The DVD Insomniac

Speed Freak

Chris Nashawaty rediscovers a 1971 road-rebel gem, ''Vanishing Point,'' one of the best high-octane thrill rides from a decade that specialized in pedal-to-the-metal classics

BRAKING AT THE WAVES Life's a beach for Newman (with Victoria Medlin) as he tries to outrace his demons in '71 road-flick ''Vanishing Point''
Image credit: Vanishing Point: Everett Collection
BRAKING AT THE WAVES Life's a beach for Newman (with Victoria Medlin) as he tries to outrace his demons in '71 road-flick ''Vanishing Point''

Chris Nashawaty rediscovers a 70's road-rebel gem, ''Vanishing Point''

What was it about the 1970s and baroque, pedal-to-the-metal car chases? I suppose someone with a pointier head than I (and more tweed in his closet) could make the argument that it was a high-octane way of sticking it to The Man. After all, the decade, cinematically at least, kicked off with 1969's Easy Rider. Okay, that's two wheels instead of four, but you get the idea. If you were looking for a countercultural Hollywood icon in the '70s, the first place to look was behind the wheel of a gas-guzzling muscle car.

Let's run 'em down, shall we?

1971 The French Connection, Two Lane Blacktop, and Steven Spielberg's Duel

1973 Burt Reynolds' White Lightning and The Seven-Ups

1974 Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry

1975 Death Race 2000

1976 Gumball Rally

1977 Smokey and the Bandit

1978 Ryan O'Neal's The Driver

1979 Mad Max

Hell, I'll even throw in 1980's The Blues Brothers, just because Jake and Elwood's Windy City demolition derby is the most excessive cinematic car chase of them all — the logical conclusion to a decade of bended fenders and red-faced police officers spinning around in overturned cop cars calling for backup as our nose-thumbing antiheroes peel away to carry out their Mission From God.

Still, the most overlooked car chase flick from the era — and one of the funkiest too — is 1971's Vanishing Point, a movie all but forgotten along with its star Barry Newman. Newman, who's best known today (if he's known at all) as Professor Max Bloom on The O.C., stars as James Kowalski, a driver for a no-frills car delivery service who bets a pal that he can take a supercharged 1970 Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco in less than 15 hours. All he's got on his side is a pocketful of speed tablets and a pair of eye-catching mutton-chop sideburns. Well, that and a sympathetic radio DJ (Blazing Saddles' Cleavon Little as blind ''DJ Super Soul''), urging him on over the airwaves.

As Newman pilots his souped-up muscle car through the desert with Johnny Law on his tail, the movie occasionally freeze-frames to give us the time, location, and how many hours he's been on the road. It's like a hippie Road Runner cartoon. With his orange-tinted aviator shades, week's worth of stubble, and shirt unbuttoned to his navel, Newman reeks of musky charisma. He's a free spirit with an endless ribbon of open road ahead of him.

As the cops in three states try to figure out his motives, we learn snippets about his past through flashbacks — such typical '70s stuff as being a Vietnam vet (he's scarred), being a dishonorably discharged policeman (he was framed), and the death of his girl (he's got nothing left to lose). Slowly, we realize that this is a man who's trying to outrun not only the cops, but his demons too. Since it's the '70s, Kowalski also crosses paths with a hot, naked flower chick on a motorcycle, some snake-handling Jesus freaks in the desert, and an off-the-grid hippie who manages to score him some more speed when he runs out. Also since it's the '70s, you know it won't end well for Kowalski. One way or another, he'll wind up as a martyr to the whole messed-up system. Until that moment arrives, though, buckle up and get ready for a groovy ride.

Got your own favorite overlooked 70's road-rebel flick? Let's hear it.

Originally posted Aug 16, 2006