The road (to nowhere) movie was quintessentially 70s, and Monte Hellman’s existentialist trip is arguably the form’s zenith. Singer James Taylor and Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson are The Driver and The Mechanic, respectively, taking all-comers in their souped-up 55 Chevy.
Hellman and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) kept it as stripped down and minimalist as almost anything in contemporary European art cinema – it’s both abstract and concrete. You get Bressonian non-acting from the musos but it’s Warren Oates’ performance as the desperately miserable, wretchedly “cool” GTO that seals the deal. This restless American doesn’t even know what he’s looking for, or why – and all he’ll leave behind him is a trail of smoke.
A cult figure for European cinephiles but sadly neglected in his own country, Monte Hellman was the existentialist of the exploitation circuit. When both philosophies fell out of fashion in the 1980s Hellman’s career petered out, and save for a brief association with Quentin Tarantino during the development of Reservoir Dogs he remained tied to the achievements of the late 1960s, early 70s.
On the back of his critical reputation in Europe and the crucial Easy Rider effect Hellman was invited to make Two-Lane Blacktop for Universal. Announced as “the movie of the year” by Esquire and “an instant classic” by Rolling Stone even before it opened, this willfully inconclusive car race movie crashed at the box office.
Screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (directed by Sam Peckinpah) also features in our Ragged Glory: Summer in the 70s series. Warren Oates can also be seen in Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and in Badlands.
At times, Two-Lane Blacktop feels overwhelmingly sad, and it’s mostly because of the characters’ resignation, like they’ve all accepted that there is no future or past, just an endless present that only promises more open road, but less answers and no meaning.
Vikram Murthi, Indiewire
An instant classic.
Esquire magazine (1971)
July 17 Only: Introduction from writer and filmmaker Mike Archibald
Michael S. Laughlin
Rudolph Wurlitzer, Will Corry