Through quiet and largely unimportant small towns, down hot and dusty back roads on the desert plains and along straight-arrow interstates, fascist cops, eager for roadkill, pursue our antihero with their red lights blazing and sirens howling. A police helicopter searches for Kowalski when the highway patrolmen can't keep up with him or crash into a ditch. On his suicidal journey, Kowalski meets queer hitchhikers, loony faith healers, an Easy Rider refugee, and a naked blonde on a motorbike.
A radio DJ, the black and blind Super Soul (Cleavon Little), talks to Kowalski on the airwaves, supporting the unspecified cause of our disillusioned loner, for whom "speed means freedom of the soul." A racist cop (Paul Koslo, an underrated actor who appeared in Mr Majestyk, 1974, hassling Charles Bronson, and later with Paul Newman in The Drowning Pool, 1976) takes umbrage at this and attacks the broadcaster in his studio. Richard Sarafian's choice sudden death ending (a headlong smash into a bulldozer roadblock) comes as no surprise at all, but the mystery of why all this happens remains intriguing.
Barry Newman plays Kowalski as a messenger of liberty. What he's delivering is the car itself - and everything (especially independence) that cars represent in US culture. The autonomy that Kowalski seeks at the end of his 15-hour driving marathon is 'California freedom', and Vanishing Point is an existential road movie about the end of the 1960s. It warns of dire consequences when the hippy ethos dies, giving way to the gloomy hopelessness of 1970s' recession years, later charted by Scorsese and De Niro and in Taxi Driver (1976).
Exhilarating chases and death defying stunts make Vanishing Point one of the greatest road movies. This American film may have inspired Australian cult favourite Mad Max (1979.) See, if you can, the longer and semi-mythical 107 minutes version (sadly, not on this disc), to catch a rare appearance of Charlotte Rampling.
DVD extras: just the original trailer, in full-screen ratio 4:3.