With Easy Rider having made bucketloads of money for Columbia in 1969 Universal must have thought they were going to enjoy a similar bonanza with Two-Lane Blacktop. With a plot involving drifters challenging each other to a cross-country road race across America, with a cast headed by major youth culture icons (singer James Taylor and Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson), and with a director who’d started his career making movies for Roger Corman it seemed to have all the credentials to clean up in the exploitation, youth and counter-culture markets. The only trouble was, director Monte Hellman was not interested in delivering a movie packed with spectacular car crashes and explosions. Two-Lane Blacktop has no explosions, no shoot-outs, on fact no violence at all, no nudity, and the only sex takes place off-screen. The movie Hellman actually made is a bleak and incredibly austere existential road movie.
James Taylor (The Driver) and Dennis Wilson (The Mechanic) have no interests in life outside of their 1955 Chevy coupe, a car that they have turned into an awesomely fast racing machine. They make a living by racing and by challenging suckers who think they can beat their car. They are in effect car hustlers. At a diner The Girl (Laurie Bird) joins them. They keep encountering a bright yellow Pontiac GTO, whose driver (known to us only as GTO and played by Warren Oates) seems anxious to take them on. Eventually a formal challenge is issued - a race to Washington DC, with the winner to get the loser’s car.
That might make it sound like the plot is fairly important, but it isn’t. In fact the race scarcely matters, and neither side seems to take it very seriously. At times they’re more like allies than rivals, united perhaps by the understanding that they’re all outsiders and they’re all equally in love with the road. You might also expect a major romantic sub-plot involving The Girl, but again Hellman defies our expectations. All three male characters have at least a passing interest in sleeping with her, and one of them does, but the romantic angle ends up being as vague as the race itself. Nothing really matters except the road. None of the characters knows where the road is taking them, and they don’t seem to care. One moment they’re heading for Florida, the next it’s Arizona. The road is in fact a road to nowhere, and the characters seem aware of this.
Using non-actors for three of the four main roles (Laurie Bird was a photographer who only appeared in two further movies before her tragically early death) works extremely well. The performances are disconnected and detached, and devoid of emotional content. Which is exactly as it should be. We know nothing at all about the four characters. We don’t know their names, or where they come from. And they tell us nothing bout themselves. The only one who talks about himself is GTO, and we soon realise that we cannot believe a single word he says. His stories about himself are simply stories about other people that he’s picked up on the road from passengers he’s picked up. The lack of any kind of characterisation would be a flaw in most movies, but this movie is about the road, not the people on it.
It’s a movie that succeeds in being quintessentially American, and yet the sensibility behind it is European rather than American. Although made by Americans it has the feel of a film by a Bergman or an Antonioni or a Godard. Hellman and his screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer manage to view America in the kind of dispassionate way that is generally possible to outsiders. And they succeeded in making one of the greatest American movies of the 70s, the greatest decade in the history of American cinema. A magnificent film.