Two Lane Blacktop (1971) or How Warren Oates became a Beach Boy’s Little G.T.O.

If there’s one thing I can point at and say that I have absolutely no expertise in, then its cars. I know where the gas goes in, and the oil, and how to drive one, but my knowledge of the automotive arts ends there. I was talking to someone once and they said they were into Mopar, and for all I knew that was some kind of golf you played from a car. What I don’t know about cars, I make up elsewhere ‘cause I know movies, and I know music. So while tonight’s film features boss engines and gear heads, thankfully, the film calls on my areas of knowledge to talk about it.

Two Lane Blacktop is the story of two men, The Driver (James Taylor) and the Mechanic (Dennis Wilson) who travel the nation taking part in illegal drag races. They travel from town to town challenging one racer after another, and eventually they are joined by a Hitchhiker known as The Girl (Laurie Bird). Eventually they cross the path of pathological liar and all around fake, G.T.O. (Warren Oates), and they take off on a race to Washington D.C. with their car’s pink slips on the line.

Monte Hellman directed this 1971 flick as a kind of answer to 1969’s Dennis Hopper film Easy Rider, but in the time since Hopper and Fonda had ridden across the nation, the hippie movement had their wakeup call with the deaths at the Altamont festival, the Vietnam war continuing to grind on, and the Beatles officially calling it quits. Much of the hopefulness of the ‘60’s had evaporated and Hellman’s picture reflects the change in the hippie culture. The Driver and The Mechanic are not wide eyed idealists, instead they are gamblers living on what they can hustle from unsuspecting drag racers.

Casting the lead roles in the film with first time actors/musicians James Taylor, of Fire and Rain fame, and Dennis Wilson, the drummer from the Beach Boys, was quite a risk, but it’s one that pays off perfectly. The film contains sparing dialog, and its strength is in the comfortable and uncomfortable silences that appear between the two leads. I was especially impressed with Taylor, a musician I respect but loathe. His performance as The Driver is pitch perfect, and gives a proper character examination to someone whose passion is street racing. That is if you can call it passion. Both Taylor and Wilson seem devoid of any real joy, and they are the very definition of the placid, disaffected youth. They seem real, raw, and completely in control of their roles.

Laurie Bird and Warren Oates characters could not be more different than the two lead characters. Bird’s youthful Girl is perhaps too young to know that times have changed, and she seems very much like the hippy chicks portrayed in films only a few years earlier. She sleeps with both The Driver and The Mechanic, and then wonders if she’s being used, but it doesn’t seem much like she’s the victim. It is more that she is using the two men as an outlet to have adventures on the road. Warren Oates’ G.T.O on the other hand seems very much like a foretelling of the years to come. From his store bought hot rod to the numerous stories of his past he regales hitchhikers with, Oates is the kind of smarmy faker who would populate disco clubs or singles bars in years to come. Oates, as usual, is quite enjoyable to watch, and my favorite scene of his is played against a young Harry Dean Stanton who shows up as a gay cowboy hitchhiker with a craving to “pay” for his ride.

I think I should take a moment to talk about Monte Hellman. Monte came, as so many of the maverick directors of the ’70’s, from the house of Corman, and he was one of the many unaccredited directors of The Terror as well as helming the Beast from Haunted Cave (1959). Working on The Terror was Hellman’s first collaboration with Jack Nicholson, and the two soon paired up for a couple of Westerns, Ride in the Whirlwind (1965) and The Shooting (1967). He would go on to direct the TV movie which launched Baretta (1975), the Warren Oates/Fabio Testi western China 9, Liberty 37, and Silent Night, Deadly Night III.

The real stars of the film are, of course, the cars. The Driver and The Mechanic tool around in a heavily modified ’55 Chevy (identifying ’55. ’56, and ’57 Chevys is one car skill I do have) while Warren Oates' character G.T.O. oddly enough drives a souped up 1970 Pontiac G.T.O. in bright yellow with red trim. One of the rival cars seen in the film went on to a bigger cinematic pedigree. It’s a green ’32 Ford and it would be seen two years later in George Lucas’ American Graffiti when it was driven by Harrison Ford’s character.

The racing, and all the driving footage, are handled perfectly. While they are not central to the film, racing is a large part of the narrative, and if these scenes were mismanaged, then it would have taken away from the film. They are also very thrilling, and the film makes a point to make them look special. This fits in with the characters as well. The Driver never races unless money is on the line, and the one time he lets someone get the best of him, he nearly crashes the car. All of the cinematography is excellent and captures the open road, the racing, and the quiet disaffection of the characters. This is captured by the pair of cinematographers who worked on the film, Jack Deerson and Gregory Sandor, the latter of which would end his career working on the Richard Elfman freakout film, Forbidden Zone.

Since Two Lane Blacktop veers more toward a character study than a racing film, it is a far cry from films like Cannonball (1976) or Fast Company (1979). However, the racing footage in it is quite good enough to keep the film from heading into navel gazing territory. Plus you get James Taylor actually being a convincing race car driver which I would have thought to be impossible. For anyone who is a fan of early ‘70’s cinema, this is one that should not be missed. Like me, the novelty of the two musicians in lead roles may be what attracts you to the picture, but if you give it a chance, you will find a very agreeable film about a time in America’s youth culture where directions were starting to shift.

Bugg Rating


  1. the sneering (homo-phobic) snobJuly 6, 2009 at 9:03 AM

    Its such a shame that laurie bird snuffed it in `79 at the ludicrously young age of only 25, she was such a gorgeous little darlin`, and when this film was shot she was around 17 at the absolute peak of her physical attractiveness and desirability, no wonder she`s still got such a strong cult following. With regards to "two-lane blacktop" its 30 years since i`ve seen it on television but i always remember the way the film ended with the film burning up in the gate, that always seemed like the perfect way for a film to end, maybe every film should end like that it would help to emphasize the in-authenticity of the medium itself.

  2. jervaise brooke hamsterJuly 6, 2009 at 9:18 AM

    Hey lightning bug how about reveiwing "ALOHA BOBBY AND ROSE" another similar cult item from `75 with another incredibly hot chick namely dianne hull as rose, personally i`ve never thought much of the film but for some reason there seems to be a lot of people out there who get very sentimental about it, thats why it would be great to hear your opinion to see if you could work out exactly what the sentimentality is derived from.

  3. A good review of a great film, but you shouldn't mention Hellman and Oates without mentioning Cockfighter, which is probably their definitive team-up.

  4. Sam, I've yet to see Cockfighter, but it's on my short list of titles to get soon. Good to hear it get another recommendation.

    Mr. Hamster, Aloha Bobby and Rose is not a film I've even heard of, but I did some looking at it and it's now on my Netflix queue somewhere.

  5. This is a great review of a great film! If I may just point out one trivial error.... you mentioned that the 32 Ford was driven in American Graffiti by Harrison Ford, when actually Ford's character drives the black 55 (one of the same ones used in this film, at that). The deuce coupe was driven by the 'Milner' character, who races Harrison Ford. It is nice to find your blog!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...