Two-Lane Blacktop

Director: Monte Hellman
Screenplay: Rudolph Wurlitzer and Will Corry (story by Will Corry)
Stars: James Taylor (The Driver), Warren Oates (G.T.O), Laurie Bird (The Girl), Dennis Wilson (The Mechanic), David Drake (Needles Station Attendant), Richard Ruth (Needles Station Mechanic), Rudy Wurlitzer (Hot Rod Driver), Jaclyn Hellman (Driver's Girl), Bill Keller (Texas Hitchhiker), Harry Dean Stanton (Oklahoma Hitchhiker)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1971
Country: U.S.
Two-Lane Blacktop: Criterion Collection DVD
Two-Lane BlacktopThere were a lot of similar films that followed immediately in the wake of the unexpected counterculture hit Easy Rider (1969), but none were quite like Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop. It explores many of the same themes that had exploded the American movie industry in the late 1960s--youthful alienation, loss of cultural heritage, disillusionment--all of which was set against the vast, open spaces of the American highways. Yet, Two-Lane Blacktop never caught on like Easy Rider did (perhaps because it took those themes past narrative and right into the heart of abstraction), and thus it did not share the same financial success or status as a distillation of the cultural zeitgeist.

Director Monte Hellman, a B-movie veteran from the same Roger Corman school of filmmaking that produced Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, has described Two-Lane Blacktop as “the last film of the '60s.” And in many ways it is. Released in 1971, it is a definite product of the counterculture that arrived a little too late. Its obsession with cars is meant to foreground the mechanical over the human as a symbol of cultural dehumanization, but instead it foretold '50s nostalgia like American Graffiti (1973) and silly road comedies like Smokey and the Bandit (1977).

The seemingly aimless plot and nameless characters of Two-Lane Blacktop work to disguise a deeper concern and alienation that infuses even the most simple sequences. It's an existential road movie that is as confounding as it is interesting. As a whole, it is much like the souped-up '55 Chevy that is at its heart, whose bland exterior hides a racing engine. Hellman cast two musicians, folk rocker James Taylor and former Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, as social outcasts who, rather than working, travel the back highways of America looking for illegal car races in which to compete. They pick up a drifter girl (Laurie Bird) who is content to go wherever they go. Like them, she seems to have no real purpose in life, and traveling is merely a way to kill the time. One day, they agree to a cross-country race from New Mexico to Washington, DC, with a poseur (Warren Oates) who drives a yellow Pontiac GTO and wears racing gloves and a succession of colorful cashmere sweaters. The remainder of the film chronicles the strange race and all its assorted detours and delays in middle America.

Of course, Two-Lane Blacktop is not a film about plot. At best, the plot is there to serve the tone, the feeling. Hellman successfully captures the end of an era, a point that is reinforced by the final, ambiguous scene in which the film literally burns up right in front of your eyes. Because the characters don't have names or backgrounds, there is little to go on. They are simply there, filling a small amount of space in the vastness around them. The relationships are also indistinct, notably the antagonism between Taylor and Wilson's two youths and Oates' older GTO, as he comes to be known. They are racing to New York over thousands of miles, yet they constantly stop and wait for the other to catch up. It is as if neither of them wants to get too far ahead in the race, lest it cease to be exciting and combative.

Taylor and Wilson are odd, but effective choices for their roles. Both are nonactors with fairly wooden performances, and their very inappropriateness as leading men aids in their characters' general alienation from the world. This is particularly true of Taylor, whose lean face, long hair, and lanky build are not the stuff of typical leading men. Both characters are mostly silent, as if there is little worth saying. Here, the cars do all the talking.

GTO is played with world-weary perfection by Warren Oates, a veteran of Hellman's earlier revisionist Westerns Ride in the Whirlwind (1965) and The Shooting (1967). GTO is older and more aggressive than his youthful competitors. But, he is also a man with no center who doesn't seem completely comfortable in his own skin, which helps explain why he is constantly picking up hitchhikers and telling them fabricated life stories (it is interesting and a bit humorous to see how the story changes throughout the movie with each successive hitchhiker).

Ambiguous and abstract as it is, Two-Lane Blacktop is not an easy film. Despite being about auto racing, a particularly obsessive American pastime, it is a laconic picture that takes its time along an unmarked, winding route going no place in particular. Films like this don't get made anymore, which is all the more reason to grab hold of it and take it for all it's worth. It's the kind of film that gets better with multiple viewings, which is part of the reason why it gained cult status over the years. While not as distinct and obvious as Easy Rider in making its statement about the times, Two-Lane Blacktop is ultimately the more notable entry in the New American cinema of the late '60s and early '70s.

