by Robert Garrick on Mar 30, 2022

Robert Garrick introduced and discussed Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) as part of the Golden Anniversaries programming at the 2021 St. Louis International Film Festival. This essay is based on his remarks at that screening.

Two-Lane Blacktop: Ghosts on the Road

By Robert Garrick

1971 / USA / 102 min. / Dir. by Monte Hellman / Premiered on July 7, 1971

"I don't know what existentialism is, but I know it’s cool."
— David Mamet

Two-Lane Blacktop was released in July 1971 to utter indifference. Universal’s head, Lew Wasserman, supposedly hated the film, and he refused to promote it. The film closed in a week. Nobody saw it. Few of the major critics bothered to review it. There were no awards, no 10-best lists, certainly no Oscar nominations.

For the next 30 years, the film was buried, partly because of music-rights problems, but also because nobody had ever heard of it. Repertory houses didn’t show it. It wasn’t shown on television, save for one bizarre, pan-and-scan appearance on public television in the ’80s.

Today — 50 years later — Two-Lane Blacktop looks like a miracle of personal cinema, a fully realized piece of high art. Unlike so many other personal films in American history, the film isn’t compromised in any way. Monte Hellman, the film’s director, had a million-dollar budget from a big studio. Back then, that was plenty of money. He managed to secure control over every aspect of the production, and he got the final cut. It’s exactly the film he wanted to make, and it’s a triumph.

Two-Lane Blacktop came out of Easy Rider, the surprise hit of 1969 starring Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper. Easy Rider was a major financial success, so naturally there were attempts to copy the idea. Some producer got Will Corry, who had been an actor on Gunsmoke, to write a script. Corry was paid $100,000, a large sum in those days.

The producer showed Corry’s script to Hellman and asked him if he’d like to direct the film. Hellman read it and loved the underlying concept, which was a cross-country car race with a giant bet attached. Everything else about Corry’s script, Hellman hated. So he called Rudy Wurlitzer, an avant-garde writer back East who had written a hot novel called Nog. Hellman told Wurlitzer to write something else using the car race as the central idea. Wurlitzer got a room in the San Fernando Valley, started hanging out with gearheads, and produced a new script in about a month.
For the actors, Hellman cast James Taylor, the soon-to-be rock star, in the lead role. It’s the only film Taylor has ever made. Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys is also in it — it’s the only film he ever made. There’s a young girl, 17 years old, played by an actress named Laurie Bird. She had small parts in Hellman’s later film Cockfighter (1974) and in Annie Hall (1977), but it’s practically the only film she ever made. The other major part in Two-Lane Blacktop went to the great character actor Warren Oates.

Two-Lane Blacktop is nominally about two young guys, maybe about 22 years old, who drive a souped-up 1955 Chevy that looks like crap but is very fast. The two guys are known as The Driver (that’s Taylor) and The Mechanic (that’s Wilson). They drive from one hick town to another, looking for suckers to drag-race for money. This is how they finance their life, which consists of ... driving from one hick town to the next, looking for suckers to drag-race for money. They don’t talk much, and when they talk, it’s generally about cars. “She’s not breathing right” — that’s actual dialogue from the film. “I think that Plymouth had a Hemi” — more dialogue.

Bird’s character is known as The Girl. Warren Oates plays an older guy known as GTO after his vehicle, a Pontiac muscle car of the era. Rudy Wurlitzer calls GTO “an ornate, flashy, B.S. guy who drives an ornate, flashy, B.S. car.”

The Driver and the Mechanic agree to race GTO from Arizona (where they meet him) to Washington, D.C., and that’s your film. It’s an auto race, moving from west to east. We have two cars, three guys, and a girl, going through one small town after another, mostly on Route 66.

Hellman shot the film from Wurlitzer’s script in September and October 1970. The first cut was about four hours long. Then Hellman, who was the film editor as well as the director, spent the next five months cutting it down to about 100 minutes, and that’s the film we have today. It’s absolutely Hellman’s film. He cast it, he hired the writer, and he directed it. His wife was dialogue director, and she’s in the film, too, as is Hellman’s young daughter. Nobody from the studio bugged him while he was making it.

For the cinematography, Hellman wanted to use his own guy, Gregory Sandor. But there was a problem. Sandor wasn’t part of the union, and that was required for a big studio production like this. So Hellman hired a union guy, paid him, gave him the cinematography credit, and parked him in a hotel for the entire shoot. Sandor shot the film and is listed on the credits as "Photographic Advisor."

