It’s strange seeing the Universal Studios logo pop up at the head of Two-Lane Blacktop. The idea of a studio backing a movie like this is certainly a thing of the past. It was a time when “New Hollywood” films like Easy Rider and Vanishing Point piqued the interest of both audiences and studio execs, paving the way for an existential, countercultural brand of independent cinema that provided opportunities for filmmakers like Monte Hellman to make great films like Two-Lane Blacktop.
Folk singer James Taylor and Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson play ‘The Driver’ and ‘The Mechanic'; two friends whose relationship is built around their obsession with cars and a passion for racing. They frequent underground street racing circuits, regularly blowing opponents off the asphalt with their matte grey, supped up ’55 Chevy. Along the way, they cross paths with ‘The Girl’ (Laurie Bird), a young and attractive nomadic hippie that invites herself into their circle, forming a make-shift three person pit crew. Warren Oats stands out as ‘GTO’, a man going through a mid-life crisis, speeding around in his flashy yellow GTO. He encounters the the boys’ Chevy on a number of occasions and shoots past them in a vulgar, somewhat uninformed display of power. After running into each other at a gas station, Oats confronts the boys and quickly challenges them to a race across the country in exchange for pink slips. The challenge is accepted and thus begins and unusual game of cross-country cat and mouse. It’s a clever look at the attempted co-opting of a counterculture by those who fail to understand or appreciate it.
The sparse dialogue and deliberate pacing of Two-Lane Blacktop sets this film apart from other road pictures of the time. Most noticeably absent is the wall to wall rock soundtrack common amongst similar films of the 70’s. Hellman seems more interested in a quiet, real experience, even if it means passing up opportunities to indulge in the cinematic tropes of the genre. The Driver and The Mechanic are mostly mute, never giving in to the urge to talk away those quiet moments on the road. It’s only when The Girl is added to the mix that this sombre dynamic is interrupted.
Hellman makes a bold move in employing two musicians as his leads. Nowadays a decision like this would likely kill the credibility of most films. Dennis Wilson and James Taylor are far from great actors but thanks to their pop star status, they bring with them a level of authenticity and cultural relevance that plays into GTO’s insecurities. Laurie Bird is also great in one of her three on-screen performances before having committed suicide in 1979 at the age of 26. But there’s no question that Oats is the stand out of the film in the role of the insecure middle-aged man whose fancy car seems completely counterfeit when compared to The Driver’s ugly ’55 Chevy. Out of the four main characters, GTO is the most complex and sympathetic as he attempts to make up for a failed marriage and lost job by attempting to recapture his youth and impressing anybody who will listen to him talk. His insecurities at their peak when he picks up various hitchhikers along his journey, attempting to impress them with his constantly changing backstory. One of those hitchhikers is a young Harry Dean Stanton playing a gay cowboy who makes an unfortunately misjudged pass at Oats.
Two-Lane Blacktop is masterfully directed by Hellman and was produced by a young Gary Kurtz, who would go on to work with George Lucas on American Graffitti and Star Wars. The film was shot in a somewhat experimental fashion, as Taylor and Wilson weren’t given their lines until right before the shoot, causing some tension on set. Hellman also incorporated some unscripted sequences, sending Laurie Bird begging for change in a crowd of extras — and I assume real people — who were unaware that they’d begun shooting. The effect is undeniably real and reminiscent of the guerrilla tactics used in Easy Rider’s mardi gras sequence.
The blu ray edition of Two-Lane Blacktop is a worthy upgrade from its DVD counterpart. Jack Deerson’s cinematography is accurately represented with a grain laced, filmic presentation that doesn’t feel digital at all. The detail reveals the various textures of the vehicles and landscapes and makes for a wonderful high definition presentation. The bonus features are plentiful and have been ported over from the 2008 DVD release. You’ve got two audio commentaries featuring Hellman, filmmaker Allison Anders, and screenwriter Rudy Wurlizter. You’ll also find various interviews, screen tests, and publicity photos. To top it all off, there’s a featurette which looks at the restoration of a ’55 Chevy used in the film and another in which Hellman joins some of his film students as they revisit some of the movie’s locations. Overall it’s a great update on an already wonderful release. — Jay C.