Two-Lane Blacktop Criterion Collection Director-Approved Two-Disc DVD Set

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
  • English Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
  • English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • Subtitles English
  • Audio commentary by director Monte Hellman and filmmaker Allison Anders
  • Audio commentary by screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer and author David Meyer
  • “On the Road Again: Two-Lane Blacktop Revisited” documentary
  • Video interview with Hellman and star James Taylor
  • Video interview with Hellman and musician Kris Kristofferson
  • Video interview with producer Michael Laughlin and production manager Walter Coblenz
  • Rare, never-before-seen screen-test outtakes
  • A look at the restoration of a '55 Chevy from the movie and the film's locations today
  • Photos and publicity
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Rudy Wurlitzer's screenplay, reprinted specially for this release
  • Insert book featuring a new essay by film critic Kent Jones, appreciations by Richard Linklater and Tom Waits, and a reprint of the 1970 Rolling Stone article “On Route 66, Filming Two-Lane Blacktop
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateDecember 11, 2007

    Two-Lane Blacktop is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio in a new high-def digital transfer that was taken from a four-perf 35mm interpositive struck from the original two-perf Techniscope camera negative (it was also supervised and approved by director Monte Hellman). Because the film was shot on a relatively low budget (despite being a studio film) and often uses natural lighting, the image quality tends to vary. The daylight scenes are uniformly excellent, with good detail and excellent color (the color was “pushed” in order to replicate the original, slightly oversaturated Technicolor look). The night scenes, tend to betray some noticeable grain and come across as slightly murky, although they represent the most substantial improvement over the previously available disc from Anchor Bay. The disc offers two soundtrack options: a remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track or the original Dolby monaural track. The 5.1 track expands the sound effects during the racing sequences to fill all the speakers, but for the most part keeps the rest of the sound relegated to the front soundstage. The soundtrack sounds clean, with dialogue coming through clearly, except when James Taylor mumbles.
    Director Monte Hellman was obviously deeply involved in the creation of Criterion's director-approved two-disc set, as he appears in virtually every supplement. He contributes to one of the two audio commentaries, where he discusses the film with fellow filmmaker Allison Anders. The second commentary features screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer talking with David Meyer, who teaches cinema studies at the New School and serves as the film editor for the arts monthly Brooklyn Rail. The second disc begins with “On the Road Again: Two-Lane Blacktop Revisited,” a 42-minute documentary about Hellman, his daughter, his dog, and a handful of his students from California Institute of the Arts driving across California to see a few of the locations where the film was shot (primarily the small town of Needles, California). Most of the documentary consists of Hellman in the backseat of an SUV talking about the making of the film, especially the difficulties he encountered at the studio and the reworking of the original script. Criterion has also included some intriguing new video interviews. The first interview, which runs about 38 minutes, reunites Hellman and star James Taylor for the first time in 35 years for a conversation about the film, which Taylor still claims to have never seen. In the second interview, Hellman sits down for half an hour with singer/songwriter Kris Kristofferson, whose version of “Me and Bobby McGee” appears on the film's soundtrack and who was originally considered for James Taylor's role. The final video interview (23 min.) includes producer Michael Laughlin and production manager Walter Coblenz talking with two writers from Variety and filmmaker Dennis Bartok. One of the most interesting supplements is the inclusion of outtake screen tests for Laurie Bird and James Taylor (part of which involves his performing “Riding on a Railroad”), which apparently haven't been seen in decades because they were just recently discovered in Hellman's garage. Car enthusiasts will love “Performance and Image,” a detailed recounting by car enthusiast Walt Bailey about how he tracked down and restored one of the three '55 Chevys used in the film. Bailey's text is accompanied by numerous photographs of the car before, during, and after its restoration. Bailey then took the car across the U.S. to all the major locations used in the film, which he carefully documented. I particularly loved this because I have a special affinity for seeing how locations change and stay the same over the years. Also included with the two DVDs is a special reprinting of Rudy Wurlitzer's screenplay, which shows just how much was cut out of the original three-and-a-half-hour rough cut, and an insert book featuring a lengthy new essay by Film Comment editor Kent Jones, appreciations by Richard Linklater and Tom Waits, and a reprint of the 1970 Rolling Stone article “On Route 66, Filming Two-Lane Blacktop.”

    Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

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