Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Monte Hellman is that anomaly known as an American film artist, the kind that usually wilt and die
very early in their careers for lack of commercial success. He never had much of that as
a director, even compared to his contemporaries, other early Roger Corman acolytes.
Coppola and Bogdanovich had big careers, and even fringe dweller Jack Hill enjoyed a few commercial
hits. Hellman's fame came through positive reviews and on the covers of cinephile
magazines. Artistically, however, he's no also-ran; several of his films are now
considered classics of their time. Unlike some of his peers, he never lost his vision.
Two Lane Blacktop is probably his best movie. It's as close as you can come to
functioning existentialism in an American art film. And in a movie about car racing.
The Driver (James Taylor) and the Mechanic (Dennis Wilson) are a pair of drifters who
American South in a souped-up '55 Chevy, eking out a living challenging other drivers in drag
races. The stakes are usually eating money (rarely more than a few hundred dollars), or
the pink slip for the Chevy itself. It's a very precarious existence, and the few words they
exchange are almost exclusively about the car's running condition. Since they're
basically hustling gamblers in an illegal game, they quietly slip into town, locate the car
club and very quickly try to promote a challenge. There's always the danger of arrest by the cops, or
violence from the racers they beat.
Moving slowly East from Texas into Missouri, they pick up The Girl (Laurie Bird), a vagrant hippie who
sleeps with most of her rides. The Mechanic takes her to a motel room, but it is The Driver
who begins to build an emotional attachment to her. They also clash with an even odder
wanderer of the highways named GTO (Warren Oates). Dressed as a casual square, GTO invents
ridiculous stories for the benefit of hitchhikers, that he's a jet test pilot or a secret agent.
At first GTO is
hostile to the two racers, and this develops into a private bet to see which car can get to
Washington, D.C. first. The wager eventually proves a strange kind of bond between the trio. The
previously simple relationship between The Driver and The Mechanic is tested in a kind of three-
handed poker game - with pride, personal identities, and The Girl as the stakes.
Savant never caught up with Two Lane Blacktop before; the only time he saw parts of it was
on an unwatchable pan-scanned TV print. For a movie that some people classify as a
crashing bore where nothing happens, it's fascinating. Hellman's realistic characters become
completely natural, unforced representatives of 'modern man' engaged in modern life, a day-to-day
struggle with risk and uncertainty, the meaning of which can only be found in the professional
attitude itself. Classical film critics love this line of thinking: The Driver and The Mechanic
are the evolutionary culmination of the 'professional' Howard Hawks- kind of movie characters, who
define themselves by their skills.
Hellman has a great knack for placing his Techniscope camera in the perfect spot, and his scenes
play without a sense of being storyboarded or structured. They just happen, instead of being
subordinated to performances (Rafelson, Five Easy Pieces) or a 'cool' agenda (Hopper,
Easy Rider). With almost no text in the Rudy Wurlitzer script, the relationships
are set up completely visually. The inarticulate characters are not empty, but focused.
Taylor & Wilson are incredibly good as the independent drifters. There's actually a lot
of nuance in their 'unprofessional' performances, and they're perfectly acceptable as real
people and not dramatic constructions. The frequent gambit of casting known musicians
has in this case paid off. Wilson was already a car nut who didn't need coaching to come off as
authentic, and Taylor is so intense, he carries scenes (like the attempt to teach Bird to drive)
with hardly a change of facial expression. These guys are behaving and not acting to the
Laurie Bird is the best portrait on film of the hippie vagabond of the time, mainly because she
isn't sentimentalized. 1
She's attracted to the men,
but her instinct for self-preservation is much stronger than her helpless appearance would
suggest. In the excellent bio notes (Savant has been noticing that these are becoming
very good reading on Anchor Bay discs) we learn that her spotty career included bits such as
playing Paul Simon's girlfriend in Annie Hall, but that she died an early, unspecified
death - Hellman seemed to be drawn to authentic fringe types in his casting. 3
Hellman isn't making myths, he's showing people living myths. In Warren Oates' GTO we have
the 'writer's character' and the 'actor's showcase role,' a remarkably
similar one to Jack Nicholson's breakout part in Easy Rider. But Hellman chooses to
make this obvious road-racing adversary a very mysterious, non-standard character. If the
younger heroes are lone Ronin seeking their own path, GTO would seem to be the straight square
who desperately wants to find some reason to feel important, to exist, to relate. GTO is made
almost completely of male insecurities and overcompensations. He dresses like a rat-pack
lounge lizard, and drives this showy new muscle car, but we haven't the faintest idea of where
he came from or where he gets his money.
