Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)
This is a movie made by guys about guys. James Taylor and Dennis Wilson play two gearheads whose lives revolve around their car. We never get to know their names, and the credits just list them as The Driver and The Mechanic. Warren Oates is an amiable eccentric who picks up hitchhikers in his yellow GTO. The three meet on the road and bet their pink slips on a cross-country race. For the rest of the film we follow them as they travel down country highways, stopping at diners or garages, racing to make a few bucks when they need to.
It’s that simple. This movie discards all the conventions we expect from commercial films. It’s not played for suspense or for laughs. There’s no love story. We just follow these guys as they drive across the country. The lone woman in the film is a hitchhiker who joins the group early on. Played by Laurie Bird, the character is only identified as The Girl, and like the other three she seems to be drifting aimlessly.
Two-Lane Blacktop is a road movie in the purest sense of the word. Director Monte Hellman decided to shoot the movie on location and in sequence, and so the crew spent weeks travelling across the US, shooting on country back roads and in small towns. Though the film plays out against the backdrop of the vast American landscape, it’s actually very intimate. It’s a portrait of three guys, and in spite of their obvious differences, they’re all united in their obsessive urge to keep moving. Through car windows we see lush forests and grassy fields sliding past. We ride through endless, dusty plains, under blue skies filled with tiny cloud tufts trailing off to the horizon. The small towns that appear now and again seem to be nothing more than a few buildings gathered along a stretch of road. Hellman and cinematographer Jack Deerson give us a detailed panorama of rural America. They capture the cities and the towns and the forests and the hills, but just as important, they also capture the spaces in between.
The film also takes advantage of another kind of space, and that’s the “silence” between lines of dialogue. I put the word in quotes, because it’s not really silence that we’re hearing. Actually, we’re listening to the sounds that most movies push into the background. The clatter of dishes in a coffee shop. The murmur of conversation in a bar. The drizzle of rain falling in a tiny rural town.
The film seems to catch life as it’s happening. The performances are so natural and unforced that they appear to be improvised, though the director says he followed Rudy Wurlitzer’s script closely. According to Hellman, there are only two scenes that stray from what was written. The Driver and The Mechanic speak very little to each other, and when they do it’s almost all about cars. How the engine is running, how the car is handling, where they can make repairs. At the opposite end of the scale is GTO, who loves to hear the sound of his own voice. None of the three, though, says much about what they’re feeling. A crucial exception is the brief scene when GTO seems to open up and start talking about how his family is falling apart. The Driver quickly shuts him down. No need to hear about each others’ problems. There may be a world of pain inside each one of these guys, but it’s better not to talk about it. Just keep driving.
I went out of my way to see Two-Lane Blacktop at the Aero in Santa Monica. I had seen it once before years ago at the New Beverly, and wanted to watch it again on the big screen. Monte Hellman was there and after the screening he talked about the movie. It was interesting to hear his comments on the making of the film, and it was also interesting to hear him talk about this particular screening.
The credits list the authors of the screenplay as Will Corry and Rudy Wurlitzer. According to Hellman, he gave Corry’s original script to Wurlitzer, who said he couldn’t get through more than a few pages. Hellman says he then told Wurlitzer to go ahead and write what he wanted, and that all they used from Corry’s version is the concept of two guys in a car.
Hellman went on to say that the film bombed at the box office, which he blames on lack of support from Universal. Apparently Lew Wasserman, who ran the studio back then, saw the movie and hated it. So while Two-Lane Blacktop was shown at theatres nationwide, Universal did nothing to promote it. Aside from a rave review in Esquire, the critics were not enthusiastic. But over the years it has gained a sizable audience.
One of the audience members said he had last seen the film at a drive-in when it first came out. Hellman at first responded enthusiastically, and said that’s the way it should be seen, on a huge screen. But then he talked about the print we had just watched and said that the colors were not as rich as they had been in the original dye transfer prints. I was kind of stunned when he went on to say that these days he preferred to watch the film on Blu-ray, because the image was crisper and the sound was richer.
But I’m still glad I saw it on the big screen.