“What is this, anyway – some kind of masculine power-trip?” demands The Girl (Laurie Bird) petulantly. Well, Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop is less than that – and more. By some way the finest of the ‘existential road-trip’ cycle of the late ’60s and early ’70s – others being Easy Rider, Vanishing Point and Electra Glide In Blue – the film’s as stripped down as the dust-grey ’55 Chevy that The Driver and The Mechanic drag-race down the back roads of America. (In case you’re wondering, no one in this movie has a name.)
En route, they encounter an older guy driving a mustard-yellow Pontiac GTO who challenges them to a cross-country race. Off they go – while The Girl flirts moodily with all three in turn. And that, in terms of plot, is about it. Hellman deliberately avoids whipping up any tension. The race grows increasingly desultory and in the end just fizzles out. And the final shot is the film burning up in the projector.
As a study in obsession and emotional dislocation Two-Lane Blacktop is in a class of its own. The Driver ( James Taylor) and the Mechanic (Dennis Wilson) barely speak, while GTO (the great Warren Oates, giving a disturbing portrayal of mid-life crisis) rarely stops, spinning a different yarn to each hitchhiker he picks up. The film makes masterly use of minimal resources: no sets, just found locations and frequent reliance on available lighting. Oates apart, none of the principals was a professional actor. Taylor and Wilson were rock stars (Fire & Rain and The Beach Boys respectively), Laurie Bird had never acted before. Some brilliant cameos, though – not least Harry Dean Stanton as a gay cowboy.
It’s been a long wait for Two-Lane Blacktop to show up on Region 2 (problems with the music rights, it seems) but our patience has been rewarded. The transfer is excellent – those black-on-black night-shots look stunning – and there’s an engaging, appreciative chat-track from Hellman and associate producer Gary Kurtz. Still, might be worth waiting for the forthcoming Criterion release on Region 1 – it’s planned to include a documentary by Hellman on Oates, his friend and favourite actor.