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The Criterion Collection presents
Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

"I think we got us a squirrel to run."
- The Driver (James Taylor)

Review By: Rich Rosell  
Published: April 17, 2008

Stars: James Taylor, Warren Oates, Dennis Wilson, Laurie Bird
Other Stars: Harry Dean Stanton, Jaclyn Hellman, Rudy Wurlitzer, Bill Keller
Director: Monte Hellman

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (brief language)
Run Time: 01h:42m:30s
Release Date: December 11, 2007
UPC: 715515026925
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A AA-B+ A+

DVD Review

Two-Lane Blacktop is a 1971 low-budget feature from Monte Hellman, a film that almost becomes a back roads travelogue, and one that quietly but eloquently speaks to the phenom and mystique of the male/car relationship in a way that is decidedly minimal in its approach.

It's about driving. It's about cars. It's about life. Or at least life as it relates to driving.

The main characters are never named, and simply exist in the credits as generic descriptors for what they are within the context of Hellman's film: The Driver (James Taylor), The Mechanic (Dennis Wilson), The Girl (Laurie Bird) and GTO (Warren Oates). The presence of singer/songwriter Taylor and Beach Boy drummer Wilson as the leads may seem like weird casting, but they come across as believably natural long-haired gearheads, focused more on their wheels than anything. They speak very little to one another, and most times when they do it's a laconic discussion of cars they have raced or might race.

The relatively skimpy plot has The Driver and The Mechanic heading East in their '55 Chevy, and they casually acquire a young hitchhiker—The Girl—representing a dangerous dose of free spirited innocence that impacts both men very differently. An encounter with the brash, cashmere-sweater-wearing driver of a bright yellow 1970 GTO prompts a long-distance "race for pinks", from Arizona to Washington D.C., steering clear of the interstates and traveling the one-horse town byways of small town America.

In Hellman's hands it almost becomes more of an homage to tiny gas stations, greasy diners and long stretches of pavement, and because the concept of the race gets overshadowed by the journey itself. In fact the race is largely forgotten not long after it begins, as the people in the two vehicles intermingle in various combinations, with sparse bursts of dialogue that prompt a bit of self-discovery and the casual impermanence of living out on "the road".

This is hardly The Gumball Rally, and as things unfold slowly—if at all—Hellman incorporates a documentary feel to many of the scenes, from secret street races to panhandling, all of which are occasionally reinforced by the use of backseat camera angle that gives the viewer the sense of riding along. The connection the leads feel to their respective cars, even as Oates piles on tall tale after tall tale to whatever random hitchhiker he picks up, spells out just how important these vehicles are, like an extension of their wandering road-hungry essence. The long-lasting impact of Hellman's opus is due in large part to the lost-in-yourself appeal of driving those endless stretches of two lane pavement, evolved as it is here into carefully maintained high-test romanticism.

The film's infamous final shot is maddening and stark, and one that likely forced those who may have seen this in a theater or (more appropriately) at a drive-in to wonder just what the hell had happened. Its impact on DVD doesn't quite carry the same effect, but it does effectively still cut the legs off of the narrative quickly, and we're left to wonder, as well.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The newly restored Monte Hellman-approved 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer bests the old Anchor Bay version, alleviating the murky blackness found on that print. There's still a veil of grain throughout, and colors periodically do show their age, but the transfer here is free of blemishes. The vivid yellow Oates' GTO, however, really pops.


Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Criterion has beefed up the film's original mono track (also represented here) with a new Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. There is a more exaggerated sense of movement with the 5.1 via the front channels, particularly during the racing segments, but the fairly thin overall texture to the track gives the whole thing an oddly hollow feel. The sparse dialogue doesn't really necessitate any dramatic audio cues, and the original mono is more than satisfactory—clean and hiss-free—and is really the preferred choice here.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Production Notes
4 Documentaries
2 Featurette(s)
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by Monte Hellman, Allison Anders, Rudy Wurlitzer, David Meyer
Packaging: other
Picture Disc
2 Discs
2-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: There's a massive lot of extras from Criterion for this hefty 2-disc release, beginning with a 110-page book containing Rudy Wurlitzer's original screenplay. A preface from Monte Hellman indicates he shot the film as written, with the final product being well over three hours long, eventually trimmed down to its a more marketable 103 minutes. Movie geeks, such as myself, will enjoy following along to see what Hellman cut and where.

Also included is a 36-page booklet, featuring an essay entitled Slow Ride by Kent Jones, bullet point appreciation comments from Richard Linklater (Dazed And Confused) and a reprint of On Route 66: Filming Two-Lane Blacktop from the October 1970 issue of Rolling Stone, written by Michael Goodwin.

Packaging is a heavy-duty foldout case inside of a very thick cardboard slipcase.

Disc one carries the film, cut into 20 chapters, and featuring optional English subtitles. There's a pair of commentaries here, as well, the first with Hellman and filmmaker Allison Anders, the second with screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer and author David Meyer. Hellman seems a little elusive here, and fares much better on the disc two supplements than he does with the commentary, though Anders (Border Radio) gives a good effort to try and prompt him for recollections, as well as supplying her own remembrances of what Two-Lane Blacktop meant for her. The Wurlitzer/Meyer track, by comparison, moves along a snappier pace, and addresses larger concepts about the writing, dialogue and the direction of the story.

Jumping over to disc two is a block of in-depth anamorphic widescreen features with Hellman, along with a handful of various photo galleries/text essays and the film's original theatrical trailer. On The Road Again: Two-Lane Blacktop Revisited (42m:48s) has the director leading an SUV full of film students (along with his daughter, who has a minor role in the film as a very, very young hitchhiker) out to take a look at the locations in Needles, CA today. Hellman is effusive and talkative about his film, and when they arrive the doc marries clips from the film with the actual locations. Make It Three Yards (38m:31s) has Hellman doing a sitdown interview with James Taylor in 2007, while Somewhere Near Salinas (27m:38s) has the director chatting up Kris Kristofferson and topics such as the role of Me and Bobby McGee in Two-Lane Blacktop and another key project (and slightly more well known), also penned by Rudy Wurlitzer. Sure Did Talk To You (23m:21s) stretches out the remembrances beyond Hellman, digging particularly into the thoughts of producer Michael Laughlin and production manager Walter Coblenz.

Those Satisfactions Are Permanent features a pair of screen tests, one each for Laurie Bird (14:49) and James Taylor (10m:51s)—who sings a tune, too—while Color Me Gone is an extensive set of promotional photos and on-location shots. Slightly more interactive thanks to some onscreen text) is Performance & Image, highlighting the restoration of the three Chevys used in the film, and a visit to some of the locations used.


Extras Grade: A+


Final Comments

A leisurely character study of ostensibly what it means to drive, race and to use a car as an extension of oneself. Monte Hellman goes minimal with dialogue, but still creates a travelogue that is almost the equivalent free range man/car porn, James Taylor and Warren Oates take the back roads through America, with the discoveries of the journey far more important than the final destination.

As a bonus, Criterion's scholarly set of supplements for this 2-disc set is nothing short of impressive.

Highly recommended.


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