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Monte Hellman's cult classic gets Criterion's first Blu-ray bump of the new year....
Criterion / 102 Minutes / 1971 / Rated R / Street Date: January 8, 2013
When I was growing up I always felt deprived because I did not know a car engine inside and out. I knew one kid who viewed being covered from head to toe in grease as a badge of honor. Another kid was always talking about how he was going to have a Mustang put together in time for his sixteenth birthday. Progress was very slow on the Mustang, and the kid's remaining hopes for the car were dashed when a tornado blew it away along with the shed it was in (I lived in the Midwest). But the car was complete, at least as far as the insurance company was concerned. Other than that good fortune, neither kid I mentioned really profited much from their interest in cars.
But don't tell that to the two male leads of Two-Lane Blacktop. They are the types of car fanatics who always get the girls while making a living, too. Girls like Laurie Bird just magically appear and sit in their car while they are eating in a diner. It doesn't get much easier than that. Anyway, they make a living by challenging guys with fast cars and loose wallets to races, often the kind not sanctioned. The mechanic (Dennis Wilson) says very little, and his partner (James Taylor) spends much of his time brooding, even when he is driving the car. Then along comes an older man (Warren Oates) driving a GTO and full of swagger. Taylor and Wilson want nothing to do with him, but when he makes a challenge they decide to race to Washington D.C., with the pink slip going to the winner.
The narrative is very simple, but the story elements are complex enough to keep you interested. Actually, as I look back on this movie, I am surprised I liked this unexpectedly thoughtful film so much. I guess that is because Two Lane Blacktop is the type of film that you "experience". This faraway culture was once real, but this world of hippies, cars, and dumpy service stations seems like a fantasy world. It is the type of place you would like to visit, as long as the visit is a brief one. This is the type of film that ages like fine wine.
The acting is better than you might expect. Warren Oates is the only real actor in the film, so you would expect him to do a credible job. Laurie Bird seems to be playing herself, probably because her role was written based on her own personality. James Taylor and Dennis Wilson don't have much to do other than cast wayward glances and mumble a few lines of dialogue every now and then. Keanu Reeves is looking into the remake.
The kind of lives people led in the 1970's is reflected not only in the film, but also in the real lives of the actors. Not much more than a decade after this film was released three of the four leads were dead. James Taylor should consider himself lucky, as he had to battle heroin addiction in what would otherwise have amounted to a clean sweep for the Grim Reaper.