Gary Couzens has reviewed the Region 1 release of Two-Lane Blacktop. Monte Hellman’s cult 1971 road movie is given a fine transfer and intelligently-chosen extras in this Anchor Bay release, but an unsatisfactorily-remixed soundtrack is disappointing.
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. Anchor Bay’s DVD and video release is its first appearance in these formats, due to problems with clearing music rights.
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.
Anchor Bay’s edition of Two-Line Blacktop is a dual-layered NTSC disc encoded for Region 1 only. Apart from the remixed soundtrack (see below) there is one slight change from the theatrical version. Twenty-four minutes in, as GTO picks up the Texas hitch-hiker, there’s a slight zoom in to a road sign, to make it easier to read on a TV set.
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 picture is anamorphic and artefact-free. It’s correctly framed at 2.35:1, as, more than most films of the last thirty years, Blacktop has to be shown that wide. 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.) In their commentary, Hellman and associate producer Gary Kurtz single out a conversation between GTO and The Girl, framed as a single two-shot, as an example of a scene that would suffer from panning and scanning. Another is the one in the coffee house in Chapter 21: 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 soundtrack is less successful. The original film release was in mono, but this disk offers two remixes, Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround 2.0. They sound as if the music and effects track has been remixed (there are a lot of directional effects, notably during the opening sequence) but not the dialogue, which sounds flat and lacking in dynamic range. This will always be a contentious subject, but the original mono track should have been included as an option. The dialogue is often mixed low, which is another reason – the interests of the hard-of-hearing and non-native English-speakers apart – why it’s regrettable that this disk has no subtitles.
Hellman and Kurtz’s commentary is a good one, recorded as the two men (who obviously have a considerable rapport) watch the film. There are places where they fall silent: Hellman admits this is because they’ve become absorbed in the film they are watching! There’s a lot of interesting information here. Other extras include the trailer, which is clearly aimed at a counterculture audience (“The far-out world of the high speed scene!”). The biographies are more informative than is usually the case, notably the information on Wilson’s dealings with the Manson family.
The final extra is a made-for-TV documentary, Monte Hellman: American Auteur, directed by George Hickenlooper (co-director of Hearts of Darkness, about the making of Apocalypse Now). It’s short (14 minutes) but more substantial than that would imply, with a wide range of interviewees including Roger Corman, Kurtz, an amusingly frank Stanton and Hellman himself. The only notable absentee still alive is Jack Nicholson, who starred in Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting. It concentrates mostly on the latter, Blacktop and Cockfighter with extracts from each. One nitpick: if the makers of this documentary could show a clip from Easy Rider letterboxed, then why couldn’t they do the same to those films made by their subject? Full-frame, open-matte extracts from 1.85:1 films like The Shooting and Cockfighter are acceptable, but pan-and-scanned scenes from Blacktop aren’t really. My major problem with this documentary is that I wanted more: information on the early Corman films, the interesting Italian-made western China 9, Liberty 37, or the rare Iguana. (It would perhaps be diplomatic not to mention Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out!, which Hellman made as a favour.) Some viewers will wish to know that the clip from Cockfighter shows fight footage – it’s eleven minutes in if you wish to avoid it.
There are twenty-four chapter stops, which is plenty, and the extras menu features Kris Kristofferson performing “Me and Bobby McGee”. If this disk stops short of the heights of a Criterion Collector’s Edition, it doesn’t miss by very much – a bona fide cult movie well packaged by Anchor Bay.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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