Two-Lane Blacktop: Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: Monte Hellman’s Masterpiece

Written by Luigi Bastardo

As anyone who has ever experienced a truly awkward moment of puberty is well aware, growing up is an inevitable part of life. However, in most cases, we do not simply jump from Point A to Point Z — there’s usually a learning process involved that teaches us the rest of the alphabet of maturity. Valuable skills are developed upon the way — wherein we (are supposed to) learn how to interact with the rest of humanity and how to function as the relatively-sane human beings our parents probably had hoped for in the process. And then there those of us who take a wee bit longer to bloom. Misfits who truly never master the are of communication. People who were, essentially, born to wander aimlessly — much like the main characters of Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop.

Hellman, one of several kajillion Roger Corman protégés who wound up sitting in a director’s chair for a reason other than to keep it warm for Roger (though this one sports the finest, most-enviable hairdo ever), weaves a world of anonymity here — immersing viewers into a lonely and near-nihilistic reality for four wanderers.

We begin with our anti-heroes: two street races whom we only ever know as the Driver (singer/songwriter James Taylor) and his heterosexual lifemate, the Mechanic (Dennis Wilson, of the Beach Boys). They’re always together. They communicate rarely in a verbal form, having existed together on the same plane, that they really don’t need to. I had a very good friend like that once, so I can completely relate to these two — though I know fuck-all about automobiles.

Along the way, the boys obtain a third passenger: a hitchhiker (known here as the Girl, as played by star-crossed actress Laurie Bird) who hops out of a hippie’s van one day and jumps into the back of the Driver and Mechanic’s ’55 Chevy One-Fifty — something that would surely get you shot or, at the very least, arrested in today’s paranoid and untrusting world. The One-Fifty isn’t the only unlocked ride in the picture: the Girl is there to please and be pleased — a regular freelove kinda gal, the likes of which we (sadly) rarely see anymore. Again, I found it easy to relate to this character, as — I, too, I’m told — am an easy lay.

Finally, we have the film’s semi-antagonist, GTO: an older, unwiser, and seemingly-psychotic individual in a shiny new ’70 Pontiac GTO (and who is played to the hilt by the one and only Warren Oates, as only he could play such a character — and who is a proud member of the Warren Oates/L.Q. Jones/Don Stroud School of Excellence). Much like the boys, GTO usually has an anonymous passenger with him — though he cycles through hitchhikers frequently, picking a new one up as he drops the old one off, feeding each one a new and different bullshit story about who he is and how he came to be where he is in life. In truth, GTO doesn’t know where he is in life: he’s thumbing through the letters of a jumbled-up alphabet, seeking some sort of order. He appears to be lonely, unhappy, and angry with himself and the world that no doubt created and subsequently abandoned him. Sadly, it was his character I could sympathize with the most.

Wait. Is it weird that I can relate to every single main character in this film? Well, I suppose so. But not really. Heck, I suppose were I a really deep thinker (and I am most certainly not), I could perceive these individuals to be different elements — dare I theorize, personalities — of the same person. Additional faces in the film include Harry Dean Stanton (as a gay hitchhiker), George Mitchell, James Mitchum, and a lot of people who never appeared in a moving picture of this or any other magnitude ever again.

Eventually, after driving past one another on their separate rural trips to wherever the roads take them, GTO and the boys decide to compete against each other on a cross-country trip to D.C. — wherein the winner(s) will obtain the pink slips of both vehicular contraptions. Along the way, the four misfits start to bond, though it’s clear from the get-go that their unique (and often very peculiar) mannerisms will never truly result in lasting friendships. These are people who only have one true thing in common: a love for a life the road — because they truly do not feel that they belong anywhere else.

And I imagine that’s why Two-Lane Blacktop has gone down to become a cult classic over the last forty years: it epitomizes that which many of us are unable to realize at one point in life or another. Ironically enough, when the film first premiered in 1971 — a time when much of the populace were seeking to find themselves — it flopped, despite a number of favorable reviews. Most of this was attributable to its parent studio (Universal), which did not understand or appreciate the underlying message of the title, or the artistic flair Hellman crafted it with. It has since gained most of the respect it was so dishonorably denied over forty years ago, earning a reputable VHS and DVD release from Anchor Bay in 1999.

Well, here we are in 2013, and the folks at the Criterion Collection have graced us with a much-needed High-Definition release of this underground favorite. Mr. Hellman himself personally supervised Criterion’s transfer here, and the end-result is nothing short of spectacular. Granted, there are those occasional bits of noise during the presentation, which were more than likely a product of the filmstock available at the time. The rest of the presentation is a beauty — boasting some remarkable depth, color, and contrast all-around. What’s more, Criterion’s Blu-ray also includes a secondary audio track: a newly-mixed DTS-HD MA 5.1 (which Monte also supervised in the creation of) option for those of you who either want to experience a full-surround ride through the Southern United States, or who simply don’t know how to appreciate a good mono mix for what it is.

Thankfully, the original monaural soundtrack is here as the primary audio option (LPCM 1.0). Optional English (SDH) subtitles are available, and special features for this road movie classic include the original theatrical trailer, two audio commentaries (one with Hellman, accompanied by filmmaker Allison Anders; the other with Two-Lane Blacktop screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer, in the company of film professor/author David N. Meyer — both tracks were recorded by Criterion in 2007), and a slew of featurettes and behind-the-scenes goodies. These odds and ends consist of interviews with cast and crew, including misters Hellman and Taylor (the latter is the only one of the four leads who is still with us) as well as Kris Kristofferson (who contributed to the film’s soundtrack, and who was also up for a lead role); outtakes and casting auditions; and a number of galleries for the film.

All in all, Criterion has done a superb job in paving the way for Two-Lane Blacktop to be enjoyed by future generations. I was very happy to present the film to my own teenagers: granted, my daughter (the older of the two, who tends to shout out “Wait, I’m confused!” as soon as the timer on any feature reads 0:00:01) naturally had no idea what the hell was going on, but my son (who is, for all practical purposes, my clone) was a bit more appreciative of the flick — they’ll thank me for it years down the line, I’m sure, unless they want to be disowned by me, that is! And I’m very thankful that Criterion and Monte Hellman were able to put so much time and effort into this one.

Now, if they could just do the same for Hellman’s other classic, 1974’s Cockfighter (also with Warren Oates, Laurie Bird, and Harry Dean Stanton) — which I am proud to say I own on Betamax — I could die a happy man.

Shoot, I might even find my way in life were that to happen. I’ll be happy to enjoy repeat viewings of Two-Lane Blacktop on Blu-ray until then, though.

Cinema Sentries

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