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Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

March 13th, 2008 · 8 Comments

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Synopsis
After winning a street race in California, the occupants of a gunmetal gray, four-speed 1955 Chevy are chased away by police. The Driver (James Taylor) and The Mechanic (Dennis Wilson) limit their conversations to their vehicle: “That Plymouth had a hemi with a torque light. I believe we sawed the guy off even if we did lose $200.” Moving east along Route 66 with no particular place to go, the boys are overtaken by a yellow 1970 Pontiac G.T.O., driven by a cantankerous stranger (Warren Oates).

Stopping at a diner, the boys inherent a young drifter (Laurie Bird). In Santa Fe, they rope a 1932 Ford into a race and pick up some bread, but The Driver is left odd man out when The Mechanic and The Girl get it on back at their motel. Making his way east as well, G.T.O. alters his personal story to each hitchhiker he picks up (including Harry Dean Stanton.) G.T.O. confronts “the punk road hogs” at a filling station and accepts The Driver’s challenge to race to Washington D.C., wagering their cars’ pink slips.

Neither racer seems interested much in reaching their destination first. They’re focused more on seeing where the road takes them. The Mechanic later inspects G.T.O.’s engine and offers to drive it to the next town so they can make repairs. Hounded by police in Oklahoma and challenged by a yokel to enter a drag race in Memphis, The Driver takes it as an affront when The Girl takes off with G.T.O. But just like the men, she doesn’t seem to have any destination in mind for herself either.

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Production history 
Monte Hellman was in Italy preparing a film version of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Two Faces of January. When financing fell apart, he returned to Los Angeles, where his agent Mike Medavoy introduced him to a producer named Michael Laughlin, who had two projects he wanted Hellman to direct. One was titled The Christian Licorice Store, which Hellman had no interest in. The other was called Two-Lane Blacktop. Written by Will Corry, the script involved two 17-year-olds – one White, one Black – and a cross country road race.

Hellman liked the idea, but asked if he could hire someone to do “a slight rewrite.” He’d been given “a strange ’60s road novel” written by Rudolph Wurlitzer called Nog, and asked the novelist to read Two-Lane Blacktop. Wurlitzer was so unable to relate to it that he only made it through five pages. Hellman gave Wurlitzer license to write whatever he wanted. Taking the names of the characters and the idea of a cross country race, Wurlitzer wrote a new script, one that was unconventional in structure and existentialist in tone.

Two-Lane Blacktop
was set up at the Cinema Center, but it wasn’t until shooting was scheduled that the studio read the script. Once they did, they put the project into turnaround. Hellman shopped it, but when he told other studios he could shoot the film for $1 million, no one believed him. With the success of Easy Rider, Ned Tanen had set up a youth division at Universal Pictures. As long as Hellman could make the film for $900,000 and keep it under two hours, he was allowed full creative control.

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Esquire Magazine ran a cover story in its April 1971 issue heralding Two-Lane Blacktop as “the movie of the year.” Hellman regretted it. “I think it raised people’s expectations. They couldn’t accept the movie for what it was.” While Universal never touched a frame, studio chairman Lew Wasserman despised the picture so much he refused to advertise it. Legal issues with music licensing held the film up from being released on VHS and Two-Lane Blacktop was neglected for decades. Finally, in 2007, the Criterion Collection issued it on an exquisite two-disc DVD.

Opinion 
While the film has little in the way of stuntwork, it establishes itself as a classic from the moment we hear the roar of a Chevy engine over the Universal logo. This is one of those sublime instances where a rich screenplay and a very talented filmmaker intersected at the perfect moment in pop culture. If it had come along three years before Easy Rider or three years after, Two-Lane Blacktop – a beautiful synthesis of the “hot pursuit” drive-in feature and the independent film – would never have been made.

The widescreen compositions and color schemes are among the most vivid of the period, yet the movie has a meditative quality to it, occasionally punctuated by the thunder of gasoline powered engines tearing up the road. Instead of manufacturing a plot, the story and dialogue are kept minimal. We never know where The Driver is coming from or where he’s headed. Anyone who’s ever gotten behind the wheel and wanted to drive is given freedom by the filmmakers to answer those questions for themselves.

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Graeme Clark at The Spinning Image writes, “The whole world of Two-Lane Blacktop revolves around the road – they eat in diners, refuel at gas stations and sleep in motels. The people they meet are those ever-present hitch hikers, fellow racers, the attendants and staff, policemen and car crash victims. There doesn’t seem to be anything else at all. This purity of vision can lead you to react in two ways: you’ll either have your senses dulled by the monotony, or you’ll be fascinated. As a study in dehumanizing obsession, it’s hard to beat.”

“At the risk of upsetting the fans of Two-Lane Blacktop, I must admit that I didn’t think it a very good film, despite the excellent performance by Warren Oates as the prevaricating driver of the GTO. Some of its existential counterculture appeal had already been covered in Easy Rider just a couple of years before. The dialogue is sparse, ad-libbed to a large extent, and not all that cohesive in others. Clearly, some of this is intentional, as these are men that just live for one thing only – driving but such a one-topic premise doesn’t exactly make for riveting viewing,” writes Vince Leo at QWipster’s Movie Reviews.

