Fox // 1971 // 106 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Treadway (Retired) // February 23rd, 2004
The ultimate car chase movie!
An unexpected box office success in 1971, Vanishing Point has become a beloved cult classic in the eyes of its admirers. However, it is so much more than a mere cult film. It is a well made, exciting, and involving drama that invigorates and stimulates the viewer.
Long unavailable on home video, Fox has finally issued this film on DVD in a unique edition offering us two cuts of the film.
Kowalski (Barry Newman, 40 Days and 40 Nights, Bowfinger) is a mysterious figure who, on a whim, decides to drive from Denver to San Francisco in a brief period of time (from Friday night to 3:15 Saturday afternoon). Hopped up on speed (both vehicular and chemical), he attracts the attention of the police. The police attempt to stop him -- multiple times -- but Kowalski always finds a way around them.
His actions make him a hero, the Last American Hero, to an adoring public. Encouraged and aided by Super Soul (Cleavon Little, Blazing Saddles), a blind, black deejay who may or may not have psychic powers (you are left to guess), Kowalski keeps going until he reaches what may be the vanishing point.
The synopsis above does not do justice to Vanishing Point. The film, directed by Richard C. Sarafian from a script by Guillermo Cain, isn't about plot, but rather character. What's that? A car chase movie that emphasizes character over action?. What a shock, huh? Yes, this film delivers on levels that Gone in 60 Seconds and The Cannonball Run only dreamed of reaching.
It's difficult to describe the hold Vanishing Point has on a viewer. I discovered the film in one of those mom-and-pop video stores that were booming in the days before Blockbuster and Hollywood Video consumed them out of existence. Some of the happiest moments of my teen years were spent discovering long-forgotten gems like this in a 99-cents bin. After my initial viewing, I was hooked for life. I rented Vanishing Point often, since it was out of print and, in those days, I did not have cable TV. When the film was reissued on VHS in 1998, guess who bought a copy? Now here I am reviewing the DVD.
Some will use the defense that it is a "guy movie." Nothing could be further from the truth. First off, I hate such terms as "guy movies" and "chick flicks." They are nothing more than mere labels used by anal-retentive people who insist on categorizing things that aren't meant to be categorized. My belief is that if the film is good, then everyone should be able to enjoy it, regardless of those idiotic labels. Anyway, some will categorize Vanishing Point as a guy movie because it's about car chases. It's about so much more than car chases. It's about humanity on the brink of a breaking point. Kowalski is a broken man, hardened by life. The flashbacks provide the answer as to why he is so reckless. It's about hero worship, in which we see what makes a man a hero in the public eye. The performances of Barry Newman and Cleavon Little add a lot to these thematic elements, and give the picture more resonance than it would otherwise have.
Of course, the car chases are crucial ingredients of the picture. They are exciting without becoming dull and overbearing. Sarafian and his editors did an excellent job of editing the sequences to the pulsating rock score, contributed mostly by the American/British rock and soul group, Delaney and Bonnie and Friends. Rather than just placing a tune on the soundtrack, the filmmakers use the musical beats as starting points for rhythmic editing. These are concepts foreign to most movies revolved around an extended car chase, and it's why Vanishing Point has a cold grip on its viewers 33 years later.
The film was a huge success at the box office in 1971, much to the shock of Fox stockholders. Richard Zanuck was studio head when he greenlit the project. He liked the project and supported it, but was fired midway through production. (His own parents, the majority stockholders at Fox, demanded his firing, claiming his pictures didn't make money. Under his watch, the studio scored huge hits with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Planet of the Apes, Patton, M, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and The French Connection, to name a few. Go figure.) Sarafian's original 106-minute cut was taken out of his hands, sanitized, edited down to 98 minutes and thrown out to the drive-ins as a "B" level programmer. Beyond all expectations, audiences were cast under its spell and Vanishing Point became a huge hit.
Fox has made the proper decision to offer us both cuts of Vanishing Point. The racier elements have been restored to the 98-minute version to keep the film more in tune with Sarafian's original cut, hence the change from PG (still called "GP" at the time of the picture's original release) to R for this disc. The longer cut, released in Britain, restores a long eight-minute sequence involving Kowalski picking up a hitchhiker (Charlotte Rampling, Swimming Pool, Zardoz). The sequence is necessary, clarifying several lines of dialogue from the first third of the film that were left unexplained in the shorter cut. There was no official reason why these scenes were cut, although Sarafian suspects it was because of the huge joint Rampling lights up onscreen.
Both versions of Vanishing Point are offered in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Overall, the transfer looks good, much better than the muddy VHS copies I was accustomed to seeing in my teen years. Colors are desaturated, but that was part of Sarafian and cinematographer John A. Alonzo's game plan -- so Fox gets bonus points for a faithful recreation. There is some dirt, and a few scratches and specks, but nothing that will distract you for a long period of time. There is also a light blanket of grain during some scenes, but again nothing major. Simply put, this is the best the film has looked since its original 1971 theatrical run.
Audio is superb. Fox offers you a choice of Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround stereo or 2.0 mono in English for both the U.S. and British cuts, and 2.0 mono in French and Spanish for the U.S. cut only. Listen to these tracks and you will be amazed at the strength and clarity of the dialogue and music in the film. This is definite proof that you do not need DTS or Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround to have a great aural experience. The only flaw is some light crackling noise during one of the extra scenes in the longer British version. But other than that, Fox has done stellar work here.
Some extras have been included, the biggest treat among them being a commentary track by director Richard C. Sarafian. There are a few gaps, but Sarafian proves to be a good, solid talker for most of the running time. It becomes apparent that this is the first time he has seen the film in years, but I like the approach of rediscovery on commentary tracks such as these. (You get some memorable remarks that way.) In a refreshing change of pace (for us DVD reviewers), we discover that Sarafian willingly acknowledges the two different cuts, and even makes a point of clarifying what you will discover in which version. It's better than hearing a director make a 360 and refuse to acknowledge an earlier or longer version. Sarafian gives lots of good behind-the-scenes tidbits and insights. I recommend this track without hesitation.
A full-frame theatrical trailer is in rough shape, but it gives you a good idea of how this film was marketed to audiences. Two TV spots (30 and 60 seconds in length respectively) reveal that the original rating was "GP," which like the earlier "M" rating, caused much confusion before the ratings system was reevaluated a few years later. Half of the GP and M titles were re-rated PG or R, depending on who was watching. It's funny how kids who were able to see GP and M films suddenly couldn't view the same movies with the R re-rating.
This disc is definitely worth spending $14.98 or less on. The chance to own the British version of the film, plus a superb commentary track, makes this a must-own disc for fans. Casual viewers should rent Vanishing Point and discover an entertainment done right.
All charges are dismissed! Next case, please!
Review content copyright © 2004 Bill Treadway; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French, on U.S. version only)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish, on U.S. version only)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary Track by Director Richard C. Sarafian
* Theatrical Trailer
* TV Spots (on US version only)