As film editor, Hellman got the final cut. This is a crucial point: Final cut was something that even directors like John Ford and Orson Welles didn’t get, but Hellman was guaranteed the final cut, right in his contract. So many Hollywood masterpieces were mutilated or compromised by studio decisions. Not this one. And make no mistake, this film is some kind of a masterpiece.

Universal was hoping that Two-Lane Blacktop would appeal to a youth audience, to a car audience, to an exploitation audience, to an audience that was expecting something at least vaguely like Easy Rider.

Nope. This film has nothing to do, really, with cars. It definitely has nothing to do with Easy Rider. It’s not a film about America, or about Vietnam, or about the counterculture. It’s not an edgy, sexy, romantic film, either. Hellman did shoot a nude skinny-dipping scene, but he removed it in editing. It’s not in the film.

If you took your mother to see this film, she'd say: “What was that? Nothing happens in this movie.”

If you took your car- and racing-fan friends to see this film, they’d say it was the worst film ever made. They’d actually be angry. And if you went to see this film on a date, hoping to create a romantic mood, you’d strike out.

So who should you take to see it? Well, do you know any French intellectuals? Maybe one who’d done his thesis on Camus, or Sartre, or Samuel Beckett? Two-Lane Blacktop came from exploitation, but it’s an art film through and through, made by two smart young hipsters who were turned on by the ideas of Beckett. Beckett was an Irish writer, then living in Paris, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969. He’s most famous for writing Waiting for Godot, which has been called the most important play of the 20th century. In Waiting for Godot, two guys sit under a tree waiting for a guy named Godot. He never shows up. Nothing happens in the play, and yet it’s riveting. And what do you know — Hellman supervised a theatrical production of Waiting for Godot in 1957, in Los Angeles. He did the play as a Western, and he calls it the most important artistic experience of his life.

Two-Lane Blacktop has a major cult reputation these days. When Sight & Sound Magazine did its last poll of world critics in 2012, seven of them voted Two-Lane Blacktop one of the 10 best films ever made. British critic Philip French calls the film “an existential masterpiece,” and he said it should have established Hellman as one of the great directors of his generation. Critic Kent Jones says that “it’s one of the great works of American cinema.” In 2012, the Library of Congress selected Two-Lane Blacktop for the National Film Registry. The film is also part of the Criterion Collection.

The film is beautifully photographed in Techniscope, a cheap widescreen format. Hellman filled the screen with wide images of the horizon, of streets and highways filled with cars, and of small-town cityscapes. There are compositions that are worthy of Edward Hopper, with splashes of color on an otherwise barren American landscape. Hellman shot the film on real locations, mostly along Route 66, without permits. It’s an important record of America in 1971. A lot of the locals in the various towns are authentic, too — they’d be in a scene and Hellman would get their permission later. Near the end of the film there's an auto race in Tennessee. It was a real auto race. Everybody making this film moved from west to east along the road, right along with the film’s story.

Now we get to the money question: What’s this film all about? What’s the point?

Hellman said: “I like to work on a film where it’s continually opening up its secrets to me. I think any work of art, not just a film, is a mystery. I think it was Jean Cocteau who said it should reveal its secrets slowly.”

Let’s try to solve the mystery.
First, there’s the one thing that everyone agrees on: This film is very much influenced by Beckett. It takes his ideas and places them in a classic American setting. Albert Camus, who wrote The Stranger, is in there, too, and so is Jean-Paul Sartre, who wrote No Exit. (Camus died in a car crash, by the way.) This is very much a film made by intellectuals, and it’s very much a part of the intellectual movements of its day.

Hellman said: “I think there is a little bit of Beckett in everything I have done.” Rudy Wurlitzer, who wrote the script, said: “I was so obsessed with Beckett I had to stop reading him.”

Now let's think about Waiting for Godot. In that play, two guys are waiting under a tree for someone who never shows up. They talk, and somehow it’s not boring, but mostly the characters are just passing time. In Two-Lane Blacktop, we have two guys in a car, and there’s a prize waiting at the end of a race. But we don’t get much of a race in the film, and things fizzle out long before the end. Film critic Sheila O’Malley wrote that Hellman’s characters “exist in an eerie Beckettian space, where what is absent is more important, and felt more powerfully, than what is present. The characters, moving restlessly through the landscape, have an uneasy awareness that they exist in a meaningless feedback loop, where they are both pursuers and the pursued, and where the final destination is a mirage.”