is actually very vulnerable, but his ego requires him to boast and mythologize himself -
at the end, he even makes a legend out of the two racers, another tall tale in which he
casts himself in a leading role. GTO would seem an artificial invention, if there weren't so
many men out there just
like him, trying to invent a glamorous persona to inhabit, so to speak. It's obvious
from his failed attempts to relate to a series of incompatible hitchhikers (including
Harry Dean Stanton as a gay cowboy!) that his rootlessness is unfulfilling. GTO becomes a
soul brother instead of an adversary: the heroes start by giving him a fair break, and soon
they're repairing each other's cars and setting up racing appointments together. Whether
loner 'pros' or loner 'psychos', we're all God's lonely men and whomever we
meet on the road can become a companion.
Hellman's continuity sticks close to a kind of naturalism that doesn't bother to fill in
picayune details, nor provide giant meanings. The obvious frustration for 'normal'
audiences comes when no standard dramatic construction is provided for the changing
relationships. Taylor never 'explains' his attraction for Bird, for instance. At
a certain point he just finds himself taking illogical risks to find her again. And
Hellman goes one further by abandoning the race-to-Washington subplot, that would be the
backbone of any normal film. When his earlier (well-thought-of) The Shooting dissolved
from a Western into a cosmic puzzle with a pre-Kubrick 2001 ending, well,
that could be still interpreted along genre lines to some extent. Working here in what's
really not a genre piece (is this like any other 'car' movie made before or since?), the
mannered melting-frame ending comes off as a masterstroke, even while leaving everything about the
'story' of the movie unresolved - the race, the relationships.
Two Lane Blacktop came out in 1971,
when we at film school were desperately trying to wow one another with 'meaningful' cinematic
gimmicks instead of honestly expressing ourselves. I don't recall Hellman's film being
a main topic of conversation at UCLA, or even appreciated much. Considering that it's now
considered one of the high points of early 70s artsy American filmmaking, that doesn't speak too
well for the progressiveness of even the top film school at the time.
Anchor Bay's DVD of Two Lane Blacktop possibly looks better than even the original Technicolor
prints from 1971. The sound, even all of the location tracks, is very well done, and the
dialogue recorded in bars and among revving car engines is clear and natural. The bios written
on the stars and the filmmakers are unusually illuminating, and help one relate the casting of
singer Taylor andBeach Boy Dennis Wilson with their careers and personal lives. A very
effective original trailer is also included, but the commentary track by Monte Hellman and Gary
Kurtz is the kicker extra. Intending only to sample some sections, Savant listened to it
all the way through because of the lucid discussion of the production, and their feelings from this
thirty-year distance. Hellman's work is so invisible in the movie that his comments bring forth
a lot of fascinating acting and production detail that not-so-observant Savant never would have
picked up on.
Savant's radar did click in when Gary Kurtz spoke up about his role as associate producer on the film.
In all the glitz and glory earned (earned) by George Lucas we forget that his co-producer on
both American Graffiti and Star Wars was Kurtz. Perhaps their association
was prompted by a shared interest in car culture, which figures strongly in both Lucas blockbusters.
Savant had thought Graffiti's was some kind of precedent, being filmed in 2-perf Techniscope
for better control over natural lighting at night. Now it's probable that Kurtz brought
the idea with him from Two Lane, perhaps along with some of the verisimilitude for
the racing scenes - Graffiti's big drag race is staged identically to one in Two Lane.
Savant also can't help but wonder about the Driver-Mechanic relationship in Two Lane, as
compared to the Han Solo-Chewbacca duo in Star Wars. 4
After Easy Rider, the youth road movie became the most frequent and tiring sub-genre of
the early 70s. The masterpiece of the bunch is Two Lane Blacktop, a
rewarding movie, and a surprsingly good DVD.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Two Lane Blacktop rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Trailer, George Hickenlooper Docu, Gary Kurtz and Monte Hellman commentary
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 21, 2001
1. Was she inspired by Nino Castelnuovo's girlfriend (Françoise Hardy) in
Grand Prix, who also aligns herself with a racer, only to leave with a boy on a motorbike?
2. Hellman's style encourages us to 'write' these parts of the film
ourselves. My own experience from being around people like GTO gives me the notion that he has
abandoned a wife and a job somewhere, and is self-destructively unstable.
3. A contributor to the film's IMDB entry offers the information that Laurie
Bird committed suicide while in a relationship with Art Garfunkel.
4. For all I know, Kurtz had nothing
to do with this, but wouldn't it be nice to get him on the record, clearing up things like
the revisionist myth that Lucas planned Star Wars as 6 or 9 movie series all along?
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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