Two-Lane Blacktop’s plot (if you can call it that) follows two young men who race other cars in their customized ’55 Chevy. We never find out their names and the credits list them simply as the Driver (James Taylor) and the Mechanic (Dennis Wilson). Early on, they pick up the Girl (Laurie Bird) in Santa Fe, New Mexico and cross paths with a rival driver (Warren Oates) in a ’70 Pontiac GTO. The Driver and the Mechanic say little to one another and when they do it’s only about cars – their own and others. The Girl, in comparison, is infinitely chattier. Eventually, they meet GTO at a gas station and challenge each other to a cross-country race to Washington, D.C. for “pink slips,” the title to the loser’s car. GTO is gregarious to a fault, scaring off a hitchhiker by repeating the same stories twice and telling his life story, which changes with every new person he picks up.
All these guys are is reflected in their cars and the open road that stretches out in front of them. Even though they’re racing against each other, they help each other out, sharing food and offering mechanical advice. They may be polar opposites personality-wise, but they share a love of going fast in their cars – it’s the fuel that keeps them going. The Driver, the Mechanic and the Girl are enigmatic blank slates and this allows us to imprint on them our ideas and theories as to their backstories and motivation for what they do. If they give Two-Lane Blacktop its existential vibe then it is GTO who gives the film its humanity with Warren Oates’ genial performance. He welcomes hitchhikers and delights in telling the same stories, inflating his own ego.
Director Monte Hellman’s camerawork is very minimalist, almost documentary-like in how matter-of-factly it depicts the race, the places and the people that they encounter along the way. For example, the near-dialogue-less prologue depicts illegal street racing that is eventually broken up by the police. Later on in the film, the Driver and the Mechanic come across a car accident and the Mechanic’s first instinct is to check their car before he sees if the others are okay. With all of the car-speak and loving shots of fast, muscle cars, Two-Lane Blacktop is a car lover’s dream. It has also become a nostalgia piece as they just don’t make cars like the ones in this film anymore. This film also immerses us in the car-racing culture of its day like no other film then or since.
The two cars travel across the country through desolate landscapes. They travel on backroads and through small towns, existing on the margins of society. Director Monte Hellman and screenwriter Rudolph Wurlitzer have an innate understanding of the expansive nature of the United States while traveling through it by car. I would love to see these guys team up again for an adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I think that they could do the book justice because they also understand the loneliness and camaraderie that is associated with cross-country travel.
Two-Lane Blacktop originated with producer Michael S. Laughlin. He had a two-picture deal with Cinema Center Films and convinced them to pay Will Corry $100,000 for his screenplay about two men, one black and one white, who drive across the country followed by a young girl. The script was inspired by his own cross-country journey in 1968. Returning from Italy after a film project had fallen through; Hellman was introduced to Laughlin and presented with two films, one of which was Two-Lane Blacktop. Laughlin asked Hellman to direct and he agreed on the condition that he could hire another writer to give the script a polish.
Hellman found Corry’s story “interesting but not fully realized.” A mutual friend recommended underground writer Rudolph Wurlitzer. Hellman read and enjoyed his novel Nog, “a strange ‘60s road novel,” according to its author, and was impressed enough to hire Wurlitzer. The writer began reading Corry’s script but gave up on page five. Hellman and Wurlitzer agreed to keep the basic idea of the cross-country race as well as the Driver, the Mechanic and the Girl characters. To prepare for Two-Lane Blacktop, Wurlitzer stayed in a Los Angeles motel and read car magazines. He also hung out in the San Fernando Valley with several obsessive mechanics and “stoner car freaks.” He didn’t know much about cars but did “know something about being lost on the road.” Wurlitzer wrote a new screenplay in four weeks and invented the GTO character as well as all of the others.
In February 1970, Hellman did some location scouting and was a few weeks from principal photography when Cinema Center suddenly canceled the project. Hellman shopped the script around to several Hollywood studios that liked it but wanted a say in the casting. However, a young executive at Universal Pictures by the name of Ned Tanen gave Hellman $850,000 to make the film his way, including final cut. At the time, Tanen was quite the maverick, overseeing some pretty adventurous fare with films like Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie (1971) and Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand (1971). According to Hellman, at the time Universal was trying to “figure out what it was that made independent films, particularly Easy Rider, successful.”
