Director Monte Hellman’s “Two-Lane Blacktop” (1971) is the greatest American road movie ever made. I state this as fact, not opinion. At the same time, it’s difficult to hold up “Two-Lane Blacktop” as an exemplar of the genre, because it resembles no other American road movie. It is the road movie stripped down to the barest essentials, much like the ’55 Chevy (no heater, that would just slow it down) that co-stars in the film. The Chevy is operated by The Driver (a 22 year-old James Taylor, just breaking out as a recording star) and The Mechanic (Beach Boys’ drummer Dennis Wilson), two self-absorbed young men who live fully immersed in a world that has always remained a mystery to me, the world of guys who talk about cars:“This here’s a 57 Hemi Four Pivot Nozzle Action Burner 454 with slide torque that goes from zero to sixty in four point four.” I paraphrase slightly, of course. I know of two kinds of cars: ones that work and ones that don’t.
The Driver and The Mechanic are driving east: that’s pretty much the entirety of their plan in life. Along the way they pick up The Girl (18 year-old screen-test discovery Laurie Bird) and accept a racing challenge from GTO, an older driver (guess what he drives) played by the great Warren Oates, who deploys a deadly series of primary colored V-neck sweaters in his pursuit of… well, he doesn’t really know what. Except that he might find it out on the road, in that vast, mythical American space of permanent transition, of constant in-betweenness that taunts with the promise of something better around the next curve, a nowhere now that might become a somewhere future if you take the right turn.
Novelist and first-time screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer shapes a script that, following in the tradition of the French New Novel, focuses on objects, gestures and behaviors, accumulated details rather than a grand structuring plot, though there is still a nominal through line. The Driver and The Mechanic challenge GTO to a cross-country race with the pink slips for both of their cars as the stakes: first driver to Washington, DC wins it all. Along the way, they stop to pick up hitch-hikers or even to help each other out: it’s no fun getting five hundred miles ahead. The film ends well before the race does which is just fine since everyone involved seems to have gotten distracted from the so-called goal anyway.
This was Taylor’s only film role; he claims that he has never even watched the final cut. Dennis Wilson likewise never played in another movie, and Laurie Bird only appeared in two more features (including Hellman’s “Cockfighter” and a small role in “Annie Hall”) before her death in 1979. Hellman only gave his novice actors the script pages needed for each day’s shooting because he wanted them to live in the moment, an approach aided by the fact that the film was shot in sequence as the cast and crew hugged old Route 66 eastward, often calling in local actors to fill supporting roles along the way.
The performances are universally marvelous, with Bird getting the chance to be a bit more emotive next to the stoic, disengaged Driver and Mechanic whose stony expressions merge with shots of endlessly rolling, uncaring blacktop. Oates, by contrast, is an open wound hiding behind empty bravado (unlike the boys, he doesn’t really know jack squat about cars) as he tries to reinvent his identity in each scene, spinning a new bullshit yarn for each hitch-hiker he picks up, giving him more false origin stories than Heath Ledger’s Joker. But no matter how hard he tries to live free, he bears the weight of a lifetime of dashed hopes on his rounded, sweater-shrouded shoulders. His endless chatter is simply a way to extend the non-committal moment before he finally buckles under the pressure of life, of the years, of everything. GTO dreams of going to Florida to “let all the scars heal,” but it ain’t gonna happen.
The slow-paced road film wears the trappings of existential angst, but at its heart, the film is about what it appears to be on its surface: three men, one woman, and two cars. It’s a ménage à six the likes of which cinema has never seen. Almost every permutation is tried at least one: GTO and The Girl in the GTO, Oates in the ’55 Chevy, The Driver and The Girl in the Chevy, GTO and The Mechanic in the GTO, The Girl alone in either car (she really gets around.) Whatever the combination, nobody will succeed in making a meaningful connection, except for the connection between foot and pedal, rubber and road. And even that one trusty old relationship is just a trap, a simple distillation of existence that can only keep a mean old complicated world at bay for so long; eventually even the film itself can’t hold up to the stress.
“Two-Lane Blacktop” is shot in wide-screen Techniscope, employing a deep focus both in the car and at stops along the highway (gas stations, diners, motels, local race tracks) where the action often unfolds on multiple planes. No worries about a movie shot mostly in cars lacking in dynamism. If you’ve ever hauled cross-country, you know how hypnotic the white lines can be, and the film’s long and lean wide-screen frame captures that hypnotic effect as vividly as any movie I have ever seen. And much like the myth of the open road that it evokes so poignantly, Hellman’s masterpiece has been a siren song for cinephiles for more than forty years now, calling viewers back time and again to lose themselves in its rambling, unblinking vision.
According to Criterion, the film “is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Techniscope is a two-perforation format that yields a 2.33:1 image, but as far as I know, it was released (and thus ever-so-slightly cropped) in 2.35:1 and that’s what we get here.
