“Two Lane Blacktop” is the best car movie you have probably never seen, and possibly never even heard of.
“Two Lane Blacktop” was filmed in 1970, and released in 1971. It was directed by Monte Hellman, who has also made some other road-trip movies. I watched it a few days ago for the first time, having never seen it before. I had never heard of it until about a month ago when I was watching a couple of Western movies from 1965 made by the same director. (“The Shooting”, and “Ride in the Whirlwind.”) The commentaries on the two Western movies kept making reference to Monte’s film “Two Lane Blacktop”. My local library had a copy so I checked it out.
This film is different from any other movie I have ever seen. I was amazed at how good it was, and how much I liked it. There are only four main actors in the film, and only one of them had any previous acting experience at the time of the filming. None of the actors has a name, there is not a lot of dialog, two of the main actors never made another movie, the two cars in the movie are at the very least main characters, and to some viewers may even be considered the stars of the show. There is no character development. The people in the film just do what they do. No questions asked, no answers given.
The cars are a heavily modified 1955 Chevrolet 150, and a factory stock 1970 Pontaic GTO. The film crew had three of the Chevys: one the actual race car and the other two for some non-race shots; and two GTOs to use in making the movie, provided by Pontiac. The film was shot on Route 66, starting in California and ending up in Tennessee with lots of places in between. There are lots of street races and drag races. And there are lots and lots of cars in the film. Almost all of them are American. I have watched the film three times now and I think I saw two foreign cars, but I was not able to figure out exactly what they were.
The two main characters, called “The Driver”, played by the singer/songwriter James Taylor, and “The Mechanic” played by founding member and drummer of the Beach Boys Dennis Wilson, travel from town to town engaging in street racing with their 55 Chevy for the money they need to buy gas, food and motel rooms. They meet up with “The Girl”, played by Laurie Bird.
Not long after “The Girl” joins them the trio meets “GTO”, played by Warren Oates. Warren drives the GTO, and he and “The Driver” soon decide to engage in a cross-country race to Washington DC, with the winner getting to claim ownership of the loser’s car.
When the director Monte Hellman was asked what the movie “Two Lane Blacktop” was about he replied, “It is about an hour and three quarters.” It is hard in words to describe such a visual movie. The actors spend a lot of time not saying anything, and sometimes not even doing much of anything. But there is always something happening on the screen. The actors are able to speak volumes with their silence.
This film is really a slice of time. Back in 1970, Route 66 was not the celebrated driving experience it is now. There was not much traffic on the road, but the big interstate highways had not all been finished yet. So, there were still people and businesses that were using Route 66 has their connection to the world. And in 1970 it was still possible for a guy to fix his own car, and car parts and speed equipment were not all that expensive. Gas was cheap. Food was cheap. Tires were cheap.
The director has said that this movie could not be made today. The making of the movie was a road trip, and it shows. It is rare in movie making for the script to call for the final scene being filmed last, but in this case that is just what happened.
Try and find a copy of this film. Watching it will be well worth your time.