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A road movie in fifth gear: Monte Hellman movie 'Two-Lane Blacktop' turns 50

'Two-Lane Blacktop' - Monte Hellman

During the early 1970s, American counterculture was on the move, burgeoning with the ongoing injustice of the Vietnam war, the youth of America found solace in the liberty of the open road. The wide and wild endless roads of the American highways represented a poetic landscape in which self-discoveries were made for an energetic new generation, their expressive soundtracks of identity blasting out the windows of Ford Mustangs and Cadillac Coupe DeVilles. Just like the Western films of old, the road movie relies on an exploratory narrative of individuals exploring their frontiers whilst pushing the borders of discovery. 

Replacing horses for cars, the characters in Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop, travel across America’s southwest towards Memphis, Tennessee, engaging in fleeting conversations with hitchhikers whilst fantasising about relationships and their place in America’s fluctuating identity. Young and bohemian, the nameless lead friends, played by singer, songwriter of Sweet Baby James, James Taylor and Dennis Wilson, the drummer for the Beach Boys engage in a relationship that exists solely for their love and endless facts about cars.

“That Plymouth had a Hemi with a Torqueflite,” Taylor says to Wilson following the film’s opening midnight race, a line which will surely mean very little to any automobile amateur. Though, for the two lead characters, this is a unique, exclusive form of communication that sets them apart from their superiors and makes them part of a fiery counterculture. On the lonely American roads, Taylor and Wilson are amigos searching for both companionship and solitude as they pick up multiple hitchhikers in their journey across the land.

Picking up a young teenager, Laurie Bird, riding in the backseat, the group come across an older man, Warren Oates, insistent on a race across the country, accepting, the two parties engage in a bitter rivalry and the fuel beneath Monte Hellman’s film is torched alight. Growling to life with spluttering engines, the race goes from an intense ride into something far more placid, it’s less of a race and more a journey of discovery across the southwest’s vibrant lands. 

Adamant that his actors really travel across the American southwest to maintain the authenticity of the film, Hellman reported, “I knew it would affect the actors — and it did, obviously. It affected everybody”. He also withheld the script from the actors until each new morning of the shoot, arguing, “In life you don’t know what’s going to happen to you next week, so I didn’t feel that that was crucial to being able to play the scene,” and it was these radical decisions from the director that ultimately created such a natural, refreshing piece of cinema.

Maintaining a tender clarity and strange disconnection between the characters, Hellman filmed during moments that most directors would not, capturing the in-between moments, glares and scenes of downtime that come to illustrate the group dynamic. In the exploration of Warren Oates’ eccentric drifter, the film really comes alive. The sort of individual who would play the snake-oil selling travelling salesman in a classic Western, Oates is a romantic dreamer, blinded by self-delusion and ambition. “If I’m not grounded pretty soon…I’m gonna go into orbit,” his middle-aged character reports to the sleeping Laurie Bird, fascinating about a life together with the young girl despite the quite apparent age difference. 

Just like any other second-chancer, any desperate traveller, he is a passenger to his own fantasy, like all the dreamers that inhabit Two-Lane Blacktop’s American southwest.