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Film / Vanishing Point

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Vanishing Point is a 1971 American action road movie directed by Richard C. Sarafian and starring Barry Newman and Cleavon Little. Arguably the Trope Maker/Ur-Example of the car chase movie, or in any case the Trope Codifier.

In a post-Woodstock '70s US, Kowalski (Newman) is a car delivery man with a mysterious past and no first name given, now working for Argo's Car Delivery Service in Denver, Colorado. The film opens on Sunday, 10:02 am, with him driving a white 1970 Dodge Challenger into a roadblock with the police in hot pursuit. Just before he hits it, however, the film flashes back to two days earlier. Kowalski has been assigned to deliver the Challenger to San Francisco, and makes a bet with his dealer Jake (Lee Weaver) that he can get there in just fifteen hours. Setting off, Kowalski ends up running afoul of the police when he runs a motorcycle cop off the road. A blind African-American DJ at KOW known as Super Soul (Little) listens to the police radio frequency and encourages Kowalski to evade the police. By doing so, he is turned into an overnight folk hero, revered by the counterculture scene across the west.


Along his journey, Kowalski encounters a man who collects snakes, a faith healer named J-Hovah, a pair of gay carjackers, and a nude woman on a motorcycle. We eventually learn Kowalski's past: he is a Vietnam veteran who later became a cop, but quit when his partner molested a woman, then became a car and motorcycle racer until two near-fatal accidents forced him to retire, and then became the "adrenaline junkie" he is today. Vera, the only woman he ever loved, died in a surfing accident.

Does Kowalski evade the police and make it through the roadblock? Does he make it to San Francisco? Find out!

Was remade in 1997 as a Made-for-TV Movie starring Viggo Mortensen, Jason Priestley, and Keith David. Many of the characters are heavily changed; in the remake, Kowalski (who now has a first name, Jimmy) is a Gulf War vet trying to get to his pregnant wife in Idaho, while the DJ is now a right-wing shock jock named "The Voice" who views Kowalski's race home against the police as a battle against government oppression.


See also Easy Rider and Two-Lane Blacktop, two other counter-culture road films from the same era.

"Vanishing Tropes":

  • Anti-Villain: In the original film, Kowalski is a Type II.
  • Adaptational Heroism: Kowalski in the remake has a more sympathetic reason to be racing with the Challenger throughout the country (aside from just wanting to do it on the original): his wife is about to deliver their baby and is in a very bad state, so he's racing to the hospital where she is, and his panic along with a chain of misunderstandings means the cops are out for his blood.
  • Adaptational Villainy: The cops, in the remake. A few of the cops that are after him escalate quickly from doing it because it's their job to a full-on vendetta, and the feds that are brought in quickly theorize that he's a Right-Wing Militia Fanatic and refuse to hear a word saying otherwise.
  • Artistic License – Geography:
    • The original film doesn't make it clear when Kowalski crosses from Colorado to Utah (though you can see the Utah beehive symbol on the highway patrol patches), so it almost seems like he just suddenly jumps from Colorado to the Nevada border.
    • A small-town AM station like KOW isn't going to have a clear signal across three states during daylight hours, not unless it's a Class A clear-channel station.
  • B-Movie: In both versions, the remake even being a Made-for-TV Movie.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Kowalski doesn't make it through the roadblock. He crashes and he dies. However, in doing so, he evades capture, and is put out of the internal torment he is in, to not mention he becomes a folk hero.
    • Might also count as a Bolivian Army Ending, since it's unknown whether or not he escapes from his car before the crash, made it through the roadblock, or simply died in the explosion without a trace.
  • Car Chase: The whole movie is one car chase, with as few interruptions as possible.
  • Car Fu: Many cops try their damnedest to ram Kowalski off the road. They don't really succeed.
  • Cool Car: The Dodge Challenger. The final scene has it somehow turn into a 1967 Chevrolet Camaro. The Remake gives one of the cops a Dodge Charger to show him as The Rival (and ups the coolness of both cars by virtue of them being classics by the "current" time of the film).
  • Death by Childbirth: Kowalki's wife in the remake, shortly before he encounters the final roadblock (and as a matter of fact, him fearing that this is what will happen to her is the reason he's racing through the country). One of the theories The Voice tosses out at the epilogue why they Never Found the Body was that Kowalski managed to get out of the car, disappear in the confusion, and is raising his child with an assumed identity.
  • Drives Like Crazy: Kowalski, in all versions. It's why he gets in trouble to begin with.
  • Everybody Owns a Ford: Chrysler loaned the production company five 1970 Dodge Challengers. They had to be returned after filming (this is why the car that is crashed is a Camaro), repainted (white wasn't available on Challengers then), and sold to unsuspecting customers. Chrysler also supplied the police cars (all Dodges and Plymouths), and a new Imperial LeBaron.
  • Every Car Is a Pinto: The Camaro at the end, standing in for the Challenger, was loaded with dynamite to explode when it crashes into the police barricade.
  • Fanservice: Hello, naked (or near-naked in the remake) woman on motorcycle!
  • Greek Chorus: Super Soul on the original and "The Voice" on the remake, both commenting on what is going on and trying to provide advice to Kowalski.
  • The Hero Dies: Though it is left open as to whether or not Kowalski actually dies in the explosion for the remake.
  • Large Ham Radio: Super Soul practically defines this trope. "The Voice" gets as hammy as you could expect of an "anti-government" guy in The '90s.
  • Magical Negro: Super Soul, with a side of Blind Seer.
  • Never Found the Body: In the remake, the police check the crashed Challenger and this happens. In an attempt to kill Kowalski's status as a Folk Hero, they say that the explosion probably immolated him completely. The Voice tosses the theory that Kowalski may have gotten out of the car before it crashed, and is now living elsewhere with a false identity with his kid. Nevertheless, the movie never truly says who's right.
  • Right-Wing Militia Fanatic: "The Voice" in the remake. Part of the misunderstanding that escalates Kowalski's manhunt is that his personal history (disenfranchised war vet) makes the police think Kowalski is one of these.
  • Road Trip Plot: The race to cross the country in the original, a race to try to get to a hospital in Utah in the remake.
  • The '70s: In the original.
  • Troubled Backstory Flashback: Kowalski encounters people and situations that lead him to flash back to various points in his past, which helps the audience understand why he acts the way he does.
  • The Unreveal: When it seems we are about to learn Kowalski's first name through a telegram received by the police, one cop reads it:
    Officer: First name, Kowalski, K-o-w-a-l-s-k-i. Christian name... Christian name, my flat foot. What is it?