Jeffrey M. Anderson at Combustible Celluloid writes, “Easy Rider has disintegrated in so much 1960’s pot smoke and rhetoric, but Two-Lane Blacktop still has something to say. It’s also a reminder of how much more challenging films of the 1970’s were. It seems impossible that a film like this could be released today. This same film would be re-written so that the race would be the focus of the story and that the good guys would win and the bad guys would lose, with lots of forgettable one-liners tossed in. Yet, Two-Lane Blacktop was made, and now it’s available for the watching. Thank goodness.”

“Just color me gone, baby!” View the original 1971 theatrical trailer for Two-Lane Blacktop.

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Ambiguous ending · Cult favorite · Road trip

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 moviezzz // Mar 14, 2008 at 8:02 am

    This has always been a film I WANTED to like more than I ever did.

    When I first saw it on cable in the 80’s, I only lasted a few minutes. I had no idea it was so rare at the time or I would have watched it all. For years after, when I knew the history, I wished I had given it more of a shot.

    When Anchor Bay first released it to DVD, after I knew of its history, I ran out to buy it the day it came out. After watching it, I quickly sold it on Ebay. (Stupid move, as it would go out of print soon after and command three or four times the price).

    After that, again I kept reading about how great it was, so I watched it when it aired on cable, and didn’t love it.

    Now that Critierion has released it, I feel the need to buy it again and give it another shot. Yet, I still remember not loving it.

    One of these days I will like it. But just the performances by Taylor and Wilson are so nothing that it is hard for me to get into.

  • 2 christian // Mar 14, 2008 at 11:20 am

    I love this film probably for all the reasons people hate it. It’s the ultimate 70’s film to me. Zen, oblique, obtuse, abstract…but with cars!
    It’s worth seeing on a big screen too.

  • 3 sir jorge // Mar 14, 2008 at 11:51 am

    this film isn’t half bad, which surprised me in a lot of ways.

  • 4 Joe Valdez // Mar 14, 2008 at 12:37 pm

    Moviezzz: This is definitely a love it or hate it proposition with no middle ground, but I would be interested to hear if the film has the ability to grow on you. This has been the case for me with several of Stanley Kubrick’s films and Two-Lane Blacktop also has a pictorial sheen and a stillness that really appealed to me. No question, the “acting” of the young leads is non-existent, but the film did not hinge on that for me.

    Christian: Great capsule review! The widescreen compositions and sound effects bare out your report about seeing this on a big screen. Maybe I’ll get the chance to one day.

    Jorge: I was surprised that I liked it too. Either I knew what I was in store for, or I just didn’t care. Thanks for commenting.

  • 5 Terry Morgan // Mar 23, 2009 at 8:50 am

    Dennis Wilson said “That Plymouth had a Hemi with a Torqueflite”, not “torque light”. A Torqueflite is a model of Chrysler automatic transmission.

  • 6 Andy // May 8, 2009 at 9:37 am

    My all time favourite road movie and it truly is a road movie not just a movie about cars or travel, it is the existential nature that makes it a true road movie. With the burning film at the end, the film never truly ends just like the race. I am so glad it bombed at the box office, if it had done well we would have had a rubbish sequel a few years later. The attitude of the Driver and the Mechanic remind me of the line in The Fast and the Furious when Vin Diesel’s character says something about how he lives his life quarter of a mile at a time and that nothing else matters. This sums up The Driver and the Mechanic far more than Vin Diesels character and it means so much more coming from these two. They don’t have memorable quotes like that (because they don’t say much of anything) but they don’t have to say memorable things because they live it.

  • 7 Gear Head // Jun 24, 2011 at 7:17 am

    The film is pure in it’s nothingness…. I have it on almost constantly sometimes simply for it’s back ground noise. I have introduced it to to several of my “hotrod” buddies and some didn’t “get it”. I really didn’t question their allegence to the car culture but more of them being “programmed” as to what they expect from watching a feature. Two Lane Blacktop isn’t about being entertained to me as it is about participating in the “ride”…. the experiance…. the visuals on being on the road and the magical sound of an M-22 rockcrusher… it is about as anti-climatic as can be in the end but it invites me to choose my own ending as I settle behind the wheel of that same ’55 chevy in my thoughts….. the acting?….. James Taylor and Dennis Wilson are brilliant!…. brilliant in the sense that they are completely believable that they are caught up in their own thoughts and ideas as to what they see as important…… look at the beutiful simplicity in the chuckle by Dennis Wilson (the driver) as Warren Oats (GTO) proclaims, “no way baby they ain’t gonna see me” after he is warned to never reveal he’s racing or they’ll bust him for it. I love Two Lane Blacktop because it speaks to me personally, and I never claimed to make sense!

  • 8 Gear Head // Jun 24, 2011 at 7:19 am

    oops….. how could I have missed that…Dennis is the mechanic…. my bust…..

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