, HD), and the "Theatrical Trailer" (2:15, HD).

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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