Vanishing Point (1971) Classic Movie Review 114

Vanishing Point (1971)

Vanishing Point (1971)

This radio station was named Kowalski, in honor of the last American hero to whom speed means freedom of the soul.

Today’s movie is Vanishing Point (1971). I’ll begin with a little quote from Wikipedia: “Kowalski is a Medal of Honor Vietnam War veteran and former race car driver and motorcycle racer. He is also a former police officer, who was dishonorably discharged in retaliation for preventing his partner from raping a young woman. Haunted by the surfing death of his girlfriend, Vera, Kowalski now exists on adrenaline.”

Counter-culture hero, a man that did everything right but was betrayed by the instructions he worked to protect. Kowalski felt he was like the junk he saw in the desert. Kowalski was a relic or shadow of a past time. This movie is dated, but it helps to understand the alienation people were feeling in the later 1960s and early 1970s.

So let’s jump in with our show veterans.



Dean Jagger played an old desert Prospector, really more of a scavenger.  Jagger was first covered in Episode 94 – White Christmas (1954).

Paul Koslo played Deputy Charlie Scott. Koslo was first covered in Episode 44 – The Omega Man (1971).

Robert Donner played Deputy Collins. Donner was covered in Episode 107 – El Dorado (1967).

Severn Darden played J. Hovah, the leader of the desert religious movement. He was first mentioned in Episode 36 – Back to School (1986).


Vanishing Point (1971)

Vanishing Point (1971)

Barry Newman played the lead role of counter-culture hero Kowalski. Newman was born in Boston in 1938. He attended Brandeis University and obtained a degree in anthropology. I knew I liked this guy. He stayed pretty active on the stage through the 1960s with an occasional foray into movies. However, his first big break was The Lawyer (1970) followed by Vanishing Point (1971). He continued to make movies and eventually landed the TV series “Petrocelli” 1974-1976 as an independent lawyer. He is still alive and his last movie came out in 2015.

Cleavon Little played the role of blind radio DJ Super Soul. Little was born in Oklahoma in 1939 but grew up in California. Little later attended San Diego College. Little earned a scholarship to Juilliard and eventually trained at the American Academy of Dramatic Art. He worked a lot on Broadway before he started getting movie roles. His roles started out small in exploitation movies like Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) and moved to longer roles in movies like Vanishing Point (1971). However, he became very popular with “The New Temperatures Rising Show” 1972-1974, that somehow, I missed. The power of this show led to a role one of the funniest films ever made.  He was cast a Sheriff Bart in the Mel Brooks-directed comedy Blazing Saddles (1974) co-starring Gene Wilder. A movie that could clearly not be made in modern America.

Little continued with stage, television, and movies but never had another hit as big as Blazing Saddles (1974). But hey, who has? He was in some of the funnier movies of following decades, including Greased Lightning (1977) with Richard Pryor, FM (1978), and Once Bitten (1985) playing a cool vampire with a young Jim Carrey. Sadly, Little died in 1992, at the young age of 53, from colon cancer.

Victoria Medlin had a very small role as Vera Thornton. She was 70s cute but she couldn’t act. She made only three movies, Vanishing Point (1971), The Resolution of Mossie Wax (1973) and The Groove Tube (1974). She committed suicide in 1978.

Karl Swenson has a small role as Sam the garage operator. I believe Kowalski called him something else in the movie. Swenson was born in 1908 in Brooklyn New York. He went into radio in the 1930s and continued for four decades. He really was a well-known television actor that did a few movies. Although his first film role was in in Strangers All (1935) he started to get noticed in films when he was over 50. His movies during this period include Kings Go Forth (1958), North to Alaska (1960), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), The Birds (1963), the voice of Merlin in the Disney animated The Sword in the Stone (1963), The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), The Cincinnati Kid (1965), and Major Dundee (1965).

He met Michael Landon while working on “Bonanza” in 1959. Later Landon cast him on “Little House on the Prairie” 1974-1978. Swenson worked on this show until he died of a heart attack in 1978.

Timothy Scott played the role of the helpful biker named Angel. Scott was born in 1937 in Detroit but soon moved to New Mexico. Scott was an avid theater performer but had a number of fine movie performances. These movies include Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Vanishing Point (1971), Lolly-Madonna XXX (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), Footloose (1984), and Fried Green Tomatoes (1991). Sadly this actor died in 1995 at the age of 57.

Lee Weaver played the drug dealer and friend of Kowalski, Jake. Weaver was born in 1930 in Florida. Wait! Nobodies born in Florida. He is known for a few small roles such as Cleopatra Jones (1973), The Onion Field (1979), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), Donnie Darko (2001), and The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005).

