|Two Lane Blacktop|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 19 October 1999|
Monte Hellman is one of the great cult directors of the last 40 years; his movies are highly regarded but rarely seen. He emerges from obscurity occasionally to direct a mysterious project, or, even more mysteriously, to turn up as executive producer of 'Reservoir Dogs.' Then he fades away again, the mystery man of movies.
But Anchor Bay has begun to release Hellman's best movies; the prints are excellent, they have commentary tracks and sometimes stunningly-good extras. For the first time ever, Hellman's best movies have been generally available. And you know what? The are what they are cracked up to be.
'Two-Lane Blacktop' is one of the best American movies of the 1970s, a hypnotically-fascinating, spare and insightful road movie, perhaps the best road movie ever made. It was heralded by some critics in 1971, but disregarded by the public. If Hellman had cast an actor in the lead, rather than frozen-faced singer James Taylor, he would have come much closer to masterpiece status than the movie does -- and it verges on that even with Taylor.
It could hardly be pared down much further: it's a line scribed across the landscape of America, a moving blip, narrow, focussed but not intense. Five minutes or so pass before there's any dialog, and then it's only about the 1955 customized Chevy that's one of the movie's centerpiece cars. The races are usually observed from a distance, with a couple of shots inside the Chevy; there are no wrecks, there are no explosions. There's no violence of any sort, in fact, although the Chevy does go off the road at one brief point. It's a movie about journeys, not about disasters.
Usually, when we never learn the names of a movie's central characters, it seems pompous and pretentious, but not so in "Two-Lane Blacktop," where it is utterly natural. James Taylor is identified only as The Driver; Dennis Wilson (yes, from The Beach Boys) is identified only as The Mechanic. Laurie Bird, a hitchhiker they pick up, remains The Girl (though, puzzlingly, at one point The Driver calls her "Higgins"), while Warren Oates is identified in the credits as G.T.O. (for the off-the-line muscle-car bright yellow Pontiac he drives), but isn't called anything at all in the movie.
The Driver and The Mechanic seem to have grown tired of the California street racing scene, and head east across the Southwestern Desert, financing their travels by occasional challenges to local street-car racers -- challenges they always win, but never exult over. Before they even leave California, they pick up waif-like Bird, without any particular goal in mind, though later on the Mechanic sleeps with her. And in his understated, almost secretive way, the Driver begins to become attracted to her. (This is one of the most effective aspects of the movie -- how this gabby, self-obsessed girl gets under the hood of the Driver, a man of few words if there ever was one.)
Along the way, G.T.O. roars by them in his car, clearly hoping they'll dare to challenge him, but not quite up to offering the challenge himself. The Driver and Mechanic observe to one another that their car is designed for quarter-mile racing, and that the Pontiac would take them in the long run. Why bother?
So eastward they drive, fiddling with the car almost constantly, while their inner humanity inches nearer and nearer the surface.
G.T.O.'s humanity is as blazingly colorful as his yellow car. He's a chatterbox, full of himself and stories about himself -- which, we soon realize, are all bullpuckey. He picks up hitchhikers and starts in on a new story until they get fed up and leave (one, after just a block of driving). The one hitchhiker who offers him some human contact is a gay Oklahoma cowboy (Harry Dean Stanton!), but G.T.O. is emphatically -- but not insultingly -- not interested.
There couldn't be a wider contrast than between G.T.O. and The Driver, but both are living in a dream world -- and each thinks it's reality. The Mechanic is more realistic, and a bit more involved in the world around him; he mostly doesn't talk because he knows The Driver doesn't want to. But neither of them talk much to The Girl, who becomes petulant after she makes love with The Mechanic -- and never quite notices The Driver's attraction to her.
The movie is as austere as almost anything by Robert Bresson; the wide Southwestern landscapes are clean, open and uninflected, as is the cinematography by Gregory Sandor (Jack Deerson is credited for union reasons). In 1971, this movie seemed not like ice water, but ice itself, and it was hard to respond to it; but what seemed like pretension then now seems like economical honesty. The movie is very specifically about these four characters; unlike 'Easy Rider,' to which it is often compared, it is not a criticism of America, though it is a perfect time capsule of the regions of America it passes through. Instead of criticizing Americana, it is Americana -- of the highest order.
The screenplay is by Rudy Wurlitzer (who appears as an actor, too), a novelist who'd never written a script before; he later wrote "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid," which is in its own way almost as elliptical and understated as "Two-Lane Blacktop." The dialog has been pared down past the bone into the marrow; there's not a single unnecessary word.
This spare, limited style is perfectly suited to home theater viewing, and -- surprisingly for a film from this period -- the soundtrack is rendered in crystalline Dolby 5.1. The mix envelops you; you're riding in that car with Taylor and Wilson, in the Pontiac with Oates. Natural sounds dominate. You won't show this film as a demonstration of anything -- other than Monte Hellman's skills as a director.
But not as a casting director. He chose James Taylor from a poster, and while he does have the right lean, ascetic face for the job (looking a bit like Hellman himself, in fact), and while the idea is that The Driver tends to be inexpressive, Taylor just cannot be expressive enough when it's necessary. His eyebrows narrow a little, and that's about it.
Since the movie was shot in sequence eastward across the U.S., Hellman only gave his cast their pages as the time for shooting them approached. This irked Taylor enough that he eventually wrote a song about it, "Riding on a Railroad." One of the lines: "There's a man up here who claims to have his hands upon the rains; There are chains upon his hands and he's riding upon a train." This was the only time Taylor ever acted.
And it was the only time for Wilson, too, who is nonetheless a far better actor than Taylor even under these deliberately restrained circumstances. He seems more relaxed on screen, more natural. Too bad he died so young, as did Laurie Bird, too. (She's also in Hellman's "Cockfighter.")
And alas, so did Warren Oates, one of the greatest, most memorably vivid character actors in American movie history. His performance as G.T.O. is brilliant, one of his best ever. He's innocent, cynical, naive, boastful, charming and lonesome; his line of bull is designed to impress others, but he's lousy at it. All he really wants is to be noticed, to be recognized, but he hasn't a clue as to how to do it. When we last see him, he's working up a new story for some new hitchhikers.
This excellent DVD has an outstanding commentary track from Hellman and associate producer Gary Kurtz (whose next two movies were 'American Graffiti' and 'Star Wars'). It's as low-key as the movie itself, but as expressive, too, very much worth listening to. There's also a brief but well-done documentary on Hellman, the work of George Hickenlooper. The biographies, of Hellman, Kurtz, Taylor, Wilson and Oates, are also exceptionally good, detailed and thorough.
The first time through 'Two-Lane Blacktop,' you may well wonder -- as many have -- what all the fuss is about. But give it time; his haunting, serious movie will remain with you long after bigger-scale, better-known movies have faded away.