For many viewers, 'Vanishing Point' may best be known as the movie that Zoë Bell raves about continually throughout Quentin Taratino's 'Death Proof'. The 1971 car chase classic is a B-movie in the best sense of the term. The picture has a simple, exploitable concept that it executes with ruthless efficiency. Extraneous subplots, backstory, and comic relief are kept to a minimum. This is a movie about car chases, plain and simple, from the first scene to the last.
Kowalski (Barry Newman) is a driver. His job is to deliver something from Denver to San Francisco in just over half a day. What he's delivering doesn't matter (turns out it's the white 1970 Dodge Challenger he's driving). Why he needs to get there so fast doesn't matter. Why he has to drive doesn't matter. All that matters is the job. Nothing will slow Kowalski down in his mission, least of all police and their pesky rules about speed limits. If cops try to pull him over, he'll outrace them, evade them, or run them off the road. But he will not stop. Well, if he runs them off the road, he'll pause to make sure they're OK. He may be breaking the law, but he's not a psycho.
Kowalski's single-minded determination doesn't much sit well with the authorities in any of the states he passes through. Their attempts to snare him come to the attention of a funky blind DJ named Super Soul (Cleavon Little) who listens in on the police band and soon turns Kowalski into a folk hero. Kowalski is amused, but doesn't much care. He just wants to get the job done.
The movie is basically one big car chase from the opening scene to the finale. The script has little exposition and sparse dialogue. The little bits of info we learn about Kowalski's character are relayed in brief flashbacks. We find out that he was in the army, then became a cop, then a motorcycle and race car driver. There was once a girl in his life, but she died. The specific details are left obscure. We know only as much as we need to know. Of course, the man can't drive over a thousand miles without ever stopping. As implausibly terrific as his car's gas mileage may be, he'll have to fill up at least a couple times. At various points, he'll also have interactions with a crazy old coot in the desert, some scary faith healers, and a nude hippie chick on a motorcycle.
About the only wrong note that the movie strikes is a pointless bit of business with some gay hitchhikers who try to carjack Kowalski. The homophobic stereotypes are dated and offensive. Fortunately, the scene is very brief.
'Vanishing Point' is lean, efficient, and smartly directed. The film is even philosophical in its Spartan simplicity. Barry Newman's performance is sufficient for what it needs to be, but the real star of the show is that supercharged Dodge Challenger. The car chases aren't necessarily groundbreaking or elaborately staged, but the picture makes up in volume what it lacks in originality. This is one 1970s B-movie that has held up remarkably well.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment brings 'Vanishing Point' to Blu-ray with both its 99-minute American theatrical cut and the superior 106-minute UK theatrical cut. The latter contains an additional scene featuring Charlotte Rampling as a mysterious hitchhiker.
The disc is Java-enabled and very slow to load in a standalone Blu-ray player. Strangely, the cover art shows our hero being chased by four helicopters, which is three more than ever appear in the movie.
'Vanishing Point' is presented in its original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio on Blu-ray. The film's many landscape shots and action scenes probably would have benefited greatly from scope photography, but that may have been out of the budget at the time. In many respects, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer looks about as you'd expect from a movie of the 1970s. The image is often drab and grainy, with mostly flat colors. Detail is a little on the soft side (the use of mist filters in a few scenes certainly doesn't help). On the other hand, the film elements are in good shape, and exhibit very little dirt or damage. The contrast range is also pretty good, with solid black levels and adequate shadow detail.
The transfer's biggest fault is the recurring appearance of edge enhancement artifacts, which not only add ugly electronic ringing around most objects, but also further kill fine object detail. The ringing is certainly not the worst in amplitude I've ever seen, but is a nearly constant problem throughout the movie. Processing like this just isn't needed on Blu-ray. This was clearly an older master prepared for DVD that the studio recycled without remastering.
The soundtrack fares a little better. Fox offers the original mono mix in Dolby Digital 1.0, or a new 5.1 remix in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio. The remix is tastefully done. The music has an adequate stereo dimensionality. Directional pans to the surround channels are used sparingly and effectively. Revving engines have a satisfying heft. The remix helps to enhance the action scenes without sounding too gimmicky.
Of course, the soundtrack still suffers the limitations of its age. Many sound effects are thin or screechy. Aside from the engine sounds, low end usage is typically shallow. Most distractingly, ADR dialogue is incredibly obvious; there are many scenes where characters mask their mouths by holding objects in front of their faces, so I suspect that a lot of the movie was shot without location sound.
Still, for what it is, the audio quality of the disc is satisfactory.
'Vanishing Point' was last released on DVD back in 2004. The bonus features on that disc were pretty skimpy, but all have been carried over to the Blu-ray.
'Vanishing Point' is a fun 1970s B-movie that has retained almost all of its entertainment value over the years. The Blu-ray has decent audio and some pretty good bonus features for a movie of this vintage. It comes recommended, even though the video transfer is quite disappointing.