THE EMPIRE MASTERPIECE
TWO-LANE BL ACKTOP
A road movie that goes the full Monte
DIRECTOR MONTE HELLMAN has always felt like a footnote in the grand story of Hollywood’s last Golden Age: an outsider amongst outsiders, rarely mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Coppola, Lucas and Scorsese. But his brief filmography, in Ride In The Whirlwind and The Shooting, a brace of ‘acid Westerns’ he shot for Roger Corman back-to-back and for under $80,000, contains two of the decade’s most distinctive films. And in Two-lane Blacktop he created arguably the best, possibly the strangest, and certainly the purest, road movie ever made.
If Hellman’s minor-key masterpiece never really got the kudos of the other classics of the period, it was cut from the same cloth of its better-known stablemates. In late 1969, after the shocking success of Easy Rider, bewildered executives at Universal unpacked the ancient cultural ear-trumpet, detected something of a youthquake in progress, and promptly panicked. “It was frightening,” studio bigwig Ned Tanen later remembered. “These were ageing gentlemen who did not remotely understand where their audience had gone. Suddenly we were looking at these movies where everybody was dropping acid, and fucking in the park.”
Their solution was to throw money, albeit small amounts, at the problem. A new unit, headed up by Tanen, was tasked with finding projects that might resonate with the hip, new audience. Tanen rushed low-budget projects into production, including Douglas Trumbull’s eco sci-fi, Silent Running, and The Hired Hand, an anti-western by Peter Fonda, who Tanen hoped
might repeat the magic he had wrought with
Easy Rider, and later George Lucas’ American Graffiti. But among these hail Mary productions,
Two-lane Blacktop at least had the trappings of conventional commercial success in its automotive theme. What’s more, it had two genuine pop icons attached in the form of Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson and singer-songwriter James Taylor.
Monte Hellman had been sent the original screenplay while in Italy prepping an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Two Faces Of
January, which would ultimately never be shot. Hating it, he had nevertheless seen promise in the central idea, and having read cult novel Nog, appointed its author Rudy Wurlitzer to come up with a screenplay. Wurlitzer dumped almost everything in the way of conventional story, instead focussing on the mostly silent characters and their strange, compulsive race. In his script, the wide-open spaces of the American landscape are matched, and occasionally dwarfed, by the fascinating emptinesses where conventional plot should be. If Antonioni had been a petrolhead Beach Boys fan, he might have come up with something like Two-lane Blacktop.
The film that emerged after an eight-week shoot on a final budget just shy of $900,000 is, then, a quietly magnificent exploration of four characters, all desperate in their own ways, in search of some kind of meaning, set against the sometimes ragged, sometimes spectacular backdrop of America’s Southwest. The Driver (Taylor) and The Mechanic (Wilson) are lankhaired hipsters, who make their living racing their souped-up 1955 Chevy. By chance, they meet an inexplicably competitive older man (the inestimable Warren Oates, who had worked with Hellman previously on The Shooting), whose state-of-the-art, banana-yellow Pontiac GTO may (or may not) be a metaphor for the flashy inauthenticities of the rat race. Mostly at GTO’S behest, they agree to race to Washington DC, the winners to take the loser’s car.
During the rest-stops and random hitchhikers picked up along the way (look out for a young H.D. Stanton, later to be Harry Dean, as a gay passenger) that function as brief opportunities for unreliable exposition, GTO variously claims to be a test pilot and a TV location scout. A fourth cipher arrives with The Girl, played by Laurie Bird, a New York model who later committed suicide in Art Garfunkel’s apartment. A blank-faced ingénue who attracts the attention both of The Driver and GTO, she has more than a little of the mesmerising, natural air of her contemporary, Sissy Spacek.
The most obvious point of comparison is, of course, Fonda’s counter-cultural carnival Easy
Rider, but Hellman’s film is quieter, sadder and more deeply felt. And at its heart is a towering performance by Oates. The only professional actor amongst the cast, he radiates a bruised, nervous vanity. His various dreams — to go to New York, or Florida, or finally Mexico — come and go as quickly as his fantasies about his past. He’s a man obsessed with racing who was long ago left behind. Ironically enough, it’s his performance as the senior man in this youthoriented film that lends Two-lane Blacktop its heartbreaking, occasionally funny timelessness.
Seventies audiences didn’t dig Hellman’s film and his career would never really recover. Subsequently, he embarked on his own eclectic odyssey, performing second-unit duties on Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop and executive-producing
Reservoir Dogs among other detours. (Now aged 85, he still teaches film in California.) But though
Two-lane Blacktop may, in all sorts of ways, be a road to nowhere, boy, is it worth the trip.
On the road: The Girl (Laurie Bird), The Driver (James Taylor) and The Mechanic (Dennis Wilson).