John Amos had a small uncredited role as Super Soul’s Engineer. Amos was born in 1939 in New Jersey. Amos played pro football for American and Canadian teams. After his football career was over he became interested in acting. After moving to the west coast Amos got a job as a writer for “Leslie Uggams’ Show” 1969. In 1971, he was in an LA production of “Norman, Is That You?” a show he later took on the road. This show became a movie with Redd Foxx and Michael Warren as Norman, Is That You? (1976).

Amos returned to New York and performed in his first Broadway play. He also landed the role of Gordy the weatherman on “Mary Tyler Moore” 1970-1973. However, the part remained small and he left after three seasons.

The best break he ever got was being cast as the husband of Florida Evans (Esther Rolle) on “Maude” 1972. In a spin-off Amos was cast as James Evans and Esther Rolle was cast as Florida Evans and the show was called “Good Times” 1974-1976. As the show became sillier and focused more on the antics of J.J. (Jimmie Walker) Amos became unsatisfied. Finally, he was killed off on the show. However, he bounced right back playing the role of older Kunte Kinte in the miniseries “Roots” 1977.

Amos has regularly appeared on television and in movies and he continues to work. Some of his best film roles include Vanishing Point (1971), The Beastmaster (1982), American Flyers (1985) where the super fit character played by Amos was trying to convince his pudgy son to exercise, Coming to America (1988) where he played an entrepreneur ripping off McDonalds logo, and Die Hard 2 (1990).

Val Avery played a Police Officer and partner to Kowalski in an uncredited part. Avery was born in Philly in 1924. His films include small parts in The Magnificent Seven (1960), Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), Hud (1963), The Hallelujah Trail (1965), Vanishing Point (1971), Papillon (1973), Brubaker (1980), Continental Divide (1981), The Sting II (1983), the utterly horrible Cobra (1986), and Donnie Brasco (1997). He died in 2009 at the age of 85.

This movie has a great soundtrack featuring Rita Coolidge, singer, and ex-wife of Kris Kristofferson, Ted Neeley known for singing the role of Jesus on stage and in the film Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), and Delaney & Bonnie & Friends. Kim Carnes was on the soundtrack but not in the film

Vanishing Point (1971)

Vanishing Point (1971)


The movie begins in a sleepy desert town at sunrise. The siren of a motorcycle cop breaks the silence and two large bulldozers move into place as more police arrive. The dozers drop their blades in the middle of the street as local watch the commotion. Deputy Collins (Robert Donner) silently watches the events unfold from inside. A police helicopter locates the suspect, who is driving a white superchargered 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T. As a note, the sounds of the Challenger were sometimes taken from another chase movie, Steve McQueen’s Bullitt (1968) and are the sounds of a Mustang.

The driver of the car is Kowalski (Barry Newman). Kowalski speeds towards the dozers, slams on breaks, and reverses direction. It is not long before he meets police cars coming towards him. He takes the street vehicle off road and parks in a junkyard on the edge of the desert. After looking at the junk he gets back in the car heads back onto the main road. As the white Challenger passes by a black Chrysler Imperial the frame stops and the time is shown as California Sunday 10:02 A.M.

The movie then jumps back two days to Denver, Colorado Friday 11:30 P.M.

Kowalski pulls into a car delivery service. The clerk at the delivery service, Sam (Karl Swenson) wants him to delay but Kowalski insists that he head back to San Fran that night. After picking up the Challenger he goes to a biker bar to buy speed. Jake (Lee Weaver) tries to induce Kowalski to stay for partying and girls but Kowalski leaves on his journey.

In a desert town, a blind DJ Super Soul (Cleavon Little) walks to the radio station where he works. Super Souls’ engineer is John Amos. Kowalski heads up into the mountains before he picks up his first cop. Kowalski runs them off the road and then outdistances them. He stops to make sure the motorcycle cops are okay and flashes back to a crash during his motorcycle racing days. One motorcycle follows and Kowalski takes the car cross country. He does a Dukes of Hazzard jump and gets away and back onto the highway.

The station engineer gets the news story about Kowalski off the tele-a-type. Kowalski passes another roadblock and takes the car off road again. The police cars quickly catch-up as Kowalski gets back on the road. He finally loses the cops and the soundtrack is driving. Kowalski then flashes back to a crash during his car racing days.

He makes it out onto the western desert when a little Jaguar sports car challenges him to a race. The car bumps him and the race continues until they approach a one lane bridge with a large truck crossing over. The Jaguar driver flips over and into the water. Kowalski runs back to see if the man is okay as the two more police cars begin to chase him.

Kowalski begins listening to KKOW where Super Soul is broadcasting. The cops stop at the state line of Nevada. The time shows as Nevada Saturday 11:43 A.M. Super Souls engineer intercepts the police radio.

Kowalski stops for gas and a young strawberry blonde comes to pump the gas. Kowalski flashes back to his cop partner (Val Avery) trying to rape a confession out of a female suspect. Kowalski stops his partner. Kowalski speeds on leaving the gas girl behind. Super Soul starts broadcast to Kowalski and calls him the last American hero.

