By Chaz Lipp
Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Two-Lane Blacktop – The Criterion Collection on Blogcritics.
The 1971 cult classic Two-Lane Blacktop is, on the surface, a film about street racing. A two-man team identified only as the Driver (James Taylor) and the Mechanic (Dennis Wilson) drive around in their customized ’55 Chevy One-Fifty looking for people to race. They find an easy mark in GTO (Warren Oates), a man—identified only by the car he drives—who seems to believe whatever version of his own backstory he tells the hitchhikers he picks up. At one point he says he won the hot rod in Vegas, but his story shifts frequently. He accepts the Driver and Mechanic’s challenge of a cross-country race. The winner gains ownership of the loser’s car. As plots go, there isn’t much to it. There’s even less actual racing action.
The real theme is loneliness, with the open road serving as the manifestation of its characters’ aimless lives. Director Monte Hellman cast Taylor, who had never acted previously, based on the singer-songwriter’s looks alone. Nor had Wilson, best known as The Beach Boys’ drummer, acted before. The presence of these two rookie actors (neither of whom sang or contributed any music to the film) would be enough to ensure on-going cult status for Two-Lane Blacktop.
Taylor’s Driver seems to be defiantly running away from anything resembling a normal life. We don’t learn enough about him to know why. Equally unknowable is the Mechanic, with Wilson underplaying his part as much as Taylor (just not quite as sullenly). Riding with the pair, at least on a fleeting basis, is the Girl (Laurie Bird). She’s a bored tomboy, as difficult to pin down as the male leads. The Driver and Mechanic seem wholly indifferent to her presence in the back of their car.
That leaves Oates’ GTO, widely (and correctly) considered the beating heart of the film. He’s living out a mid-life crisis (failed marriage, failed career) on the road. Unlike the Driver, however, he just doesn’t seem all that comfortable there. The Driver has a loyal travelling companion; he doesn’t waste his time picking up strangers. GTO appears to be craving human contact, picking up a succession of hitchhikers ranging from a guy who prefers using the ladies’ room to relieve himself, to a gay drifter (Harry Dean Stanton).
He even accepts the slightly dubious offer of help (and hard-boiled eggs) from his opponents when they claim he has engine trouble. The Girl rides with him for a while too, but the sad sack proves to be a poor match for her. In a movie notable for characters of few words, GTO is the only one most people are likely to relate to—a man on the run from his own wrecked life.
In an era dominated by digital filmmaking, it’s worth noting that Two-Lane Blacktop was shot in a unique format called Techniscope. In this format, the standard four-perforation 35mm frame is reduced to two perforations. This cuts the amount of film needed for the shoot literally in half. It also creates an aspect ratio roughly equivalent to that of anamorphic widescreen, while avoiding the use of anamorphic lenses. Criterion’s Blu-ray edition did not use the original two-perforation negative, but rather a four-perforation interpositive. Director Monte Hellman supervised the transfer, which presents a clean (if not quite completely spotless) image.
Much of the film takes place at night and none of it was really designed to show off flashy colors or glorious landscapes (despite its picturesque Southwestern setting). Still, the commonplace was well captured by the cinematography of Jack Deerson. The transfer seems to offer an accurate presentation of this deliberately bland, drab vision. It looks like a well-photographed documentary, with great detail evident in the actor’s faces in particular. Sharpness is never lacking, the level of visible grain is befitting for a film of this age, and black levels (essential for the night driving scenes) are deep.
Audio is presented in its original 1.0 mono as well as a director-approved 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio remix. The best thing that can be said about the sonic presentation of this meditative film is that when it’s supposed to be quiet, it is. When those rumbling engines need to be heard, they are. I say go for the mono, if for no other reason than authenticity (it’s how it was originally intended). But the surround mix doesn’t go overboard as it opens the suitably modest sound design up a bit.
As for special features, Criterion has ported over a slew of terrific stuff from a previous 2007 DVD edition. Two commentaries are available, each featuring two participants—one who was involved in the actual film and one who wasn’t. The first track pairs director Hellman with filmmaker Allison Anders, while the other teams up screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer and film professor David N. Meyer. “On the Road Again” is not the usual retrospective piece. It’s an engaging road-based piece that finds Hellman and some of his film students visiting the old shooting locations. There’s also a nearly 40-minute interview with James Taylor and a half hour interview with Kris Kristofferson (whose “Me and Bobby McGee” was one of the few prominently featured songs on the soundtrack).
Various participants contribute additional thoughts in the “Sure Did Talk to You” interview featurette. Screen tests for James Taylor and Laurie Bird turn up as well. A couple of still photo galleries (“Color Me Gone” and “Performance and Image”) round out the features. As is often the case with Criterion releases, the booklet 37-page booklet constitutes a useful feature in its own right. This one has a couple good essays and a piece by filmmaker Richard Linklater, “Ten (Sixteen Actually) Reasons I Love Two-Lane Blacktop.”
Two-Lane Blacktop is certainly not for everyone, but what cult film is? Those viewers patient enough to adapt to its peculiar rhythm will be rewarded with a quirky character study.