Movie Project #15: Two-Lane Blacktop [1971]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Two-Lane Blacktop [1971]

Two-Lane Blacktop [1971]
Director: Monte Hellman
Screenplay: Rudy Wurlitzer and Will Corry
Country: USA
Genre: Drama
Starring: James Taylor, Dennis Wilson, Warren Oates, Laurie Bird
Running Time: 102 minutes

Reason for inclusion: Vanishing Point was one of my favorite selections from last year’s project, and many readers recommended I check out Two-Lane Blacktop as well.

Accolades: Inducted into the National Film Registry in 2012, part of the Criterion Collection

“What are you trying to do, blow my mind?”

There is something to be said about a man and his car. In Monte Hellman’s cult road movie, Two-Lane Blacktop, there isn’t a whole lot that *is* said. Instead, it’s the cars that do most of the talking.

With a cast comprised mostly of non-actors — Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, singer-songwriter James Taylor and young photographer Laurie Bird — alongside the rugged character actor, Warren Oates, much of the focus is placed on two cars.

Taylor and Wilson, known only as “The Driver” and “The Mechanic” respectively, are a couple of drifters who live on the road in their souped-up 1955 Chevy One-Fifty. While stopped at a diner in Flagstaff, Arizona, a young hitchhiker (Bird) known only as “The Girl” hops into the back of their car. No questions are asked — she seems just as aimless as the two of them and wants to go for a ride.

And so they ride.

Two-Lane Blacktop [1971]

It’s in New Mexico where they meet another driver, “GTO” (Oates), who is a cocksure fella that is mighty proud of his 1970 Pontiac GTO. Nevermind the fact that he doesn’t seem to know too awfully much about his car, at least not anything that isn’t found in the manual. He loves to race, and the idea is quickly brought up to challenge the One-Fifty.

The stakes? Their cars. First one to Washington, D.C. gets both pink slips.

This sounds like the perfect setup for a balls-to-the-wall racing flick, but Two-Lane Blacktop is anything but. This is a minimalist film with sparse dialogue, and so much of it is open to interpretation. Not much actually happens in the film — the race is pretty much scrapped from the get-go — yet so much can be taken from it. This is the type of film that shows you the bare minimum and lets you interpret it as you see fit.

Two-Lane Blacktop [1971]

I appreciate this abstract form, but the film left me wanting more. How did GTO, who is clearly going through a midlife crisis, get to this point in his life? Why are The Driver and The Mechanic drifting along so aimlessly? And why in the hell is The Girl staying with them?

There are little things in the film that everyone can appreciate, however. The cars sound LOUD — in a nice touch, it’s often difficult to hear the characters talk over the engines. There are also some beautiful shots of the Route 66 countryside. And although Taylor and Wilson are devoid of personality in this film, Warren Oates delivers a wildly entertaining character. As I dig into the classics, he is quickly becoming a favorite actor of mine.

Two-Lane Blacktop is a divisive film. There are those that absolutely love it (hence the cult following), whereas others find it dull and boring. I’m somewhere in the middle. At the very least, it is an interesting relic of its time.


11 thoughts on “Movie Project #15: Two-Lane Blacktop [1971]

  1. Chris says:

    I’ve heard of Two-Lane Blacktop, but I always forget to see it. Looks like you didn’t love it as much as Vanishing Point.
    Talking of car movies, have you seen the Mad Max trilogy? I checked it, and the first two are worth it. If you’re on a roll with road movies, there’s also Harry & Tonto (1974), which I liked.

  2. jackdeth72 says:

    Hi, Eric:

    Intriguing choice and dissertation!

    And I’m very much with you and your final analysis.

    ‘Two Lane Blacktop’ seems to be an amalgam of several different classes or types of films. Instead of filling one niche completely.

    One of the better “Muscle Car/Road Trip” flicks with equal emphasis of the machines and those who love them. Mixed with chases. races, loud noise and decent dialogue from a mostly unknown cast.

    ‘Two Lane Blacktop’ does fit nicely and rounds out the brief spate of 1970s “Go Fast Films” that included ‘Vanishing Point’, Ryan O’Neal’s ‘The Driver’ and ‘Dirty Mary Crazy Larry’.

    • Eric @ The Warning Sign says:

      Hi Jack, glad to hear I’m not alone on this one. There aren’t many films that are better at showing their love of muscle cars, but I may not be the proper ‘gearhead’ to truly appreciate it.

      The Driver has been on my list of must-see movies for a while now. Will have to look up that and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry.

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