Two cops Deputy Collins and Deputy Charlie Scott (Paul Koslo) are waiting in the desert for Kowalski to come by. No sooner do they get the message to look for Kowalski than he comes flying by. They have banjo music during the chase which I can only assume is a homage to Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Kowalski runs the two deputies off the road but they get back after him. Kowalski goes off onto dirt roads for a bit. Eventually the police wreck. Kowalski waits a moment to make sure they are okay. The two deputies get in another car and continue the chase.

When two police cars come from the other direction, Kowalski goes off road, again. Super Soul is confused by Kowalski’s actions. The time is Nevada Saturday 1:36 P.M. Kowalski doubles back across his tracks and realizes he is in a pickle. Super Soul warns Kowalski about how the police are tracking him. He also tells him he can’t beat the desert. Kowalski turns the radio off and drives on.

While driving Kowalski flashes back to a winter scene with Vera (Victoria Medlin), the one love of his life. Next, they are the beach. She offers him a joint and she references that he is a cop. Vera then says she loves his scar, which is presumably a war wound. Vera then dies in a surfing accident. A blown tire brings the daydream to an end.

Vanishing Point (1971)

Vanishing Point (1971)

Sam is interviewed and defends Kowalski. Super Soul is beset by reporters as well. Kowalski changes the tire and a big rattler is waiting by the trunk. A prospector (Dean Jagger) comes and catches the snakes. He says he trades them for supplies. Super Soul says cops are moving into the desert to find him. Kowalski asks for help and the prospector tells him to hide in the desert for a while.

Deputy Charlie Scott flies in a helicopter looking for Kowalski but he and the old prospector have hidden the car under a pile of brush. They find the prospectors truck and that seems to account for the tracks. The Prospector, helps Kowalski find his way.

It switches to a group of religious singers called the J. Hovah’s singers. J. Hovah (Severn Darden) is watching the singers. The singers consist of Rita Coolidge former wife of Kris Kristofferson, Ted Neeley of Jesus Christ Superstar, plus the band Delaney & Bonnie & Friends. Kowalski and the prospector show-up at the faith healer’s revival. J. Hovah is mean and doesn’t want the snakes and he tosses away the prospector’s snakes. He does get the gas for Kowalski. The prospector gives Kowalski the route out but it is in desert code.

The police give Kowalski military bio and tell how he was discharged from the police force. Kowalski finally makes it back to the road. Super Soul waits for Kowalski to be ready and Kowalski passes two men pushing a broken-down woody with a just married sign on the back. They two men were very fabulous. The guy in the front seat pulls a gun and Kowalski beats the crap out of them before throwing them out of the car.

Super Soul tells Kowalski that the police wanted the two beaten men to press charges against Kowalski. Super Soul also warns that the roads leading into California are being closed by the police. Deputy Charlie Scott and group of thugs raid the radio station and beat Super Soul and the engineer before destroying the equipment.

A guy on a chopper rides up and asks Kowalski if he needs help. They decide to go back to Angel’s (Timothy Scott) place to get speed. It’s a derelict trailer in the desert. A nude girl (Gilda Texter) is riding a motorcycle around the desert. Angel brings the drugs and Kowalski chows um down. Super Soul gets back on air and says there is only one road open and it is very near. Kowalski thinks there is something wrong with Super Souls voice. Angel calls the nude rider over and they think it is a trap. Angel leaves to check out something. The nude rider offers Kowalski sex but he turns her down. She then reveals that she has been scrapbooking him.

Angel comes back and reveals that the cops have the road blocked at the California line and it is a trap. Angel gets a mini-bike and an old hand crank siren. They tie the mini-bike on the roof so the tail light looks like a police light and wind the siren as they come to the roadblock. They police fall for the trick and Kowalski gets through.

California is shown as a modern police operation as opposed to the rural ones they have been showing so far. Angel rides off on the mini-bike. The time shows as California Saturday 7:12 P.M. Kowalski calls Jake and says the car will be delivered on time. It seems like everything is converging on Cisco. Super Soul makes it back to the damaged radio station.

The police helicopter finds Kowalski. A crowd is gathering around the bulldozers and the deputies Collins and Scott are standing by even though they are from Nevada. Super Soul calls out to Kowalski but the driver is not listening. Kowalski has reached a state of peace as he barrels towards the dozers. Kowalski hits the blades at full speed and he and car are destroyed. The time reads California Sunday 10:04 A.M. The deputies don’t seem to know why and the people are just enjoying the show.

Super Soul can’t understand why this had to happen. The credits role as they pull out body parts.

Currently, this is a 20-hour trip at the speed limit.

World-Famous Short Summary – If your personal super soul says stop, STOP!

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Beware the moors

Vanishing Point (1971)

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