A Film For Friday: Stephen Walsh On Two- Lane Blacktop by Monte Hellman

The bleak open roads and slowly decaying small towns of rural America are the setting for this gently beguiling existentialist road movie from cult director Monte Hellman. Famed for his trio of offbeat 70s classics – the other two being ‘Cockfighter’ (1974) & ‘China 9, Liberty 37’ (1978) – with that most underappreciated of all great American actors Warren Oates (was he ever in a bad picture?) this may be Hellman’s most impressive feature. It’s the kind of freewheeling low budget one-off that exudes a casual air of unforced cool, underscored by subtle melancholy, that perfectly captures the zeitgeist of the early 70s. 
The result is a mesmerising portrayal of four American archetypes blended to give us as succinct a picture of the death of the “American dream” as cinema has produced. And all of it without any recourse to explicit sex or violence. Oates plays one of cinema’s great losers, the self-styled “GTO”, a man whose only love, it would appear at first, is his car – naturally a 1970 GTO. When we first meet him he is the very caricature of the brash, boastful middle-aged American male. Full of hot air and tall tales about his past that change depending on who he’s talking to. He is a thoroughly unsympathetic individual just crying out to be taken down a peg or two. One can see in him much of the inspiration for the Stuntman Mike character in Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Death Proof’ (2007), to which Quentin added his own excess of sexual psychopathia. This obnoxious braggart meets his nemesis in the form of two young hippie layabouts who spend their time drifting from State to State in a souped up ’55 Chevy. Played with remarkable assurance by two of rock’s then hip stars; James Taylor as “The Driver” and Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys as his loyal sidekick “The Mechanic”. They earn money to exist from roping unsuspecting marks into races for cash which they have no chance of winning. Naturally Oates’ character becomes their next target and, in a show of bravado he doesn’t even realise he has been suckered into, the man challenges them to a race right across America from the South-West to Washington DC for pink slips – winner takes the other guy’s car! Into the mix is thrown a pretty young hippie waif simply known as “The Girl”. Played with a mixture of easy-going charm and almost unconscious feminine wiles by Laurie Bird she literally climbs into the back-seat of the boys’ Chevy without being asked and they calmly take her along for the ride while we wonder which, if any, of the two of them she will end up with. Her character’s rootless naiveté is neatly summed up when, a few miles down the road, she thinks to ask them, “Hey, you’re not the Zodiac killers or anything?”. It’s a telling moment and the only explicit allusion in the film to the darkness these characters potentially face every day on the road – nothing more is needed and that suggestion of inviting victim hood haunts the rest of the picture. So far all so predictable and I was settling down to a revved up US remake of ‘Genevieve’ (1953) with plenty of that indefinable ‘Easy Rider’ (1969) style. But I’m glad to say my expectations were dashed for, even with its rock musician stars and great soundtrack, the ambience that develops on their epic trek is very un-rock ‘n’ roll like with the picture turning into a slow burning and ultimately moving character study of shattered dreams, alienation and hopelessness.

It’s easy to see why this unique US film for its time bombed at the box office on release as all the groovy young kids who’d been expecting ‘this year’s Easy Rider’ went away puzzled and disappointed. There are no car chases, no clashes with the cops or redneck hicks and – shock, horror – no drug-taking or rumpy pumpy!! What there is, is a deliberate leisurely pace and brilliantly subtle use of mise en scene to build up a picture of these four people’s lives and personalities, hopes and fears to the point where the viewer gets sucked into the action and begins to care deeply for each and every one of them – yes, even that blustering fool GTO.

After first sleeping with the mechanic the girl slowly shifts her affections to the driver and a delicate love story begins to develop. The driver is drawn to the girl’s pretended confidence and we feel his desperate wish to protect her and keep her with him which vies with his macho pride and determination to win the race – something the girl just doesn’t get. Her frustration with him slowly builds throughout the picture to the point where it becomes obvious he has a choice to make – go on and win or give it all up to be with the girl and let his friend down into the bargain.

The mechanic only cares about the car which he treats with fanatical tenderness like a living thing. When they narrowly avoid a head-on collision and are run off the road in one pivotal scene his first response is to leap out and check the undercarriage before he shamefacedly thinks to ask the girl if she is hurt. He is also fiercely loyal to his friend and becomes quietly resentful when he senses the battle that is raging within him.

As brilliantly observed as all that is, the picture belongs squarely to Warren Oates in what I would rank as one of the finest performances of his career. From the two dimensional exterior we first meet – and that Tarantino never gets past in his ‘homage’ – this character opens up into a figure of truly tragic dimensions. I don’t think I over-state the case in comparing him to Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s ‘Death Of A Salesman’ – there is at least as much caustic insight and psychological depth to the character. Praise has to go to the marvellously literate script by Will Corry & Rudy Wurlitzer but only an actor of Oates’ range and acumen could have breathed life into this desperately sad man.

As the race progresses and it becomes obvious to him he has no chance of winning and if he continues he will most certainly lose his beloved vehicle the man’s hold on reality and pretences at machismo gradually begin to break down. He has given up acting and now has only his pride at not welching on the bet to keep him going. What makes the performance even more powerful are the little details we pick up about him and his back story. Underneath the façade we gradually learn this man has lost everything, he is clearly an alcoholic with a failed marriage and career behind him while the stories he tells to the endless parade of anonymous hitch-hikers he compulsively picks up for company are just that – stories.

Yet despite everything, he is a decent man as evidenced by numerous little acts of kindness and common courtesy he performs along the road – refusing, though clearly repulsed, to throw out in the rain an amorous gay cowboy (played by the great Harry Dean Stanton) until he has driven him to the next town, losing time by running an elderly lady to the graveyard and holding her umbrella while she mourns, etc.