The film’s original four-hour length included a great deal of the race. That was in Wurlitzer’s script. But when Hellman edited the film down to 100 minutes, he eliminated most of the race material, leaving what he called “connective tissue” — the rest stops, the bathroom visits, the downtime. The edits turned Two-Lane Blacktop into a film about four people, killing time.

Beckett was a minimalist, and most of his works have only a few characters. Two-Lane Blacktop has The Driver, The Mechanic, The Girl, and GTO.

Beckett’s later work grappled with man's inability to find words to express himself. Does that fit Two-Lane Blacktop? Hellman said that the film’s dialogue was like a musical score — it was just background noise; it set the mood but it didn't move the story along. To know what was happening, you had to watch the screen. There is one character who talks a lot — that’s GTO — but what he says is unreliable and always changing.

Also remember the dialogue between The Driver and the Girl about cicadas, which was improvised. The Driver says that the cicadas emerge, have a few days to reproduce, and then die. The Girl says: “We have a better life.”

Beckett might not agree with that.

The bleak Beckett vision is at the core of the film, without question. But there's far more than that. Remember, Waiting for Godot is two guys sitting under a tree. Two-Lane Blacktop moves. It takes place in cars, on the road.

This is a fully formed view of an entire life. What better metaphor for life is there than the road? The future is always out there, somewhere up ahead, and it’s always a surprise. The past, in the rearview mirror, doesn't matter. Movement is something to do, and it’s satisfying. It’s even more satisfying to move fast.

Now think of the first part of the film. The Driver and The Mechanic are alone, in their car. They’re out West. The horizons are long; there’s open space everywhere. The world seems full of opportunities. The two guys are making a little money here, spending the night there. Their life is defined by their driving, by the competition with other drivers, and by their car.

The point about competition is important. Games have been in all of Hellman’s films. Contests of chance or skill are substitutes for more meaningful action. There's a pinball machine in Two-Lane Blacktop and also a pool table — Hellman wanted those things in the movie. There’s also the race, and the big bet attached to it. That’s what Hellman liked about the script.

It’s the men in Hellman’s films who enjoy the games and the competition. It’s how they relate to one another. They need an external reference point, like a car or a race. They’re goal-oriented.

Hellman’s women, though, live in the moment. The Girl moves into the car mysteriously, impulsively, in Flagstaff. When that happens, it seems ridiculous. But isn’t that how we all meet our most important partners in life? We don’t know how it will happen or when it will happen. It just does, one day. So The Girl appears, and the two guys treat it as normal, natural. They don’t even talk to her, for a long time.

Then there’s GTO, the character played by Warren Oates. What’s he all about? Hellman says GTO is “time” — he’s a reminder that we’re all going to get older, and when we’re older we're still going to be looking for love. We’re still going to be defining ourselves by competition (especially if we’re male) and we're still going to try to be “cool.” But GTO is more than that. He’s always wearing a sweater. In every scene, he seems to have a new one, in a different color. Then there are the stories he tells to the hitchhikers he picks up. Every story is different, and the stories seem tailored to the people hearing them. Is GTO making them up, or is something else going on?

GTO is protean; he’s always changing in subtle ways. He’s not bad, and he’s not good. He’s the other side of life for The Driver and The Mechanic; he’s the guy they’re racing against; he’s the guy who’s competing with them for The Girl. He’s the guy who’s always on the road. He’s got booze and he’s got pills, and they have to resist that. And he’s older. Who knows what he will be tomorrow? All we know for sure is that he will be there, saying something, wearing a sweater of some color. He’s the thing that we relate to, as we travel down the road. He gives context to the two main characters.

As the four players continue to drive east, through Oklahoma, through Arkansas, through Tennessee, and into North Carolina, everything starts to feel different. It’s not the open West any more. The horizon is no longer limitless. Some of the roads are twisty and lined with trees. Things feel more cramped; we feel the press of time. The characters are aging.

And, suddenly, there are suggestions of death. GTO picks up an old lady with her granddaughter. They're going to see the little girl’s dead parents who were killed by a “city car.” GTO drops them off at a graveyard. It’s unsettling.

Then, The Driver and The Mechanic are run off the road when they won’t pull over, and they’re shaken when they see a dead person from another accident. There’s a dead, bloody body, right in the road.

Near the end, at a diner, The Girl walks off. She sees another guy and since he has a motorcycle and there’s no way for her to take her bag, she just leaves it on the ground — all of her worldly goods. Hellman said: “It’s a denial of all the values, and that’s why Lew Wasserman hated the film.”