Hellman saw James Taylor’s picture on a billboard on the Sunset Strip and contacted him, inviting the musician to do a screen test which was impressed the filmmakers. Four days before principal photography was to begin, the role of the Mechanic had not been cast. Hellman was desperate and screen-tested people he met in garages. A friend of Fred Roos, the film’s casting director, suggested Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson. Hellman chose the musician because he felt that Wilson “had lived that role, that he really grew up with cars.”
Principal photography began on August 13, 1970 in Los Angeles and lasted for six weeks with a crew of 30-35, three matching Chevys, and two matching GTOs traveling through the southwest towards Memphis, Tennessee. Hellman took an unconventional approach with his three non-actors by not letting them read the script. Instead, he gave the pages of dialogue on the day of shooting. They felt uncomfortable with this approach but it achieved the desired affect that Hellman was after. In particular, James Taylor, used to having control when it came to his music, was upset at this approach. Hellman finally relented and allowed Taylor to read the script in its entirety but he never got around to it. Hellman also insisted on actually going across country because he felt that the only way to convince the audience that the characters raced across the United States was to actually do it. He said, “I knew it would affect the actors – and it did, obviously. It affected everybody.”
Hellman shot almost the entire script as written and edited the film himself. He said, “I can’t look over someone’s shoulder. I need my hand on the brake.” The first cut of the film was three-and-a-half hours long. He had final cut but was contractually obligated to deliver a film that was no longer than two hours. The final version ran 105 minutes.
In their April 1971 cover story, Esquire magazine proclaimed Two-Lane Blacktop “Film of the Year” and published Wurlitzer’s script in its entirety. Hellman thought that this would be good publicity but in retrospect would not have done it because “I think it raised people’s expectations. They couldn’t accept the movie for what it was.” There was a lot of advanced buzz about the film but Lou Wasserman, then head of Universal, saw and hated it. He refused to promote the film. It opened in New York City on the fourth of July without one single advertisement in the newspapers.
Two-Lane Blacktop received mixed to positive reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and found the characters to be “too impersonal, though, and that's bothersome. After half an hour or so, the fact that we're told so little about their inner workings becomes a distraction. There doesn't seem to be a good reason for making them so awesomely one-dimensional,” but did enjoy “the sense of life that occasionally sneaked through, particularly in the character of G.T.O. He is the only character who is fully occupied with being himself (rather than the instrument of a metaphor), and so we get the sense we've met somebody.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby felt that it was a “far from perfect film (those metaphors keep blocking the road), but it has been directed, acted, photographed and scored (underscored, happily) with the restraint and control of an aware, mature filmmaker.” Time magazine’s Jay Cocks wrote, “Few film makers have dealt so well or so subtly with the American landscape. Not a single frame in the film is wasted. Even the small touches—the languid tension while refueling at a back-country gas station or the piercing sound of an ignition buzzer—have their own intricate worth.” The Village Voice’s J. Hoberman wrote, “Two-Lane Blacktop is a movie of achingly eloquent landscapes and absurdly inert characters.” Finally, in his review for the Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, “The movie starts off as a narrative but gradually grows into something much more abstract—it's unsettling but also beautiful.”
Laurie Bird, James Taylor and Dennis Wilson are attractive actors and Two-Lane Blacktop captures them at a time when they had their whole lives ahead of them. Sadly, both Bird and Wilson would die way too early in their respective lives – Bird at 25 and Wilson at 39. Taylor was so unhappy with the experience of making the film that he never acted in another one again. The characters in Two-Lane Blacktop never really connect with each other in a meaningful way. The Driver and the Mechanic only talk about their car, GTO talks about his car and lies about his past, and the Girl is just along for the ride until something better comes along. They live on the fringes of society, living a vagabond existence, striving to live constantly in motion. Being on the road is what defines these characters. It isn’t where they’ve been which is important, but where they’re going as the film’s final image demonstrates.
Ed Howard posted an excellent take on the film over at his Only the Cinema blog. This Distracted Globe also takes a solid look at it. Finally, over at The Huffington Post, Kim Morgan wrote a fantastic tribute to the film.