Before it even saw the light of day, Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop was already being immortalized. Months before the film’s release, Rolling Stone called it “an instant classic.”Esquire went a step further, publishing the entire screenplay and anointing it “the movie of the year.” On paper, the prospects looked good. Hollywood in the late 1960s had discovered the youth market. The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde (both 1967) inaugurated the countercultural trend in American movies; Easy Rider (1969) marked its apotheosis. Hellman’s movie seemed like a can’t-miss proposition: a road flick from Universal’s new “youth” unit about dropping out and driving fast. But when it hit theaters in the summer of ‘71, the kids didn’t show up. The movie died a quick death at the box office and eventually slid into oblivion, not appearing on video until 1999.
How could such a sure thing fail so miserably? Perhaps because the hype primed the audience for a movie that Hellman was unwilling to give them. Unlike its contemporaries, Two-Lane Blacktop wasn’t a sentimental celebration of restless youth. Refusing to play to its demographic, it offered an abstract and diffident vision of the counterculture. Unlike The Graduate, it didn’t romanticize youthful disaffection; unlike Bonnie and Clyde, there was no cathartic violence; unlike Easy Rider, there was little sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. Yet the reasons moviegoers rejected it at the time—its skepticism and rigor—are the same reasons the film, released this month on DVD by the Criterion Collection, has emerged as one of the great movies of Hollywood’s last golden age.
Rudolph Wurlitzer and Will Corry’s screenplay is as simple as they come. A pair of drifters roam the highways of the American West in a souped-up ‘55 Chevy. They have no stated destination and no obvious motivation. At a gas station, they run into a middle-aged man (Warren Oates) behind the wheel of a yellow Pontiac GTO. They agree to a contest: a race to the East Coast, with the winner getting the loser’s car. The bet seems to set us up for a furious chase and a hellacious climax, but the movie has other ideas. Instead of blazing off into the distance, it meanders, luxuriates in interludes, then just peters out.
The film’s obvious antecedent is Easy Rider. Dennis Hopper’s hippie road movie was a seismic event that shook up the culture. Hopper created a pop myth for young Americans that tapped into their fondest—and darkest—fantasies. The story of two bikers, Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Hopper), who hit the open road, the movie turned viewers on with its pharmaceutical, sensual, and musical pleasures (not to mention Jack Nicholson’s star-making supporting turn, the most enduring of its joys). Hopper’s movie was decked out with the signifiers of ‘60s cool: dope, LSD, long hair, free love, rock ’n’ roll. But it also validated the young audience’s suspicions of a hostile America out to get them. Before they reach their destination, the bikers are gunned down by rednecks. Thus did Wyatt and Billy join Bonnie and Clyde in the pantheon of counterculture martyrs.
In her review of the movie, Pauline Kael described Easy Rider’s “sentimental paranoia,” noting how it tapped into the notion that “it was cool to feel that you couldn’t win, that everything was rigged and hopeless.” Hopper’s movie was a bummer, but it was a bummer that affirmed the counterculture’s values. By contrast, Hellman’s film resists celebrating the outsider ethos it depicts. Two-Lane Blacktop also centers on a peripatetic duo (James Taylor and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson), but they couldn’t be more different from Easy Rider’s pothead bikers. With their blank expressions and affectless delivery, the two are pointedly anti-charismatic. Long stretches of silence are interrupted only by idle chitchat and car talk. If Hopper’s heroes invoke Western legends (Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid), Hellman’s don’t even have names (Taylor is simply “The Driver,” while Wilson is “The Mechanic”). So removed are they from society and all that it has to offer that the presence of an attractive hitchhiker (Laurie Bird, known as “The Girl”) barely registers. As for Warren Oates’ GTO, he fancies himself a smooth operator, but he can’t hide his desperate need for company. If The Driver and The Mechanic drive to lose themselves, GTO roams the land in search of others.
Two-Lane Blacktop held up a mirror, and the audience didn’t like what it saw: a counterculture whose rejection of society had curdled into soul-killing solipsism. But if the movie’s content gave its demographic pause, its form all but sealed its fate. With its rock stars and fast cars, Two-Lane Blacktop seemed to promise a pop buzz. But instead of piling on the au courant gimmicks—grandstanding zooms, shock cuts, and other look-ma-no-hands pyrotechnics—Hellman streamlined his movie. Using nonprofessional actors (Taylor, Wilson, and Bird were all first-timers) and natural light, Hellman imbued his movie with unadorned naturalism. The desultory mood of an endless road trip is evoked with lengthy, languorous takes and static shots looking out the windshield. This approach no doubt disappointed an audience recently stimulated by the New Wave fillips of The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde. Two-Lane Blacktop was a meditative and elliptical mood piece in a crowd of rowdy and flashy peers—a sui generis convergence of Antonioni and Americana. Its long silences and depopulated spaces—new and bracing in an American context—nonetheless tested the patience of viewers fed on a cinematic diet of blood, bullets, and bravura technique.
Watching Two-Lane Blacktop today, what leaps out is how unpretentious it is. Hellman’s self-effacing style is at the service of his material (compare that with Mike Nichols’ work in The Graduate, which has come to seem faddish and affected). A movie that looks off into the distance and keeps its gaze there, Two-Lane Blacktop is a lean and melancholy beauty—a moving-picture Giacometti.
Of course, Two-Lane Blacktop was hardly the only failed youth picture of the period. Hopper’s follow-up to Easy Rider, The Last Movie, and Fonda’s The Hired Hand, both from the same Universal production unit, also tanked. Paul Lewis, line producer for Hopper, saw those failures as a harbinger of things to come, telling Peter Biskind in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, “The end of the ‘70s began at the beginning of the ‘70s.” The reasons for the end of the youth-picture movement were various—clueless studio marketing, fickle audiences, crummy movies. But Hellman’s sin was to be too radical—thematically and formally—for his audience.
Filmed on the original Route 66, the movie inverts the American trope of the road always leading west. Indeed, the destination is as unromantic as it gets: Washington, D.C. It spoils nothing to say that the movie never makes it to the nation’s capital. Instead the Chevy finds itself in another drag race in the final scene. As the cars screech forward, we watch the view over The Driver’s shoulder, the road receding underneath but stretching ahead as far as the eye can see. Hellman then makes a stylistic pirouette. The scene slows down, imperceptibly at first, then more noticeably, until it seems as if we’re watching the final moments frame by frame. The film catches in the projector, the image freezes for a second, until finally the celluloid catches fire. Richard Linklater rightly called it “the most purely cinematic ending in film history.” It also serves as a fitting metaphor for the flameout of the youth movement in Hollywood.