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Vanishing Point
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Vanishing Point

The success of Easy Rider (1969) kicked wider the door in Hollywood for opportunities for young filmmakers, particularly those willing to work for scale and to shoot their pictures out in the real world beyond the studio gates. Road movies were nothing new in the early Seventies but cinematic wandering took on a fresh aspect when location shooting became the rule rather than the exception and storylines began to reflect the concerns and preoccupations of a generation that valued authenticity over appearance. In a bid to profit from Columbia's good fortune with Easy Rider (which returned better than $60,000,000 from an investment of $400,000), a slew of like-minded, open-ended road films were given the green light by the majors: Two Lane Blacktop (1971) from Universal, Slither (1973) from Metro, Badlands (1973), Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974), and Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins (1975) from Warner Bros. - even Disney's The Aristocats (1970) was a road picture - and Vanishing Point (1971) from 20th Century-Fox. Vanishing Point's plot was simplicity in and of itself: a professional driver (Barry Newman) attempts to race the 1,300 miles from Denver to San Francisco in only 15 hours, eluding and thwarting state police efforts to stop him along the way and aided in his increasingly existential quest by a blind disc jockey (Cleavon Little) and a growing legion of devoted followers.

While many of the early 70s road films reflected the personal visions of their makers-certainly true for Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider and Monte Hellman's Two Lane Blacktop--Vanishing Point had a patchwork genesis. The logline came from an unlikely source: not a Hollywood insider or even a film school hopeful but rather a British fashion photographer. Malcolm Hart had drifted from early work in the South African advertising business to Manhattan, where an assignment photographing French fashions brought him to Paris in the mid-Sixties. While staying in a rundown hotel in the Latin Quarter where William Burroughs had completed his novel Naked Lunch, Hart learned about the Beat Generation, members of an American literary movement whose principals also included poet Allen Ginsberg and On the Road author Jack Kerouac, both of whom had passed through the so-called "Beat Hotel." The 1969 death of Beat icon Neal Cassidy, as well as a newspaper account of a speeding motorist who chose death over surrendering to the California Highway Patrol, inspired Hart to pen a screenplay treatment, which he titled Pick a Card, Any Card. The property was purchased by the London-based Cupid Productions, who had financed Sympathy for the Devil (1968), a collaboration between nouvelle vague auteur Jean-Luc Godard and the Rolling Stones. Cupid Productions was run by David Lean's fiftyish former production manager Norman Spencer, rich kid Michael Pearson (the 26 year-old son of the 3rd Viscount Cowdray), and a Canadian expatriate named Iain Quarrier.

Having migrated to London, Quarrier acted as Roman Polanski's ambassador when the Polish filmmaker emigrated to the United Kingdom after making his first feature film, Knife in the Water (1962); Polanski rewarded Quarrier with roles in Cul-de-Sac (1966) and The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967). Possessed with Byronic good looks and a languid demeanor bespoke for the times, Quarrier had a starring role in Joe Massot's Wonderwall (1968), a trippy British head film that boasted Beatle George Harrison's first music composed specifically for the movies. Wonderwall was co-written by yet another expatriate, Cuban refugee Guillermo Cabrera Infante. The son of Castro Communists, Cabrera Infante had been a journalist and critic but was forced to flee Havana when his writing angered the Castro regime. It was likely Quarrier's influence that brought Cabrera Infante to the project that would ultimately carry the title Vanishing Point. The writer reimagined Malcolm Hart's treatment as a mystical vision quest, the story of a man who grows weary of his mortality and seeks transcendence in velocity. When 20th Century-Fox acquired the property in 1970, Cabrera Infante was flown to Los Angeles to meet the studio brass. Interviewed in 1982 for The Paris Review, the writer recalled:

"The only thing like a story conference that happened to me took place when I met (20th Century Fox president) Richard Zanuck. He asked me what the title Vanishing Point meant, and I told him all about linear perspective and the end of a man as convergence of life lines. He thanked me and that was that."

With Cabrera Infante assisting in scouting locations, principal photography for Vanishing Point began in May 1970.

