In 1969, the film studios in Hollywood were scrambling to give young filmmakers money in the hopes that they could emulate the success of Easy Rider—a film that cost $375,000 to produce and grossed over $50,000,000 in ticket sales.
Universal Pictures produced a group of highly subversive films in response to Easy Rider – the films were so unusual that the studio had no clear idea of how to sell them and no audience was prepared for their arrival in theaters. The films included Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand; Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie; Milos Forman’s Taking Off; Frank Perry’s Diary of a Mad Housewife; and Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971). They all ended up as commercial failures.
The go ahead on the production of Two-Lane Blacktop was doubtlessly based on the fact that Hellman had directed four films starring Easy Rider’s breakout performer—Jack Nicholson.
Two-Lane Blacktop follows a pair of drag racing hustlers in a souped up ‘55
Chevy as they travel along the back roads of America. The drag racers (played by musicians James Taylor and Dennis Wilson and only identified in the credits as the Driver and the Mechanic) are devoid of any discernible identities aside from their utilitarian relationship with their car. As the Driver and the Mechanic travel east through California, Arizona, and New Mexico, they frequently cross paths with a middle-aged raconteur driving a 1970 Pontiac GTO (played by the great character actor Warren Oates and only identified in the credits as GTO). Something resembling a plot emerges once a young hitchhiker/stowaway (played by Laurie Bird) climbs into the back seat of the '55 Chevy at an Arizona diner.
Two-Lane Blacktop is an unusual and almost unknown film that has become widely recognized by filmmakers such as Allison Anders, Richard Linklater, and Quentin Tarantino as one of the best American films from its decade. With Two-Lane Blacktop, Hellman delivered an artistic film about cars that abandoned any conventions that any major Hollywood studio would expect to find in a picture concerning a cross-country car race: there are no exhilarating car chases nor any daring stunts; car stereos and restaurant jukeboxes provide all of the music heard throughout the film; and a narrative that rambles around any formulaic plot machinations – including the cross-country race that was the basis for the film’s advertising campaign.
Not only does Two-Lane Blacktop capture the loneliness of life on the road, it also has a cinematic style that has the feel of a documentary. The entire picture was filmed on location along the two-lane highways of rural America. Genuine mom-and-pop diners, service stations, and small towns encountered between Los Angeles and North Carolina provide all of the film’s set pieces. Hellman's innovative filmmaking techniques (for example, he utilized hidden cameras to capture the interactions of his actors with people on the streets of Santa Fe) and limited use of professional actors (the only recognizable faces in the film belong to Warren Oates and Harry Dean Stanton) also lend Two-Lane Blacktop a sense of realism that is rarely evident in Hollywood studio productions - and American cinema for that matter.
Two-Lane Blacktop is worth checking out if you love road movies, American films of the '70s, or America muscle cars.
Monte Hellman never made another film in the Hollywood studio system after the failure of Two-Lane Blacktop. He went on to direct a spaghetti western starring Warren Oates and Sam Peckinpah (one of the infamous western genre director's few onscreen performances), a Roger Corman film about cockfighting (also starring Warren Oates) and several direct-to-video films in the 1980's. His most famous contribution to American cinema has been his shepherding of a then unknown filmmaker by the name of Quentin Tarantino in 1992 as the executive producer of Reservoir Dogs.
Also, the screenplay was written by Rudolph Wurlitzer – an existentialist writer known for his books Nog, Flats, and The Drop Edge of Yonder who went on to write several films after Two-Lane Blacktop, including: Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (1973) and Alex Cox’s Walker (1987).
Suggested Related Viewing:
Easy Rider directed by Dennis Hopper and written by Dennis Hopper, Terry Southern, and Peter Fonda
Five Easy Pieces directed by Bob Rafelson and written by Adrien Joyce
La Strada directed by Federico Fellini and written by Federico Fellini and Tullio Pinelli
Persona written and directed by Ingmar Bergman
Spirit of the Beehive directed by Victor Erice
Drive directed by Nicolas Winding-Refn and written by Hossein Amini
Springville Road Library