A lot of film genres catch on with the audience but few have proven as diverse as the road trip flick. I seriously doubt there is a type of film possible that has not included a long journey as a central theme. It can be the foundation of a hysterical comedy as in ‘National Lampoon’s Family Vacation’ or the basis of great drama as shown with ‘Thelma and Louise’. One of the definitive movies of the sixties was a road trip film; ‘Easy Rider’. In the forties a musical variation was popular with the ‘Road to’ franchise made popular by Bing Crosby and Bib Hope. This goes to prove that the road trip format is so universal that every generation has the responsibility to reinvent it. For those that grew up during the summer of love and were around for the turbulence of the sixties the road trip movie is ‘Vanishing Point’. Like much of what came out of that time period it is misunderstood by many who came of age afterwards and was not fully appreciated in its own time. This film brought a new dimension to this genre of film. The road trip is part of our culture. We live in a large country that spans from one ocean to another. We have deserts, mountains and urban centers with more people than many nations. To travel through this vast countryside is an adventure that many families can directly relate. A lot of us have experienced that time honored tradition of the family vacation on the road. It forces people into a claustrophobic situation juxtaposed with a vista just beyond the windows. In this film a simple drive through the deserts of Nevada is turned into a matter of life and death. There is no family around for support; just one man alone in the car and the strange people he encounters along the way. The film has been on DVD several times in the past but now it has been included in the new release set by 20th Century Fox. A quick glance at their most recent release schedule will show many classic films from over the last thirty years are coming out again in high definition. This is a chance to revisit old favorites or have the opportunity to see those that you have missed. Even if you have a copy on DVD consider this a chance to update your collection with the best possible look and sound that a film can have.
There is a lot of inherent power and versatility inherent in a road trip story. This is why it has stood the test of time and goes back to the most ancient stories that are still told. Because this is such a timeless format it is vital to place the story within the context of its time. For ‘Vanishing Point’ the year of release was 1971. American has been in the grip of the war in Vietnam that was dividing the population. The youth felt disconnected and disenfranchised; betrayed by their government. The counterculture was nearing its height and this was reflected by the music, literature and films of the day. The writers of this story, G. Cabrera Infante and Barry Hall understood this fact and were familiar with the times they lived in. This is demonstrated by the way they constructed the main character, Kowalski (Barry Newman). He has been called the last free soul. He embodied the liberated spirit of that generation. This is shown through the choice that the writers made for his vocation; a car transporter. His job is to take a car on the road and drive it to the designated destination. This is the ultimate in free lance work. There are no bosses looking over your shoulder just the open road. Although this is also a chase flick there is not a trace of meanness in the persona of Kowalski. He goes out of his way not to hurt others which is another tenant of the love power generation; peaceful means can prevail. This was the first screenplay for Hall and only the second for Infante so they were relatively untouched by the ways of the Hollywood studios. What is evident in their script is a sense of freedom that is imparted in their character.
The film was directed by Richard C. Sarafian. Before this he had a couple of films to his name with most of his work in television. Those series included some of the best dramas around ranging from ‘Gunsmoke’ to ‘I Spy’. In a chase film there is a more than usual need for the correct pacing of the film. On inclination is to drive directly into the action but this tactic was not used by Sarafian. There is something rare in this type of film employed here; the sense of the calm before the storm. Kowalski is gradually pulled into a situation with no reasonable way out. After that introduction what follows in one of the greatest car chase movies around. Sarafian escalates the action and pushes the tension to the maximum as he works towards a conclusion that is still debated almost forty years after the initial release. In fact there is a lot of this film that still prompts debate among the fans. During his trip Kowalski meets several archetypical characters. Each represents aspects of the youth counter culture. There is the snake charmer who presented the spiritual side of the youth movement most often found in the hippie communes of the time. Kowalski keeps going through the near constant use of ‘pep’ pills. This is a nod to the drug use of the sixties and the ‘better living through chemistry’ mantra. Then there is the naked young woman on a motorcycle. She represents the free love that pervaded the sixties and the move towards an unashamed attitude towards the human body. All of this is contrasted with the State Police that are after the lone driver. They represent the authorities that were out to break the liberated youth.
Most film buffs have seen this film many times and rightfully so. There was a DVD release about five years ago but this new Blu-ray edition blows it out of the water. The video is fresh and while there are some signs of age in this mastering overall it is crisp and well done. The color palette is near perfect which brings out new life to the beautiful shots of the American countryside. The contrast between the white car and the hues of the desert are better than I remembered them in the theater. This new release also has an audio track redone in DTS HD. The channel separation has been improved from the DVD release and offers a rich sound field. Many have argued over the two major variations of this film; the one for the States and one for British release. It is easy to compare for yourself since both are presented here. There is also a great selection of extras many of which where not included in the DVD release. This is an American classic so just get it and enjoy.