The film lacks the expected payoffs of an American entertainment film. It plays with the viewers’ expectations. The race is all but ignored; instead we get “connective tissue” — bathroom and diner stops. There are only hints of romance and sex. When the drag races happen, we watch them from a distance and we’re not told who won. We have to figure it out.

Everything that we've been trained to think is important — male-female relations, money, competition, success, progress — is mocked. We’re led along for a while, and then diverted. It’s all pointless. There’s no catharsis, anywhere.

Hellman has long called Two-Lane Blacktop a love story. The romance begins mysteriously when The Girl gets into the car, in Flagstaff, and it ends just as mysteriously when she walks off, leaving everything behind. Hellman has compared his film to The Apartment, The Graduate, The Clock, and some others — because in all of them the central character is a man who has trouble committing to a woman he obviously loves. The difference is that in those other films, the man gets the woman.

Now we’re near the end. GTO is talking to his latest hitchhiking passengers, two servicemen. He tells them that he won his car in a cross-country race, where he had a souped-up Chevy that he’d rebuilt himself. He says he used that Chevy to defeat the GTO that he’s currently driving. “To beat one of those Detroit machines with something you made yourself — those satisfactions are permanent,” he says.

Then we cut to The Driver, who is about to begin one more drag race on one more road. We’re in the car with him. He starts driving, going fast. Then suddenly, everything slows down. What's happening? Things slow down some more and finally, the film appears to burn in the projector.

That last scene is a reversal of everything that’s happened in the film so far. Two-Lane Blacktop is about speed, about pushing ahead. For the Driver and The Mechanic, movement is life. They’re exiles, they’re not grounded; they don’t have jobs. But they’re alive, and they know they're alive because they’re always moving. There’s always the road, and there’s speed. “You can never go too fast,” says Taylor at one point.

In that final scene, the speed ends. The film stops moving, and it burns.

It’s confusing, and disturbing. First GTO seems to be taking on the identity of The Driver. Then the real Driver burns up, cinematically. We know he doesn’t really burn up, but we also know that in a movie, an ending like that has meaning. It feels like death.

And what about that last scene with GTO, where he tells The Driver’s story and makes it his own? (“Those satisfactions are permanent.”) It’s like something out of Stephen King. In the last shot in The Shining, we see a picture of the staff of the Overlook Hotel from 50 years before. Then we zoom in, and there’s Jack Nicholson. He’s always been in the hotel. He’s a ghost, some kind of permanent force, doomed to walk the halls of the hotel forever.

Maybe that’s GTO, too. He’s some kind of road energy, always ready with a different story and a different sweater. His personality changes to fit the person he’s talking to. He’s come from nowhere and he’s going nowhere. And in the end, he seems to have absorbed The Driver. Who else has he absorbed? Remember, he told one passenger he’d been a test pilot; he told another one he was a television producer.

On the road, you keep moving and it feels like you’re accomplishing things. But time is also moving. The clock is ticking, and some day the movement, the competition, the thinking about companionship — some day it will all end. At one point, GTO sings “Time Is on My Side.” “Well, it's not,” Hellman says.

It’s all pointless. The road ultimately goes nowhere, but it gives you something to do, every day of your life. As the film progresses, the road begins to feel less like freedom and more like something ominous. As Keith Phipps wrote, “it’s a way to escape that doubles as a trap.” Finally, it becomes a nightmare. The characters realize that they’ve been racing along toward the thing that lies at the end of the road, and that thing is death.

But maybe these characters don't die. Maybe they were never alive in the first place. We've already talked about GTO as some kind of “road energy.” Is it possible that The Driver and The Mechanic are spirits, too, some intermediate form of existence? More than one critic has commented that the two guys in the Chevy seem like zombies, like creatures who are watching the real world but who aren't part of it. Hellman talks of a scene he had to cut from the film, where The Driver and The Mechanic are escaping a cop, and they pull into a suburban driveway. They look into the window of a house, and they see a normal family sitting down and enjoying dinner. The Driver and The Mechanic might as well be Martians, so different are they from the family inside that house.

Then there’s the gloom, the quiet, the joylessness of it all. There are signs in the film that say “No Dancing” and “No Hitchhikers.” The road is like purgatory. It’s some kind of suspended existence.

The Driver is gone. But out West, a new set of people are getting ready to embark on the journey East. GTO will catch up to them. He'll engage them; he'll make their life seem meaningful, at least for a while. Every day his sweater will be a different color, and he'll guide them to the end of the road.