Assigned to direct Vanishing Point was Richard C. Sarafian, a TV veteran and a former protégé of Robert Altman, who had broken with his mentor when Altman attempted to seize control of Sarafian's feature film directorial debut, Andy (1965), the drama of a mentally-challenged adult. Sarafian had turned down the opportunity to helm Paramount's Robert Redford vehicle Downhill Racer (1969) but latched onto the idea of building a film around the dynamic of speed, a concept he considered to be fully realized in Cabrera Infante's screenplay for Vanishing Point. Sarafian had wanted to cast Downhill Racer's second male lead Gene Hackman as Kowalski, the driver protagonist of Vanishing Point, but Fox nixed the notion; the studio further vetoed the idea of using George C. Scott, fresh from his success in Patton (1970) but a notoriously difficult actor. (Interestingly, Hackman went on to star in Fox's The French Connection (1971), which featured a now famous car chase beneath Brooklyn's elevated subway tracks, while Scott starred as a wheelman in The Last Run (1971), both released only months behind Vanishing Point.) Fox's choice for Sarafian's lead was non-negotiable: Barry Newman, who had made an impression as a firebrand attorney in Paramount's The Lawyer (1970), a fictionalized spin of the infamous Dr. Sam Sheppard murder trial that had been the inspiration for the CBS television series The Fugitive. Though he balked at the requirement of using a much younger actor than he had envisioned, Sarafian accepted the decision and hit the road.

Despite a reputation for being an efficient director, Sarafian allowed a healthy measure of improvisation to shape Vanishing Point's tight shooting schedule, to the point of recruiting amateurs to play background roles and working in unexpected bits of real life business (e.g., a road crew painting a center line along the highway, whom Kowalski causes to veer comically off course) encountered en route. When the costs of transporting cast and crew (and a fleet of identical '70 Dodge Challengers to play Kowalski's souped up car, all but one of which were totaled during principal photography) across several state lines began to eat into the film's profit margin, a fretful Richard Zanuck begged Sarafian to cut costs-with the result being that the director tore twenty pages out of the script, which he then had to script doctor to patch up the holes. (Lost in the restructuring was the entire performance of British actress Charlotte Rampling, who appeared only in the film's European cut.) The director also gave free reign to his actors, allowing bit players Anthony James and Arthur Malet (as larcenous gay hitchhikers who thumb a very short ride with Kowalski) to provide their own accessories (while James chose a pair of pink sunglasses, Malet shaved off his eyebrows) and scuttling a subplot about Kowalski's encounter with a snake-worshipping religious cult when featured singers Rita Coolidge and Delaney & Bonnie and Friends objected. Though Cabrera Infante's shooting script had left Kowalski's ultimate fate somewhat ambiguous, inferring that he passes on to another plane of being, Zanuck demanded that the movie end with the character's death, precipitating Vanishing Point's now iconic denouement.

After Sarafian delivered his footage to Fox, it was Richard Zanuck himself who pushed the project over budget as he ordered the film's soundtrack to be remixed and enhanced to beef up the engine roar of Kowalski's Dodge Challenger. (Sarafian would later complain that Zanuck's overages had an adverse effect on his net point profits, prompting him to re-title the film Vanishing Points). Zanuck was ultimately removed from his position of power by his own father but Vanishing Point went on to earn back $12,000,000 from a budget of $1.5 million. (With partner David Brown, Zanuck would return to Universal as an independent producer and score big time with Steven Spielberg's Jaws in 1975.) Forty years down the road, Vanishing Point remains a true cult classic, with Kowalski's trademark Challenger recycled for use in Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof half of the Tarantino-Robert Rodriguez two-fer Grindhouse (2007) and Malcolm Hart's logline repurposed, albeit liberally, for a 1997 TV movie. Starring Viggo Mortensen as a character racing across the desert to reunite with his pregnant wife with the assistance of libertarian shock jock Jason Priestley and intervention on both a state and federal level, Fox Television's Vanishing Point channeled the paranoiac vibe of post-Waco/Ruby Ridge America, offered instead of Barry Newman's laconic speed freak a chaste, drug-free Kowalski who becomes a martyr for the Sovereign Citizen movement and conspiracy culture.

By Richard Harland Smith

Sources:

Guillermo Cabrera Infante: Two Islands, Many worlds by Raymond D. Souza (University of Texas Press, 1996)
Memoirs of an Underground Filmmaker by Malcolm Hart (Barncott Press, 2015)
Audio commentary for Vanishing Point by Richard C. Sarafian (Anchor Bay Entertainment DVD, 2005)
Interview with Richard C. Sarafian by Michael T. Toole, TCM.com
Interview with Richard C. Sarafian by Glenn Kenny, SomeCameRunning.com
Interview with Guillermo Cabrera Infante by Alfred McAdam, The Paris Review No. 87, Spring 1983
Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff by Patrick McGilligan (Macmillan, 1989)
Anthony James: Acting My Face, A Memoir by Anthony James (University Press of Mississippi, 2014)

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