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  Two-Lane Blacktop Shut Up And Drive
Year: 1971
Director: Monte Hellman
Stars: James Taylor, Dennis Wilson, Warren Oates, Laurie Bird, Harry Dean Stanton, Bill Keller, Rudy Wurlitzer
Genre: DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: The Driver (James Taylor) and the Mechanic (Dennis Wilson) spend their lives driving across America, making money by competing in races they stop at along their otherwise aimless journey. One day they pick up a hitch hiker (Laurie Bird), or rather she climbs into their car when they are stopped for a break, but they don't let her distract them from the driving, and find themselves in competition with the fast talking GTO (Warren Oates), a man who seems to be living in his own invented world, as to who can reach Washington D.C. first.

After Easy Rider came out, the Hollywood studios, whose established system was ailing, were falling over themselves looking for another counterculture hit, and Universal's Two-Lane Blacktop, an interesting counterpart to the same year's Vanishing Point, was seen as the next big thing. The first draft of the script, by Rudy Wurlitzer (based on Will Corry's story), was published in Esquire magazine, and the film became much-anticipated, but when it was released, everyone suddenly lost interest and it flopped at the box office. However, the obsessive air of the production with its thematic placing of car escapades as the raison d'etre of the American way won it a small, loyal cult following.

The story doesn't matter in Two Lane Blacktop, all that matters is the driving, but not in a way that would court dramatic action sequences or even knee-slapping comedy as other movies in this milieu would do. When the Driver and the Mechanic (no one has names) talk, they talk about the car - not even the Girl comes between them (although by the finale, such as it was, it's a close run thing). Taylor and Wilson are no actors, but their understated, almost stilted, style fits the characterless men they play: they don't need anything except the road, and not even the competitive edge of the races means more than the act of driving. Wilson was marginally more animated, even cracking a smile every so often, but Taylor would have been amateurish in the extreme in any other context.

As a contrast, GTO (Oates is predictably superb) is passionate about his car and lets everyone he meets know about it. He picks up an endless succession of hitch hikers to combat his loneliness (including a gay Harry Dean Stanton who amusingly tries to interest him by placing a hand on his knee), simply to boast of his skills and the power of his vehicle, inventing various almost-plausible stories to hang his details on. When he ends up a passenger in the Driver's car, he doesn't look right at all, because he's more like his two rivals than he would care to admit, even down to the lack of any background, as if the time spent on the highways and byways has erased any semblance of an origin for these men - it begins to affect the Girl as well. As an aside, it's sobering to think that in just over a decade after its release, Taylor would be the sole lead actor from the film still alive.

That said, the tragedies did lend the production a certain, wasted cool. The whole world of Two-Lane Blacktop revolves around the road - they eat in diners, refuel at gas stations and sleep in motels. The people they meet are those ever-present hitch hikers, fellow racers, the attendants and staff, policemen and car crash victims, every one connected to driving in some manner. There doesn't seem to be anything else at all, because in this environment there is nothing that matters: even the stuff that now matters instead (hitting the road, basically) barely qualifies, as the drivers have courted an oblivion that the well-known last few seconds depict in an unforgettable yet hauntingly simple style. This purity of vision can lead you to react in two ways: you'll either have your senses dulled by the monotony, or you'll be fascinated, maybe both; on a second or third viewing, you begin to detect a sense of humour at work, but it is buried deep. As a study in dehumanizing obsession, it's hard to beat. Music consists of tunes heard on the radio or the cassette player in GTO's car.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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Monte Hellman  (1932 - )

"Existential" is a word often used to describe the films of this American director, who after working for Roger Corman on Beast from Haunted Cave, Back Door to Hell and The Terror directed two cult westerns, The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind. In the 1970s he continued his cult acclaim with Two Lane Blacktop, Cockfighter and China 9 Liberty 37, but come the 80s the directing work dried up, with only Iguana and Silent Night, Deadly Night 3 to his name. He also worked behind the scenes on The Wild Angels, Robocop and Reservoir Dogs, among others.

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