Who is Vanishing Point‘s auteur? It’s the product of four different artistic visions—Guillermo Infante (Writer), Richard Sarafian (Director), John Alonzo (Cinematographer) and Richard Zanuck (Producer).
The script tells the cryptic story of a car delivery driver named Kowalski who takes a crazy bet that he can make it from Denver to San Francisco (a 20 hr. drive) in 15 hours. We see numerous flashbacks and meet strange characters on his fairy tale journey across the American heartland, and along the way he becomes the champion of a blind black DJ named Super Soul. He works like both the chorus and blind soothsayer of Greek Drama—commenting on the action and giving Kowalski advice. It all ends in a fiery Existential suicide that either shows the protagonist’s willful hope or tells Camus to shove it.
Vanishing Point was written by Guillermo Cabrera Infante, a Cuban who had written an experimental novel five years earlier to much critical acclaim. In a 2009 interview with Some Came Running, director Richard Sarafian, said that Guillermo had recently read Kerouac’s On The Road and was trying to capture that uniquely forward-moving vision of America. This beat influence is especially obvious in inspired prose-poetry like:
Our lone driver. the last American hero, the electric centaur, the demigod, the super driver of the golden West, two nasty Nazi cars are close behind him, come on driver the police numbers are getting closer, closer, closer to our soul hero in his soul mobile. Yeah baby, they’re about to strike, smash him—the last beautiful free soul on this planet.
Here he seems to be channelling Ginsberg by way of gospel, and this strange blend of Beat mysticism with down home Pentecostal revivalism is one of the film’s most unique assets. Sarafian also talks about how graphically visual the script was, “as though it was written by a director.” Infante’s script is one of the crucial aesthetic pillars in Point‘s Existential monastery.
To me, the ‘vanishing point’ means just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it isn’t there.—Richard Sarafian
Sarafian had worked on a drama about autism (Run Wild, Run Free) and thrillers like Fragments of Fear, but in Vanishing Point you see a more intuitive directorial style and sense his natural affinity for the material. In the Blu-Ray’s commentary he says that he wanted to explore the concepts of speed and the Moebius strip through this…
certain character in our life, in my life, that leaves before you want them to. He was headed away from this planet, and he was headed to another place.
He envisioned Kowalski’s spiritual journey across “a tapestry of Americana” towards “another dimension” as the heart of the film. A very spiritual man, Sarafian saw Kowalski much as DJ Super Soul does in the film, and the movie’s reverential atmosphere is entirely his artistic signature.
Sarafian says that cinematographer John Alonzo was his “soulmate on this movie…you could have given him half the credit,” and undoubtedly the gorgeous location photography is as much a main character as Kowalski or the Challenger. There is a ton of interesting symbolism in both the composition and lighting of the film. Early in the journey Kowalski is traveling alongside a roaring river that parallels his own uncontrollable spirit. Featured prominently in Super Soul’s main window is a Stop sign that is part of a pervasively dualistic mise-en-scene that the blind DJ himself partially belongs to. White/Black, Moving/Stationary, Go/Stop, Chaos/Order, Die/Live, and Hate/Love.
Alonzo was a young cinematographer when he did Vanishing Point, and it was one of his very first films. Point must have been a learning experience; he went on to shoot beautiful films like Chinatown and Scarface. Before ’71 he’d worked on TV and a few documentaries while Richard Sarafian had done a few crash safety films. Their background in this sort of filmmaking contributed to the beauty of Point‘s photography.
Location shooting had become more and more of a mainstay since about 1945 when The House on 92nd Street was released, but the way they use the countryside in Point is a revelation. So many movie car chases occur on a short stretch of road during a brief sequence in an Action movie–the characters chase each other around until the plot resolves, but in Vanishing Point the chase is the plot—it’s the dynamic between Kowalski’s roaring bullet and the howling emptiness of the natural landscape that creates the “action.”
How often do the police actually confront Kowalski on the road? Very few–most of the movie has the cops sitting around looking pretty. Yet the film has a wild reckless energy that drags the viewer down the highway. Normally I’d compliment the Editor (who does a great job in Point), but here it feels more like Alonzo’s doing. The shots, not their lengths give the movie its energy. Alonzo’s intense juxtaposition of composition (the extreme close ups of the car parts vs. sprawling desert and sky), and the few scenes of chiaroscuro (which approach invisibility) make the movie sing. As brilliant as all the other parts of the film are, it’s Alonzo’s photography that make it a classic. Even Infante recognized Alonzo’s vast contributions. In a 1983 interview in The Paris Review, he said:
What the spectator sees on the screen is the mirror image of my screenplay. Vanishing Point is my script as seen on the white mirror of the screen, in De Luxe color, at an aspect ratio of 1:85, running at twenty-four frames per second, in stereo sound—much more than I ever wrote or could write. That’s a movie. I just wrote the screenplay. Thanks to John Alonzo, a cinematographer of genius, my screenplay is now a piece of Americana, a cult film, and a very successful movie.
Even the studio liason, usually the voice of Capitalism and the destroyer of aestheticism, had an important artistic hand in Point‘s creation, and while Richard Zanuck did not end up on the credits of the film, he is the true producer of Vanishing Point. He was the son of the legendary Fox executive Darryl Zanuck, and his father had helmed dozens of classic films. In the mid 60s Richard was running 20th Century Fox, but he’d had several financial setbacks by 1970. When Point went over budget and schedule he was actually fired, and according to Sarafian Zanuck had tears in his eyes because certain elements of the film were going to be changed. He went on to start an independent production company that did a number of Spielberg’s films, including Jaws. In an eerie case of synchronicity, Spielberg’s first film, Duel, which is very much in the spirit of Vanishing Point, was released by Universal TV eight months to the day after Sarafian’s 1971 masterpiece.
On the ropes as he was, Zanuck took an economic approach to his counterculture car movie. With a budget of $1.3m Point was a legitimately low-budget film for Fox at that time, and Zanuck brought the iconic 1970 Dodge Challenger to the table because he had some available for pennies. He literally walked Richard Sarafian outside and asked him if he could make a movie with the car. For Zanuck the movie revolved entirely around the car itself.
In a bizarre role-reversal, it was the studio executive who suggested the dark ending—telling Sarafian, “he’s gotta die” when he learned that the original script had Kowalski surviving his journey. So even Zanuck had a fundamental role in Vanishing Point’s strange mystical narrative.
Each of these men: Infante, Sarafian, Alonzo, and Zanuck (in that order) played a significant part in Point’s origin. All movies are collaborations, but some directors collaborate better than others. Some, like Kubrick, have intensely detailed visions to be recreated by his crew. Others, like Scorsese, use what those around him can bring to the table that might not have been there before. Sarafian belonged to another important camp: directors too poor and inexperienced to have a choice. Vanishing Point is truly a low-budget classic, and as such its origins are as organic and multifaceted as those of life itself.
Gillo Pontecorvo, the director of The Battle of Algiers, told Richard Sarafian once that while in a Mexican jail for a few weeks in the late 70s, the images and themes in Vanishing Point were all that kept him sane. This is the power of that white Challenger. As it roars, forever across the sands of time, any of us can see it and know that there is such a thing as freedom. It may not be something that we get here on Earth, but it exists.
“Some of it is in all of us as we race through this planet…and on to something else.” – Richard Sarafian