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Two-Lane Blacktop

Two-Lane Blacktop
1971 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic widescreen / 103 min. / Street Date December 11, 2007 / 39.95
Starring James Taylor, Warren Oates, Dennis Wilson, Laurie Bird
Cinematography Gregory Sandor
Film Editor Monte Hellman
Original Music Billy James
Writing credits Rudolph Wurlitzer from a story by Will Corry
Produced by Michael S. Laughlin, Gary Kurtz
Directed by Monte Hellman

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Director Monte Hellman was a talented early Roger Corman associate who didn't share in the early success that favored hopefuls like Peter Bogdanovich and Francis Coppola. Hellman's interesting monster picture The Beast from Haunted Cave had little impact and his critically acclaimed westerns The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind were never properly released. Hellman's best movie Two-Lane Blacktop follows the exploits of a pair of young drifters who make their living with illegal drag races. It's a lean, existential road trip and an American art film without pretensions.


The Driver (James Taylor) and the Mechanic (Dennis Wilson) cruise the American South in a souped-up '55 Chevy, eking out a living by challenging other drivers in drag races. The stakes can range from eating money to the pink slip for the Chevy itself. Hustling illegal races is a precarious lifestyle. They slip into town, locate the local car club and quickly promote a challenge. There's always the danger of arrest by the cops, or violence from the racers they beat.

In Arizona they pick up The Girl (Laurie Bird), a hippie vagrant who sleeps with most of her rides. The Mechanic takes The Girl to a motel room but it is The Driver who builds an emotional attachment to her. The trio then clashes with GTO (Warren Oates), an even odder wanderer of the highways. The loner GTO invents ridiculous personal back stories, claiming to be a test pilot or a secret agent. GTO and the boys decide to bet pink slips to see which car can get to Washington, D.C. first. The wager tests the uncomplicated relationship between The Driver and The Mechanic.

Car engines rumble and roar over the Universal logo, opening the show on a nighttime street race somewhere in the San Fernando Valley. Two-Lane Blacktop is by far the best of the early-70s 'road trip' movies that appeared in the wake of the Beverly Hills counterculture hit Easy Rider. Unfortunately, Hellman's film almost disappeared after a short theatrical run, showing up only infrequently on television in terrible pan-scanned TV prints and censored to the point of incomprehensibility. Seen intact and full screen, Blacktop takes on a much broader dimension. The nomadic Driver and Mechanic are modern men engaged in a day-to-day struggle with risk and uncertainty. Their few words are almost exclusively about the Chevy's condition; nothing else seems to matter. The Mechanic keeps the car running while The Driver skillfully taunts local hot rodders into high-stakes drag races. They are the next generation of Howard Hawks rogue males, professionals that define themselves by their skills.

The gambit of casting musicians as actors has paid off handsomely. Dennis Wilson was already a car nut and didn't need coaching to come off as authentic. The intense James Taylor carries the show with hardly a change of facial expression. The closest thing to a love scene occurs when Taylor attempts to teach Bird how to drive; he even relates to women through his car. As director Hellman explains, these guys behave, as opposed to act. Their 'unprofessional' performances are actually quite nuanced.

Hellman isn't making myths, he's showing people living myths. As GTO, Warren Oates has the 'actor's showcase role' that corresponds to Jack Nicholson's breakout part in Easy Rider. If the younger racers are lone Ronin seeking their own path, GTO is a mass of male insecurities and overcompensations, an up-tight square grasping for a sense of identity. He dresses like a member of the Rat Pack, drives a showy Pontiac muscle car and hides behind a smokescreen of tall tales. GTO is constantly mythologizing himself - when he formally meets our racers, the scene is like gunslingers sizing each other up. At the end, he even makes a legend out of his racing foes, casting himself in the leading role in yet another tall tale. GTO's failed attempts to relate to a series of incompatible hitchhikers (including Harry Dean Stanton as a gay cowboy!) make him a vaguely comic character, but Hellman sees GTO as a potential soul brother to our young heroes. The three men are soon repairing each other's cars and setting up races together. Whether loner pros or loner psychos, we're all God's lonely men. Whomever we meet on the road can become a companion.

Laurie Bird is the era's most memorable hitchhiking vagabond. Her "The Girl" is neither sentimentalized nor objectified as a girl-toy. Beneath her delicate appearance is a strong instinct for self-preservation. Bird made bit appearances in only two more films, including Annie Hall, and died tragically at age 26.

With so little dialogue in Rudy Wurlitzer's script, the relationships are established almost entirely with visuals. Hellman has an excellent sense of camera placement. His scenes just seem to happen, instead of being structured to showcase performances (Bob Rafelson, Five Easy Pieces) or to promote a hipster agenda (Dennis Hopper, Easy Rider). Blacktop's changing relationships fail to follow a standard dramatic pattern. Taylor's exact attraction for Bird is never spelled out but he gradually becomes more committed to her. But The Girl also seems to need the Road's anonymity and independence; when guys get too close, she simply changes rides.

Monte Hellman eventually declares his own independence by abandoning his race-to-Washington story hook in favor of an Antonioni-like conclusion. His western The Shooting finishes as a cosmic puzzle with a pre-Kubrick 2001 ending, yet can still be interpreted along genre lines. Two-Lane Blacktop isn't really like any other road movie made before or since. Its self-conscious meltdown finale comes off as a masterstroke, even as it leaves everything about the movie unresolved.

Criterion's DVD of Two-Lane Blacktop eclipses an earlier (2001) Anchor Bay release. The enhanced transfer is slightly improved, and the only grain on view can be sourced back to the original 2-perf Techniscope filming format. The old disc has good extras but Criterion's selection is more comprehensive.

Original talent weighs in on two commentaries. Director Hellman responds to questions from director friend Allison Anders, remembering particulars of the road trip filming and his efforts to get unself-conscious performances from his actors. On a second track screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer analyzes the movie with author and film teacher David Meyer.

The second disc carries a series of relaxed interviews. Hellman talks to James Taylor about the experience, while Kris Kristofferson remembers being asked to use one of his songs on the soundtrack. A round table of producers also weighs in on the film and the brief period after Easy Rider when Hollywood briefly let young filmmakers loose on counterculture subject matter. We see screen tests for Laurie Bird and James Taylor as well as the film's excellent original trailer. Locations then & now are compared, showing how the roadside America depicted in Two-Lane Blacktop has largely disappeared.

The longest extra is a 'road trip' interview with Hellman recorded in an SUV between Coldwater Canyon and Needles, California. Hellman's daughter Melissa remembers her acting bit as a little girl going to visit a graveyard. Performance & Image is a slide show account of the restoration of the film's 1955 Chevy picture car, which was re-used in American Graffiti. In addition to a fat insert booklet with essays by Kent Jones and Richard Linklater, Rudy Wurlitzer's complete screenplay is included as a separate publication.

The DVD packaging carries GTO's dialogue line, "Those satisfactions are permanent." That could very well be Monte Hellman's personal motto, as his Two-Lane Blacktop is a real gem.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Two Lane Blacktop rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer, interviews with Monte Hellman, Kris Kristoffersen, James Taylor, others, car restoration comparison, full Rudy Wurlitzer screenplay, screen test outtakes, essays by Kent Jones, Richard Linklater, Tom Waits and Michael Goodwin
Packaging:folding plastic and card disc holder in card sleeve with insert booklet and 111-page screenplay.
Reviewed: December 6, 2007

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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