“Richard C. Sarafian, best known as the director of the existential drive-in classic Vanishing Point , has died at the age of 83,” reports Phil Dyess-Nugent at the AV Club. “Sarafian entered the art of film as a student at NYU, where he took a screenwriting course as a lark while crashing and burning as a pre-med/pre-law student. After quitting college and enlisting in the military, Sarafian was sent to Kansas City as an Army reporter, where he met the then-unknown Robert Altman. The two soon became drinking buddies, and Altman cast Sarafian in a play he was directing. They eventually became family when Sarafian married Altman’s sister, Joan. ‘We eloped,’ he later recalled, ‘and I wrote a script on our honeymoon to pay the hotel bill.'”
Sarafian directed episodes of TV series such as Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, and The Twilight Zone before making his first feature, Andy, in 1965 for just under $300,000. “Andy is one of the earliest examples of indie cinema using authentic New York locations,” noted Michael T. Toole when he interviewed Sarafian for TCM. “Were you influenced at all by the work of other ‘New York Indie’ directors before you such as Morris Engel and John Cassavetes?” Sarafian: “I was really more impressed with the Italian style [post-war neo-realism], that gritty, life-on-the-street feel like Bicycle Thief.” After Andy, it was back to television, to I Spy, Batman, and Gunsmoke.
As for his most famous feature, Sarafian told Toole, “The beauty of Vanishing Point was that I met the challenge to physicalize speed… I wanted to go beyond the limits of safety…. I had no linear concepts for this one. I made the car, that beautiful 1958 Bronco, the star of the film. I loved the ambiguity of it all, and fact that it makes people think and apply their own value system into it.”
Variety‘s Pat Saperstein: “Sarafian also helmed features including The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing with Burt Reynolds, Sunburn with Farrah Fawcett and Eye of the Tiger with Gary Busey. He also tried acting—Warren Beatty cast him in Bulworth and Bugsy, while he appeared in Don Juan DeMarco with Marlon Brando.”
Update, 9/21: In the Guardian, Ryan Gilbey dwells a bit on Vanishing Point. It “concerns the Vietnam veteran Kowalski (played by Barry Newman after the studio overruled Sarafian’s first choice, Gene Hackman), who has to deliver a 1970 Dodge Challenger from Colorado to California in 15 hours, with the police in pursuit. Plausibility and motivation are not paramount here; the movie is fueled by the momentum of the chase and characterized by its mystical tone, its sense of geographical desolation and its eccentricity, manifested most strongly in a series of offbeat supporting characters including the blind DJ Super Soul (Cleavon Little) who monitors the journey from behind his microphone. Some European edits of the film, which were up to seven minutes longer than the US cut, included a scene featuring Charlotte Rampling as a hitchhiker. Vanishing Point was produced by two Brits, Michael Pearson and Norman Spencer, and was widely praised in the UK. Alexander Walker in the Evening Standard observed that it was ‘often an incredibly beautiful film’ while the Daily Mail‘s Shaun Usher said it ‘makes Bullitt seem scripted for pedal cars.'”
Update, 10/3: After Andy, notes Michael T. Toole at Film International, a “trip to England saw him polish his directing style with Run Wild, Run Free (1969), a supple, unsentimental family film with Mark Lester (fresh off his triumph in Oliver) as a boy overcoming autism; and Fragment of Fear (1970), a solid psychological chiller with David Hemmings trying to solve his aunt’s murder. The following year, Sarafian directed two more films: The brooding survivalist drama, Man in the Wilderness with a towering performance by Richard Harris; and of course, the glorious existential chase classic—Vanishing Point…. He spent the rest of the decade with some interesting material, like the romantic-comedy western The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing with Burt Reynolds and the Vietnam allegory The Lolly Madonna Wars (both 1973) with Rod Steiger, but by the end of the decade, he had returned to television.” Toole then lists “five of my favorite moments of the man.”