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Two Lane Blacktop

****
1971

‘…an arty yet earthy road movie that sits neatly in the slipstream of Easy Rider and Vanishing Point…’

Having a car seems like a full time job in Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop, an arty yet earthy road movie that sits neatly in the slipstream of Easy Rider and Vanishing Point. The subject is a cross-country road race, and the film was one of the inspirations for the Cannonball Run. But we’re not talking celebrity cameos and car crashes here, and although we see several illegal car races, this isn’t franchise material either, although Fast and Furious Presents: Two Lane Blacktop is a title that potentially intrigues.

Singer James Taylor and Beach Boy drummer Dennis Wilson are two men who race their souped-up jalopy in one small-town after another; they soon pick up a girl (Laurie Bird), and get into a rivalry with GTO (Warren Oates). How GTO got his dazzling yellow sports car is never fully explained; the truth is not in him, and yet an odd friendship develops from their rivalry.

All the characters featured here are ciphers; as in Walter Hill’s The Driver, they are named for their function; Girl, Driver, Mechanic. GTO functions much like Jack Nicholson’s character in Easy Rider, an emblem of a lifestyle that the protagonists still can’t help but reject, even if he’s still pretty counter-culture.

A downbeat line about the life-cycle of cicadas nails the film’s sociological ideas pretty succinctly, and the studied naturalism is something of a joy. Two Lane Blacktop has been tough to find and locate over the last fifty years, with music clearances offering the usual obstacles, but it’s really worth the effort. Wikipedia’s plot summary says, “The film ends abruptly’ but that’s something of a dry understatement; it ends as it begins, in an unconventional style that’s rarely been bettered. Two Lane Blacktop is a cult film that delivers the goods when you drop the hammer, whether you’re a pertrol-head or not.

And as a post-script, I’ve just noticed that Fast and Furious supremo Justin Lin is indeed remaking this with Pitbull, so there’s that to look forward to…

 

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  1. I don’t know who this Lin guy is or what Pitbull is supposed to be (I’m guessing a human, but you can never tell these days), but I’m against reboots on general principle.

    Give me the old movies that cost me an arm and leg to buy, sight unseen. THAT’S what movies are really about. The surprise…

    • I would be happy to be proved wrong, but my sarcasm disguises disdain; this reboot sounds truly atrocious. Remember the announced Annie, starring Jaden Smith, with music by Jay Z, and Emma Thompson as Miss Hannibal. Every single part of that sounded awful, and it was, and Two Lane Blacktop is one film that will not work for a reboot. You can live without Pitbull amongst your three songs.

  2. I saw this film on its premiere run in March 1973. It opened at the ‘Screen on the Green’ in Islington which was still then a very ‘in’ place. Sadly today it has been ruined by Everyman. One of Romaine Hart’s great ideas when she re-opened the cinema in 1970 was to programme interesting double bills including the Marx Brothers films. Two Lane Black Top was part of a double bill with ‘Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here’ starring Robert Redford, Katharine Ross and the great Robert Blake. That film was directed and co-written by Abraham Polonsky, one of the main victims of HUAC who was blacklisted throughout the 1950s. What a terrific double bill.

    James Taylor was a huge music star in 1971 and so were the Beach Boys which is possibly why Rank went with their Universal partnership for a UK release. In the early 1970s, Rank still gambled that artier Hollywood fare would work in Odeons and the same double bill showed in selected Odeons around the country. The only Scottish screening I’ve found so far was at Cosmo 2 in Aberdeen in October 1974 – in another great double bill with Milos Forman’s ‘Taking Off’.

    Re availability, I’m sure Two Lane Blacktop has shown on MUBI in the UK and probably on terrestrial TV at some point. Monte Hellman was actually quite well known in the early 1970s and the press coverage of the film discussed his work.

    • I think I saw it back when BBC 2 Sunday nights would show this or Electra Glide in Blue, also starring Blake. But unlike some of my other commenters, I found it tricky to find until a few years back. My local Picturehouse in Edinburgh used to do great Sunday afternoon double-bills, I’d love to see the art of the double-bill come back, but it doesn’t seem to be a money-spinner. Great comment; love to think of this playing in Aberdeen!

  3. I haven’t seen this for a while – I might dig out my Eureka blu ray to revisit it. I remember an enjoyable existential road trip with a seductive tone. It’s the only Monte Hellman film I’ve seen, and his recent death reminded me I should try to seek out some more – though I doubt Cockfighter will every be released in the UK given UK censorship rules.

    • And with some reason. Watched Capone last night, the 75 version, and still find 70’s exploitation cinema shocking. Two Lane Blacktop is far cooler than that, envy your blu-ray!

    • And yet….has a poor box office reputation. Maybe I’ve got the figures the wrong way up…

    • Can’t find much about Pitbull or Justin Lin in this very outdated review. Probably written by some old codger in the dark ages, eh?

      • According to the author of this review it’s a movie that’s been “tough to find and locate” in Scotland. Despite being a Criterion release. I guess availability is a problem for those living in rat-infested hovels without Internet, or serviced by libraries that are only shipping containers that don’t stock DVDs.

        • The film was out of circulation for nearly forty years due to music clearance issues, so a lot you know about it buster. Not released by Criterion until 2007.

            • Funnily enough, I bought my DVD copy from a library. But it’s not the Criterion version, which are like hen’s teeth in the UK, As I fully and accurately described. Now, are you going to bark all day, or are you going to bite?

              • Hm. “Fully and accurately” means “incompletely and erroneously” in the UK? I can’t keep up with these changes in the language.

                • My award-winning website is written ‘fully and accurately’

                  Your incoherent ramblings are written ‘incompletely and erroneously’

                  That is how these phrases can be accurately applied.

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