Vanishing Point

Year: 1971
Production Co: Cupid Productions
Director: Richard C Sarafian
Writer: Guillermo Cain
Cast: Barry Newman, Cleavon Little, Charlotte Rampling

This is one of two classic drive-sploitation movies from the early 70s along with Two-Lane Blacktop, and even though it's as stark and lean as that movie was, it weaves in character and backstory with more finesse (Two-Lane Blacktop didn't bother even trying) even though it's just as concerned only with a guy driving.

Kowalski (Barry Newman) arrives to pick up a car from a contact in Denver that's due in San Francisco under an impossible deadline, so he doesn't only turn straight around and get started instead of stopping to rest, he goes to a biker bar to score Benzedrine from a friend to keep himself awake, taking off at top speed.

Cops across several states subsequently give chase, Kowalski's skills giving them the slip in at-times amazing circumstances. Sometimes it's just a freeway chase, sometimes it's a sympathetic ally. In one bizarre episode, driving across bare Nevada desert, he falls in with a crazy old prospector who makes a living collecting rattlesnakes for a local Pentecostal commune.

And all the while, a blind African American DJ at a small town radio station (Cleavon Little, who'd go on to the role that would make him a household name in Blazing Saddles) gets wind of Kowalski's pursuit and starts updating his listeners on the progress of the multi-state chase, talking directly to Kowalski on air and encouraging him to stick it to the man.

Each time Kowalski stops or meets someone it not only moves him further on his journey, the scripts reveals a little bit more about his history as a soldier, a cop and a race car driver prior to his life as a contraband courier.

The information is doled out along with the thrills and stunt driving choreography just enough to keep you interested and make you hope Kowalski makes it, which makes the climax (which we've seen being prepared in the understated, very non-declarative opening) all the more shocking.

If you want an entry into the genre in this particular period and its trappings, this is the best place to start that I've seen so far.

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