Two-Lane Blacktop Review
Much of what follows is a revised and expanded version of my 2001 review of the Anchor Bay edition of Two-Lane Blacktop, which I have also revised. Go to “The DVD” for a discussion of the Criterion edition’s DVD transfer, audio and extras, with a comparison between the two releases.
The driver (James Taylor) and mechanic (Dennis Wilson) of a '55 Chevy are challenged to a cross-country race by a man in a Pontiac GTO (Warren Oates), a contest where the prize is not only the ownership of the loser's car but also the affections of a young girl hitchhiker (Laurie Bird).
Back in 1971, every major studio was looking for the next Easy Rider, and Universal thought they had it in Two-Lane Blacktop. Esquire magazine was so impressed by Rudolph Wurlitzer's screenplay (from an original screenplay by Will Corry, completely rewritten by Wurlitzer: Corry retains a story and co-writing credit) that they printed it in its entirety before the film's release. There was also the prospect of singer-songwriter James Taylor and Beach Boy drummer Dennis Wilson in their first screen roles. Expectations were certainly high, but what Hellman made was an elliptical and idiosyncratic existentialist road movie, closer in style to a European art movie than anything else coming out of Hollywood. Two-Lane Blacktop flopped badly, but it soon attracted a substantial cult following.
Few American directors are more cultish than Monte Hellman. None of his films have been commercially successful, and some of them are very hard to track down. He started working with Roger Corman, and made two low-budget westerns back-to-back in the Utah desert, Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting. 1974's Cockfighter (which, like The Shooting and Blacktop, stars Warren Oates) is effectively banned in the UK, never having been submitted to the BBFC due to its inclusion of real cockfighting footage. In between directing he worked as an editor, executive-produced and helped raised finance for Reservoir Dogs, and shot second unit on RoboCop. Two-Lane Blacktop was his biggest-budget film.
None of the characters have real names. The Driver and The Mechanic live for their car: in fact they talk about cars the same way many men talk about women. When The Girl enters their lives, sleeping with both in turn, their life is disrupted, as much as it is with the race with GTO. This film is second only to 2001 in its use of deliberately flat dialogue and acting to convey a sense of lives without meaning. The late Warren Oates was one of the great American character actors of the 1970s, and he gives a tremendous performance as GTO. GTO has all the best, and all the funniest, lines in the film, and Oates makes the most of them, particularly in his scenes with various hitchhikers he picks up on the way (one of them a gay cowboy played by Harry Dean Stanton, billed as H.D. Stanton). Taylor, Wilson and Bird were not trained actors, but they are used well by Hellman, who – as the film was shot in sequence – withheld each scene from his actors until the day before it was shot. Taylor and the late Wilson never made another film, and Bird only made two more (Cockfighter and Annie Hall) before her death by suicide at the age of twenty-seven. The film does make demands on the viewer, particularly in its elliptical plotting and measured pacing, but it's worth the effort. The final scene is quite literally mind-blowing: the film slows down and appears to burn up in the projector.
Two-Lane Blacktop was made during a short period where films influenced more by European arthouse styles than those of classic Hollywood, were possible to make for major studios. These did not translate into box office, though many of these films – Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand was another – picked up cult followings which they maintain to this day. Two-Lane Blacktop has not been especially easy to see. It has been shown three times on the BBC (1978, 1985 and 1987), ruinously panned-and-scanned. My one cinema viewing was in 1995, at the National Film Theatre’s Monte Hellman retrospective. The Anchor Bay video and DVD release of 2000 was the first time the film could be seen in its original ratio, which (as I say below) is for this film absolutely essential. It did not have a UK DVD release before 2007 – a Universal disc which I have not seen.
Two-Lane Blacktop is number 414 in the Criterion Collection. It comprises two dual-layer DVDs (encoded for Region 1 only) inside a digipak which, together with the reprinted screenplay, is inside a slipcase.
The DVD transfer is in the ratio of 2.35:1 and anamorphically enhanced. Two-Lane Blacktop was shot in Techniscope, a process which exposes 35mm film two perforations high (instead of the normal four), resulting in a 2.35:1 picture. This has the advantage of getting twice the amount of footage that you would normally get from a reel of film. (Techniscope was used extensively in the 60s, notably on Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy.) As the process does not use anamorphic lenses, it avoids their limitations and enables shooting at very low light levels: Two-Lane Blacktop has many scenes shot at night using only available light, and it's a testament to the quality of this DVD transfer that you can see anything at all on a TV set in these scenes, let alone particular details. (The film was shot by Gregory Sandor, who for contractual reasons is billed as “Photographic Advisor”.) Anchor Bay’s transfer was impressive for its time, but Criterion’s surpasses it: it’s brighter and sharper, as can be seen from the comparison below (Anchor Bay first, then the Criterion). There is grain, but that’s characteristic of the Techniscope format. Incidentally, the one small visual change that Hellman made for the Anchor Bay VHS and DVD (a slight zoom in to a road sign, twenty-four minutes in) is not present on the Criterion. With an improved transfer, and larger TV sets, the writing on the sign is easier to see now.
