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With: James Taylor, Warren Oates, Laurie Bird, Dennis Wilson
Written by: Rudolph Wurlitzer (Rudy Wurlitzer), Will Corry
Directed by: Monte Hellman
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 103
Date: 07/07/1971

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Race for Your Life

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

As far as car movies go, Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop is the exact opposite of a movie like Gone in 60 Seconds (2000), which is heavy on plot and dialogue (most of it bad). Two-Lane Blacktop has very little of either, which may put off many viewers who are used to having everything explained to them. Nonetheless, there's no mistaking that it's not only a classic cult movie, but an American masterpiece.

After the critical success of his two quickie westerns Ride in the Whirlwind (1965) and The Shooting (1967) -- financed by Roger Corman, who got two for the price of one -- director Monte Hellman was hired by Universal to make Two-Lane Blacktop. The project came with a pretty standard script (by Will Corry), so Hellman hired Rudy Wurlitzer to make something new out of it, and a classic was born.

Hellman also hired three non-actors, Dennis Wilson (the drummer from the Beach Boys), singer James Taylor, and photographer Laurie Bird. The only professional actor, Warren Oates, plays the part of "GTO," the man who drives around in a brand new yellow 1970 GTO and tells whatever story about himself that pops into his head. All four actors do an amazing job, but Oates is spectacular. With his beady eyes and gruff, drawling voice, he creates a sad and lonely character out of the nothingness and the lies. If there was a list of the single greatest performances of all time, this would be among them.

The story, such as it is, has Wilson (as "The Mechanic") and Taylor (as "The Driver") cruising around the country in their hopped-up 1955 Chevy looking for races. Bird (as "The Girl") climbs in the back seat of their car at a rest stop, and the boys just look at her and keep on driving without a word. They meet up with GTO and challenge him to a cross-country race that eventually peters out and ends up more of a search for the meaning of life. The last shot is of Taylor driving in slow motion as the film gets stuck, burns, and melts.

I could probably write pages analyzing the movie and its various parts, like the different attitudes the three men project on the Girl, or the meaning of the race. But that would be only one interpretation, and part of the fun of the movie is the different things people take away from it.

Two-Lane Blacktop has long been a coveted cult movie, little seen, and much compared to Easy Rider (true fans prefer it). Now that it's been released on DVD by Anchor Bay Entertainment, fans can see it as many times as they want. The DVD includes the definitive widescreen transfer, the theatrical trailer, a short documentary on Hellman's career, and commentary by Hellman and producer Gary Kurtz (who went on to produce Star Wars). Sadly, the commentary is amazingly dull for such an out-there movie. Most of it is just dead air and Hellman saying "uh". The good news is that Hellman apologizes, saying that they've simply become caught up in the movie.

What's amazing is how well the movie holds up. 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.

The Anchor Bay version I reviewed above in 2000 has gone out of print, but the Criterion Collection released a new DVD in 2007 and a Blu-ray in 2013. It includes a restored high-definition digital transfer, supervised by director Hellman, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack and an alternate 5.1 surround soundtrack. It contains two (newer) audio commentaries: one by Hellman and filmmaker Allison Anders and one by screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer and author David N. Meyer.

Other extras include interviews, screen test outtakes, stills, a trailer, and other featurettes. The liner notes booklet comes with an essay by critic Kent Jones, appreciations by director Richard Linklater and musician Tom Waits, and a 1970 on-set account from Rolling Stone by Michael Goodwin.

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