The high-def transfer is “supervised by director Monte Hellman” and “was created on a Spirit 2K from a 35 mm four-perforation interpositive made from the original Techniscope two-perforation camera negative.” The original 2007 SD release by Criterion was solid but certainly flawed; this 1080p transfer is a significant improvement with a very pleasing grain structure that never detracts from image detail even in the darkest scenes, and there are plenty of scenes shot at night. I don’t know how much boosting Criterion employed to create such richly detailed night shots, but any manipulation seems fairly modest; this feels like the truest representation of the original film image we’re likely to get. The improvement in image detail is quite noticeable at times, and makes this high-def transfer pop in a way the SD release didn’t. I have watched “Two-Lane Blacktop” about a half-dozen times on SD, and this felt like a new and exciting experience to me.
Criterion offers both an LPCM Mono audio track and a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Vroom vroom – the roar of the engine sounds a lot richer in lossless audio (compared to the Dolby Digital audio of the SD release) though I admit I don’t hear a major difference between the surround and the mono tracks. Regardless, enjoy the bassy rumbling of that big ol’ road-killin’ Chevy. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.
Criterion’s 2007 SD release was on two-discs; the Blu-ray is a single disc. All of the extras have been imported from the 2007 release. There are no new features offered.
Two audio commentary tracks are available, both recorded in 2007: one with Hellman and filmmaker Allison Anders, and a separate track by screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer and author David N. Meyer.
“On the Road Again” (43 min, 2007) follows Monte Hellman, his family, and several of his film students from Cal Arts on a drive to Needles, CA to revisit one of the film’s locations. During the ride, Hellman reminisces about the production of the film while his appreciative students listen. This is an opportunity to ride along with a great artist talking about his finest work. He offers significant details about the film’s troubled financing (it was bounced around to multiple studios until Universal funded it… and then pulled any advertising support for the very limited theatrical release) as well as the problems and opportunities offered by a lengthy road shoot. This is interesting from start to finish.
The disc also offers two lengthy 2007 interviews: one in which Hellman interviews James Taylor (36 min.), and another with Hellman and Kris Kristofferson (27 min.) who provided his rendition of “Me and Bobby McGee” for the film’s soundtrack. Both interviews are interesting, but Taylor has little to say about the film (he claims never to have watched it, and this was the first meeting between Hellman and Taylor in 35 years), and Kristofferson had little to do with the film, though he is always compelling.
A discussion with producer Michael Laughlin, production manager Walter Coblenz, Steven Gaydos of “Variety” magazine, filmmaker Dennis Bartok, and Jared Hellman ( 23 min.) is more substantive than the other interviews. Laughlin, in particular, offers quite a bit of insight into the film’s production. It’s hard to believe that there was once a time when a Hollywood studio would not only greenlight a film like this, but would also allow the crew to work without interference and even give final cut to the director. Of course, Universal still killed the film later by refusing to promote it, so let’s not pat them on the back too hard.
For car buffs, the DVD also includes a text-based feature (w/some still photos) on the restoration of one of the ’55 Chevys used in the film. The same section also includes a text-based feature (also w/stills) showing what some of the film’s locations look like today.
Screen tests for Laurie Bird (14 min.) and James Taylor (11 min.) are neat additions as well. A gallery of behind-the-scenes photos and publicity stills, and a Trailer round out the collection.
All of the on-disc extras from the 2007 SD have been included here, but Criterion has left one major omission. The 2007 release included both an insert booklet with essays and a separate thick booklet with Wurlitzer’s screenplay. The screenplay is no longer included, which could provide difficulties for fans of the very accomplished Mr. Wurlitzer who would like the Blu-ray but also want the script.
The insert booklet is the same with an essay by critic Kent Jones, an appreciation by Richard Linklater, and an article about the film which originally appeared in the October 15, 1970 issue of “Rolling Stone.”
When I first reviewed the 2007 release, it seemed like Monte Hellman’s feature filmmaking days might be behind him, but the 2011 release of the enigmatic and absorbing “Road to Nowhere” proved that he is still on top of his game. “Road to Nowhere” was an exciting release for film lovers who have long venerated Monte Hellman, perhaps to a degree that puzzles “outsiders” who see a resume which includes titles such as “Iguana” and “Silent Night, Deadly Night III.”
There’s no doubt that Hellman’s sterling reputation rests primarily on films from the late 60’s and early 70’s, from acid Westerns (to use Jonathan Rosenbaum’s term) like “Ride in the Whirlwind” (1965) and “The Shooting” (1966) to the Warren Oates vehicle “Cockfighter” (1974) with “Two-Lane Blacktop” towering above them all, but now the window is more than cracked open again: could the best of Monte Hellman still be to come?
It’ll be tough to top the greatest road movie of all-time, and if he doesn’t, well… he’s already made the greatest road movie of all-time. And nobody else has. This Criterion high-def upgrade is fantastic, loaded with all the same extras as the heavily-packed 2007 SD release with a shiny 1080p wide-screen transfer with major improvements. The missing Wurlitzer screenplay is a big drawback. Nonetheless, Criterion is starting off 2013 at the very top.