More than most films of the last forty years, Blacktop has to be shown in its original ratio. 16:9 or 2:1 are not enough, as Hellman makes frequent use of the sides and sometimes the extreme edges of the wide frame, and panning and scanning reduces this film to unwatchability. (I speak from experience as a survivor of the BBC’s Film Club panned-and-scanned screening of October 1987, which was introduced by Philip French. French mentioned how much Hellman made use of the sides of the frame to convey story information, which of course you couldn’t then see.) A good example is the one in the coffee house late in the film: Hellman establishes the presence of a boy at the bar and his motorcycle outside, then leaves them until the end of the scene, where they contribute to a turn in the plot. A pan-and-scan would remove these details as the major characters are elsewhere in the frame, and an important development becomes obscure.
The film was released in cinemas in mono, though the Anchor Bay release did not include that track, offering instead remixes into Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround. Criterion scores further points by including the mono soundtrack, but it does also have a 5.1 remix. I was disappointed by Anchor Bay’s remix: directional sound effects – mostly car engines – sounded great, but dialogue was very flat. Criterion’s remix is much better in that respect, though to be honest there isn’t much in the way of surround usage outside the car racing scenes. Another strike in favour of the Criterion is the inclusion of English hard-of-hearing subtitles.
As for the extras, completists may prefer to keep the Anchor Bay release as it contains extras that are not included in the Criterion release. (There is also a Region 4 release which I haven’t seen. However, the only extra that is not on either the Anchor Bay or the Criterion is a discussion of road movies by Jack Sargeant.) The Anchor Bay had a good commentary with Hellman and Gary Kurtz, but the Criterion has two new ones. The first features Hellman with a somewhat effusive Allison Anders. The second features Rudolph Wurlitzer with author David Meyer. Hellman and Anders is the more entertaining of the two. As both participants are film directors, there is a lot of talk about how the film was made, production anecdotes and so forth. Wurlitzer and Meyer’s commentary is drier, concentrating more on story issues. Meyer occasionally seems under-researched - for example, on Laurie Bird’s later history. Unbelievably, the film was threatened with a MPAA X rating for its single use of “motherfucker”, which Meyer thinks is the first time a white man said this word in an American film.
Disc Two features some substantial interviews. “On the Road Again: Two-Lane Blacktop Revisited” (42:48) features Hellman, his daughter Melissa (who appears in the film as a child), his dog, and five of his film students take a ride down Route 66 to see how much has changed in thirty-seven years. On the way, Hellman talks about the making of the film. This extra also appears on the Region 4 release, apparently in a shorter version.
Of the film’s four lead actors, James Taylor is the only one still alive. In “Make It Three Yards” (38:31) he and Hellman meet for the first time in thirty-five years to talk about the film, which Taylor has not seen to this day.
“Somewhere Near Salinas” is a quote from Kris Kristofferson’s song “Me and Bobby McGee”, which is used at a key point in the film. It’s also the title of the next featurette (27:38) in which Hellman and Kristofferson chat about the song, the film, James Taylor and the more or less contemporary film in which Kristofferson starred, Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid. Hellman sees that film as kindred to Two-Lane Blacktop, sharing as it did the screenwriting services of Rudolph Wurlitzer.
In “Sure Did Talk to You” (23:21),.producer Michael S. Laughlin and production manager Walter Coblenz are interviewed by Hellman’s son Jared (the youngest cast member), Steven Gaydos of Variety, filmmaker Dennis Bartok and a woman who for some reason is not identified. Laughlin and Coblenz talk about the complex shoot, which involved cross-country travel, two cars which needed transportation and three first-timers out of four lead actors. So Laughlin hired two highly experienced men, Coblenz and Gary Kurtz (who is still alive and oddly absent from this DVD) to supervise it.
“These Satisfactions Are Permanent” comprises out-takes and audition footage recently found in Monte Hellman’s garage. The footage features Laurie Bird (14:49) and James Taylor (10:51), both interviewed by A.J. Solari, who played the Tennessee hitch-hiker in the film.
“Color Me Gone” is a stills gallery, divided into several sections accessible from an index. “Performance and Image” is a text-and-stills feature in two parts. One describes the restoration of the ’55 Chevy from the film, and the other compares the film’s locations to the same ones today.
Finally on Disc Two there is the theatrical trailer (2:29) which makes the film look more like an action piece than it actually is. The booklet, along with chapter and cast and crew lists and transfer notes, contains three essays: “Slow Ride” by Kent Jones, the rather more throwaway “Ten (Sixteen, Actually) Reasons Why I Love Two-Lane Blacktop” by Richard Linklater and “On Route 66, Filming Two-Lane Blacktop” by Michael Goodwin, the last-named reprinted from Rolling Stone in 1970. Also included in the package is a paperback book of the screenplay.
The only reasons now to keep the Anchor Bay DVD (price apart) are the Hellman/Kurtz commentary plus George Hickenlooper’s short film Monte Hellman: American Auteur. Otherwise, this Criterion version is pretty much definitive, short of a high-definition release.