On their various meetings along the way a real bond of respect and liking builds up between him and the three young people as they get to know each other. Yet it can never once be acknowledged that the race is off. That is the trap they have set for themselves…

GTO’s last laughing and smiling yarn to a couple of fresh faced young GI hitch-hikers as they admire his car, that he won it by beating a couple of young punks in his old ’55 Chevy – “what a feeling that was, they can never take that away from me…” is the ultimate admission of defeat and Oates portrays it all with his eyes.

In the end the actual physicality of the race becomes meaningless and we realise each one of these four people are hurtling toward their own chosen destiny, as trapped in themselves as any of the workaday plebs they appear to rise above. The final shot of the road ahead disintegrating as the actual film stock melts was a masterstroke by the director – a simple yet powerful symbol of existential dread that completely breaks the barrier between the viewed and the viewer. For me this is quite simply an undervalued masterpiece of American cinema and one of the greatest films of the 1970s!

Thought I’d list the films of Warren Oates (1928-1982) just for the record:
1. ‘Up Periscope’ (1959)
2. ‘Yellowstone Kelly’ (1959)
3. ‘Private Property’ (1960)
4. ‘The Rise And Fall Of Legs Diamond’ (1960) by Budd Boetticher ****
5. ‘Hero’s Island’ (1962)
6. ‘Ride The High Country’ (1962) by Sam Peckinpah *****
7. ‘Mail Order Bride’ (1964)
8. ‘Major Dundee’ (1965) by Sam Peckinpah ****½
9. ‘Shenandoah’ (1965) by Andrew V. McLaglen ****½
10. ‘The Return Of The Magnificent Seven’ (1966) by Burt Kennedy ***½
11. ‘In The Heat Of The Night’ (1967) by Norman Jewison *****
12. ‘The Shooting’ (1967) by Monte Hellman – must see this!!
13. ‘Welcome To Hard Times’ (1967)
14. ‘The Mystery Of Edward Sims’ (1968)
15. ‘The Split’ (1968) by Gordon Flemyng ****½
16. ‘Crooks And Coronets’ (1969)
17. ‘Smith!’ (1969)
18. ‘The Wild Bunch’ (1969) by Sam Peckinpah *****
19. ‘Barquero’ (1970) by Gordon M. Douglas ****
20. ‘There Was A Crooked Man’ (1970) by Joseph L. Mankiewicz – must see
21. ‘Chandler’ (1971)
22. ‘The Hired Hand’ (1971) by Peter Fonda – must see
23. ‘Two LaneBlacktop’ (1971) by Monte Hellman *****
24. ‘Badlands’ (1973) by Terrence Malick *****
25. ‘Dillinger’ (1973) by John Milius ****½
26. ‘Kid Blue’ (1973)
27. ‘The Thief Who Came To Dinner’ (1973)
28. ‘Tom Sawyer’ (1973)
29. ‘Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia’ (1974) by Sam Peckinpah *****
30. ‘Cockfighter’ (1974) by Monte Hellman – must see this!!
31. ‘The White Dawn’ (1974) by Philip Kaufman – must see
32. ’92º In The Shade’ (1975)
33. ‘Race With The Devil’ (1975) by Jack Starrett ****
34. ‘Dixie Dynamite’ (1976)
35. ‘Drum’ (1976)
36. ‘Prime Time’ (1977)
37. ‘Sleeping Dogs’ (1977) by Roger Donaldson – must see
38. ‘China 9, Liberty 37’ (1978) by Monte Hellman ****½
39. ‘The Brink’s Job’ (1978) by William Friedkin ****
40. ‘1941’ (1979) by Steven Spielberg ***½
41. ‘Stripes’ (1981) by Ivan Reitman ****½
42. ‘The Border’ (1982) by Tony Richardson – must see
43. ‘Blue Thunder’ (1983) by John Badham ***
44. ‘Tough Enough’ (1983)

If Oates had lived I have no doubt Tarantino would have ‘rediscovered’ him much as he did Robert Forster in his best film ‘Jackie Brown‘ (1997). And finally it should come as no surprise that Monte Hellman was Executive Producer of ‘Reservoir Dogs‘ (1992).

Bio:Stevie Walsh is a professional Irishman and genre geek (with a particular love of the horrible and the fantastic) who, when he isn’t wallowing in a contented boozy haze or chasing women, is never happier than when wittering on about the latest big movie release or some forgotten gem from yesteryear discovered as an afternoon matinee. An enthusiastic appreciator of all things great in literature, the visual arts and music he can often be found with his head buried in a book in the corner of his local, over a mucky burger, on the bus or in the park (on those rare days of Irish sunshine) and has even been known to jot down critical notes in public when he isn’t working on his latest literary magnum opus – watch this space. But cinema will always be his first and most instinctive love. It was Disney’s ‘The Jungle Book’ (1967) that introduced him to the joys of the big screen, at the tender age of three, and, being a precocious kid, he fell in love with the experience – and the sensational soundtrack, even pestering his parents to get him the album, thus spawning two lifelong passions for the price of one. ‘Jaws’ and ‘Star Wars’ would enshrine the hallowed space of a darkened cinema in his affections in the years to come with goggle-eyed TV viewings of ‘Invasion Of The Body Snatchers’, ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’, ‘Psycho’, ‘The Birds’, ‘The Godfather’, ‘The Omen’ and all those wonderful Hammer, Amicus & Universal horrors bringing back many a shiver of fond memory. He lives and works in Belfast, in the high pressure arena of office administration, and, having just moved into a nice new home, is currently on the lookout for a puppy and Ms Right… ah go on, Linda!