The Birth of the Road Movie

When movie goers watched Steven McQueen doing a reverse burnout in his ’68 Mustang fastback in Bullitt it created a demand for chase scenes. Some of the best car chase scenes and road movies started hitting box offices in the 1970’s and it can all be traced back to a black ’68 Dodge Charger bunny hopping its way through San Francisco. One of the greatest films of the road movie hey-day is 1971’s Vanishing Point directed by Richard C. Sarafian, starring Barry Newman and Cleavon Little.

It’s a film that captures an era in America at its peak, and has more layers than a bag of onions, that revolves around a very simple plot. For anyone that has not seen this movie, or even heard of it, this movie is a Penthouse letter for driving enthusiasts. A movie that will leave you thinking and maybe even fantasizing.

Recently, my best friend purchased the remastered version of  Vanishing Point with a deleted scene that was never shown in the US, only in the UK. I scanned the internet to see why I had never heard of this scene since I’m a bit of a movie trivia buff. I saw some blog articles talking about it but nothing on the major sites, so I wanted to talk about this since it really is a mind blowing scene that gives the movie a whole new depth.

A spoiler alert is in effect.

Vanishing Point -The Plot

The opening monologue from original trailer explains it so beautifully;

Name. Kowalski. Occupation. Driver. Transporting a supercharged Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco. Background, metal of honor in Vietnam. Former stock car and bike racer. Former cop, dishonorably discharged. Now he uses speed to get himself up. To get himself – gone.”

That is all you need to know to understand the movie. The whole movie is Kowalski, Barry Newman, cannonballing someone else’s white ’70 Dodge Challenger through the desert after making a bet with his drug dealer that he can’t reach SF in less than 12 hours. Cleavon Little plays a blind radio DJ that can somehow communicate with Kowalski but it is never explained how.

The filler of the movie is what makes it so great. All the characters Kowalski meets on the road and the flashbacks to Kowalski’s past paint a picture that he is just a man trying to stay numb while outrunning his demons. Using methamphetamine pills and adrenaline to stay alert during the whole ordeal. Not to mention the main reason car enthusiasts love this film, the car chase. Seeing the Challenger jump, slide, and race against cops with a classic rock soundtrack checks all the necessary boxes for a good road movie.

A Supercut video of the Challenger’s greatest scenes in the movie.

Flashbacks

The movie cuts to several flashbacks in Kowalski’s past throughout the film. One where he escapes serious injury after crashing his motorcycle at a bike race. The second flashback shows him in a horrific stock-car wreck where he apparently dodged death. In a scene where he sees an attractive blonde woman he is reminded of his time as a police officer when he saved a young woman from being abused by his own partner. His last flashback is the longest one and shows Kowalski’s love interest for the first time in the film. A free spirited woman that really loves him but tragically drowns in a surfing accident. They don’t show the accident, but it is implied. These flashbacks will come into play for the deleted scene.

The UK Deleted Scene

The deleted scene is a build up to the climatic ending of the film. It shows Kowalski driving through the night in route to San Francisco when he stops to pick up an attractive hitchhiker dressed in black, played by Charlotte Rampling. As they are driving in awkward silence she starts to smoke marijuana and offers Kowalski a drag. Kowalski uses speed during the movie, but this is the first time we see him trying a different drug. This scene was cut from the U.S. release partly because it shows people smoking weed. I guess pill popping was okay back then.

As the scene continues, Kowalski pulls over because he is feeling too stoned to drive. The two start to ask about each other to break the tension of being strangers alone in a parked car in the middle of nowhere. Kowalski asks why she’s going to SF and she responds with, “I’ll tell you later.” When Kowalski refers to his destination as home she responds with, “Home. You make it sound like a good place.”

Kowalski is puzzled by this woman when she turns to confess that she likes him and has been waiting for him. “I’ve been waiting for you for a long time. Oh how I’ve waited for you.” Kowalski, naturally, questions her response by asking where and when. “Everywhere. Everywhere since forever. Patiently. Patiently, that’s the only way to wait for somebody.” Kowalski stares in-all at this mysterious woman before the two share a moment of passion in the night. Cuts to morning to find Kowalski alone in the Challenger with no trace of the woman dressed in black.

The deleted scene not shown in the U.S.

Meaning of the Scene

Watching the scene makes no sense. A random drug fueled one night stand with a stranger? Until you start looking at Kowalski’s past in relation with what the hitchhiker said. Death has been a constant in Kowalski’s life. He has either been around it, during Vietnam and the death of his love, or escaped it while racing. Death waits for all of us from the moment we are born. It is the most patient entity because it is the one guarantee in life. One could even say that time is just patience that is forced upon us.

The scene that follows is the ending where Kowalski has a moment of clarity and decides that the only way he will ever be free is to keep driving, forever. A smile dawns on his face as he pushes the Challenger for everything it’s got as it charges towards a police road block that consists of two bulldozers. The movie ends with Kowalski killing himself by driving into the bulldozers at over a 100 mph. An ending that has been free to interpretation. Some say it was suicide because there was no way he could escape jail. Others say that due to the lack of sleep and drugs, Kowalski believed he could escape through the gap and was going too fast to stop.

I believe that the woman dressed in black was an embodiment of death who was there to visit Kowalski because his time was about to come. That’s why she was waiting for him for so long. That’s what she meant by, “I’ll tell you later.” Kowalski had reached his vanishing point. But that is just my own interpretation. I’m sure someone out there has a different conclusion that I would like to hear.

A Driver’s Fantasy

The reason why I compare this movie to a Penthouse letter for driving enthusiasts is because anyone with a fast car has thought of doing what Kowalski did at least once. Not so much the high speed death, but just throwing caution out the window and driving like it was your last day on earth. Fast cars were built to go fast, but the rules of society keeps them caged up with traffic laws and speed limits. It is easy to ask yourself, “What is the point of selling fast cars if we have nowhere to run them?” Sure we have racetracks but what about those special moments where you get an itch in your right foot, your heart rate revs up to match the idling engine and the need for speed takes hold?

That’s why so many people love Vanishing Point because it’s the ultimate fantasy for a lot of speed freaks and pedal punchers. Who wouldn’t want a hotrod to go tear up American’s highways with nothing to worry about except the next fuel stop? It’s a driver’s fantasy.

The Maximum Trip

If you haven’t seen this movie I highly recommend it. “It’s the maximum trip at maximum speed.” I would say it’s one of the top 5 films an auto enthusiast has to see during their lifetime. Since Hollywood is preoccupied turning comics into movies and rebooting generation X’s childhood, why isn’t there a remake for this movie yet? Yes they tried one in 1997 with Viggo Mortensen, but it did not live up to the original.

We have the Hellcat Challenger, and we have all the same social problems that plagued the early 70’s. Religious cults, police brutality, racial tension, homophobia, drug culture, and war protest are all shown as a video time capsule in this film. Tragically, this film is 45 years old and the same issues shown in 1971 run parallel with what is going on in today’s news. If there was ever a candidate for a cult classic remake I think Vanishing Point would be a great one. Maybe I’ll try writing the screen play if the woman dressed in black can wait awhile.

 

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