In the current cinematic era, the Car Film is most often a glossy, vacuous entertainment that wallows in fast and furious absurdity and juvenile conceptions of masculinity. It was not always so. The New Hollywood upheaval of the 1960s and 70s—and in particular the galvanizing effect of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Easy Rider (1969) on the road movie form—paved the way for a brief but vital zenith for the Car Film. Several mainstream crime thrillers from this era, such as Bullitt (1968), The Italian Job (1969), and The French Connection (1971), are justifiably renowned for their consummate car chase sequences. However, the Car Film found its most unadulterated expression in those features that embraced the shameless automotive worship and scuzzy outlaw ethos of exploitation cinema and wedded it to New Hollywood’s maverick streak.
The films of this cinematic moment were united in spirit but diverse in form: Richard Sarafian’s socially and spiritually pointed Vanishing Point (1971); John Hough’s stripped-down crime spree romance Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974); Paul Bartel’s indie dystopian schlockfest Death Race 2000 (1975); and H.B. Halicki’s homebrewed “crash-gasm” Gone in 60 Seconds (1974). By the late 1970s, the daring and grit of such films would be brushed away by the more classical zaniness of Hal Needham’s paeans to automotive mayhem, such as Smokey and the Bandit (1977). For a fleeting period, however, the American Car Film was a bracing cinematic object, whose form and enthusiast zeal could be as heady as the odor of burnt rubber.
The apogee of this moment, and arguably the finest film ever made about the act of driving, is Monte Hellman’s 1971 road picture Two-Lane Blacktop. This weekend, The Webster University Film Series will screen Blacktop as the featured film of its May-June-July programming. In the past decade, both Anchor Bay and Criterion have given this enthralling, confounding slice of cult cinema a proper treatment on DVD, but aficionados of film and cars alike should not miss the opportunity to savor Blacktop on the big screen.
In 1970, a time when Hellman was known primarily for a pair of trippy Jack Nicholson neo-Westerns, Ride in the Whirlwind (1965) and The Shooting (1968), he persuaded Universal to give him final cut on a road movie originally scripted Will Corry and wholly reworked by alt-novelist Rudolph Wurlitzer. Forty years later, what impresses most about Two-Lane Blacktop’s screenplay is its nimble blend of unfussy realism and symbolic profundity, resulting in the rare work that is rich in meaning and yet free of preening self-regard.
Setting out east from southern California in a modified 1955 Chevy 150, a nameless Driver (folk rock singer-songwriter James Taylor) and Mechanic (Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson) pick up a skinny drifter Girl (Laurie Bird). Prowling the drag race scene along Route 66, the trio is eventually drawn into a cross-country, high-stakes race with the twitchy driver of a 1970 Pontiac GTO (Peckinpah mainstay Warren Oates). The film’s premise might seem designed for the blunt satisfactions of high-speed excitement and spectacular stunt driving, but what emerges is a thing far more challenging and memorable than a mere cinematic thrill ride.
For a film about a 2,400-mile race, Blacktop spends a startling amount of time sitting still. Bound to speed eastward, the characters’ agitation finds expression in a succession of detours: pit stops for vital repairs and greasy food; drag races for quick cash; bizarre encounters with hitchhikers; and ambiguous quarrels that have drivers and riders swapping vehicles. The Driver, Mechanic, and Girl are each reserved and slippery in differing ways, but GTO is the clear outsider, a fulsome bundle of bourgeois anxiety who relates a dozen different personal histories with the ease of a seasoned con-man. Even as they barrel towards Washington, D.C., the characters relentlessly make and revise their future plans, always in terms of destinations: Miami—no, New York—no, Chicago—no, Mexico.
Hellman’s affectionate depiction of gearhead culture relies upon a vérité style that echoes John Cassavetes. When non-actor Taylor flubs a line here and there, it doesn’t break the film’s spell, but deepens the aura of rambling realism that clings to even the most surreal scenes. Despite the grease-streaked naturalism that defines the look and rhythm of Blacktop, however, the film’s absorptions run deeper than the visceral pleasures of a roaring engine. The urgency and significance of the cross-country race seems to diminish as the film progresses, revealing Hellman’s stratagem: the automobile and the road itself as expressions of the conflicted and faintly crazed American character.
The myriad facets of that character—ambition, restlessness, greed, optimism, pride, self-destruction, dissatisfaction—jostle within the frame of the film. That Blacktop conveys this conflicting cacophony of psychological vibrations, all while maintaining a mood that is somehow both feverish and laconic, is thoroughly remarkable. Hellman establishes the Car Film as a form that can reckon with the stickiest thematic matters, exploiting genre conventions even as it shatters the viewer’s expectations. Long before its mutinous conclusion and searing final shot, it is apparent that Blacktop is an extraordinary make and model of American film.
Two-Lane Blacktop screens nightly at 7:30 p.m. on Friday July 1, Saturday July 2, and Sunday July 3 at the Webster University Moore Auditorium. Admission is $6 (cash only). For a complete schedule of the Webster University Film Series programming, visit the series’ website.
St. Louis native Andrew Wyatt is the founder of the film aficionado website Gateway Cinephiles, where he has been an editor and contributor since 2007, authoring reviews, essays, and coverage of the St. Louis International Film Festival and Webster Film Series.