Vanishing Point was one of a crop of existential road movies in the early 1970s – the others included Two-Lane Blacktop and Electra Glide in Blue – which quickly gained cult status.
Its director, Richard C Sarafian, who has died aged 83, never made another film that struck such a resounding chord with audiences, countercultural or otherwise. No matter: the appeal of Vanishing Point was enduring enough to make him a noted, even influential, figure. Quentin Tarantino thanked Sarafian in the closing credits of his own four-wheeled thriller, Death Proof (2007), and the Scottish band Primal Scream signalled their admiration for Vanishing Point by naming a 1997 album after the movie. "It's always been a favourite of the band," said the singer Bobby Gillespie. "We love the air of paranoia and speed-freak righteousness."
This 1971 film 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 fuelled by the momentum of the chase and characterised 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".
Sarafian was born in New York to Armenian immigrants. He would later boast of his colourful working life, which he insisted included stints making "a few honest bucks" smuggling whiskey from Virginia into Tennessee. He was also employed as a researcher on Life magazine. Sarafian worked as an army news service reporter in Korea; he met Robert Altman, who was then directing industrial documentaries, while stationed in Kansas City.
Sarafian was initially interested in medicine and law, but a lackadaisical approach to his studies resulted in him taking the supposedly easier option of a film-making course at New York University. He was employed as Altman's assistant and married Helen Joan Altman, the director's sister. They had five children, divorced and remarried.
After starting out in documentaries, Sarafian moved into television and directed instalments of popular series including Gunsmoke, Bonanza, I Spy and the chilling Twilight Zone episode Living Doll. He made his first film, Terror at Black Falls, in 1962, followed by Andy (1965), a drama about a man with learning difficulties, shot as part of a scheme by Universal to encourage new directors.
Sarafian's subsequent pictures included Run Wild, Run Free (1969), a family drama filmed on location in Dartmoor, Devon, and the westerns Man in the Wilderness (1971), starring Richard Harris, and The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973), with Burt Reynolds. Westerns were dear to Sarafian's heart. In 1969, he had expressed an ambition to make one "that's more a documentary than anything else, something that really captures the period". His two grimy efforts in the early 1970s went some way toward realising that ambition.
His directing career continued to be varied – later films included the light-hearted comic thriller Sunburn (1979) starring Farrah Fawcett ("lowly drivel" decided Nigel Andrews in the Financial Times) and The Bear (1984), a biopic of an American college football coach starring Gary Busey. Unhappy with the outcome of his final film, the science-fiction thriller Solar Crisis (1990), he successfully sought to be credited under the industry pseudonym "Alan Smithee". He also had acting roles in a number of high-profile films including Bugsy (1991), Don Juan DeMarco (1994), The Crossing Guard (1995), Bound (1996) and Bulworth (1998). He provided the voice of a beaver for Dr Dolittle 2 (2001).
Sarafian's wife died in 2011. He is survived by his children, Deran, Damon, Richard, Tedi and Catherine.
• Richard Caspar Sarafian, film and TV director, born 28 April 1930; died 18 September
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