“You'd have yourself a real street-sweeper here if you put a little work into it.”
- The Mechanic
“I go fast enough…”
“You can never go fast enough.”
- The Driver
I’d never watched Monte Hellman’s 1971 cult classic Two-Lane Blacktop before Criterion’s new Blu-ray edition arrived in my mailbox. I’d heard of the film, knew its history and what so many thought of it, but for whatever reason watching this existential road trip enterprise never became a priority. I meant to watch it, wanted to watch it, had every intent to watch it, all of that is true, I just never did actually watch it, always putting the film off to another day deciding to give other pictures a look in its stead instead.
Shame on me. Two-Lane Blacktop is incredible. This moody, dream-like stunner is without question one of the greatest road trip features I’ve ever had the pleasure to lay eyes on. The ethereal atmosphere Hellman creates, the way he is able to dig into the souls of his main quartet of characters with so little effort (and even less in the way of dialogue), the way music and cinematography combine to create something luminous and distinct, all of it allows for the movie to add up in ways difficult to quantify and even more impossible to put into words. Put simply, this movie has justifiably earned its place as a classic and deserves to be considered something of a landmark, Hellman going places and offering up emotions lesser filmmakers wouldn’t have dreamt of let alone attempted.
The plot is simple enough. Driver (James Taylor) is at the wheel of his restored steel grey ’55 Chevy, while The Mechanic (the late Dennis Wilson) is the one responsible for the souped-up engine and for keeping it on the road in working condition. As they drive along the back highways of America the inadvertently pick up The Girl (Laurie Bird), a young wanderer with an aimless desire to go somewhere, anywhere, other than where she is right at the given moment. At a secluded gas station, the make the acquaintance of G.T.O. (Warren Oates), a middle-aged wanderer whose backstory is as mysterious as his intent.
What follows is a road race to Washington, D.C. for pink slips, but don’t expect a lot of high speed shenanigans or engine revving hot pursuits. Instead, Hellman and screenwriters Rudy Wurlitzer and Will Corry are more interested in the journey itself and how these seemingly purposeless road warriors interact both with one another as well as those they come into contact with. Two-Lane Blacktop is about the high of the road, the feel of the scenery rushing by and the feelings of loneliness and angst that, almost secretly, influence every move any of these disparate characters choose to make. The emotions that arise, the unflinching look at the human condition and how it evolves and changes as years go by youth matures into middle age, all of it adds up to something timeless, the palpable influence of a world rushing by difficult to ignore and equally impossible to forget.
Two-Lane Blacktop is presented on a dual-layer 50GB Blu-ray MPEG-4 AVC Video with a 2.35:1/1080p transfer. As stated in the included booklet: “Supervised by director Monte Hellman, this high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit 2K from a 35mm four-perforation interpositive made from the original Techniscope two-perforation camera negative. Thousands of instances of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter and flicker were manually removed using MTI's DRS and Pixel Farm's PFClean, while Image System's Phoenix was used for small dirt, grain and noise reduction.”
Two-Lane Blacktop roars onto Blu-ray in English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 while also offering up the original English LPCM Mono track and includes optional English SDH subtitles. Again, from the included booklet: “The original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the 35mm magnetic tracks. Clicks, thumps, hiss and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.”
Extras are ported over from the 2007 DVD edition and include:
· Audio Commentary with director Monte Hellman and filmmaker Allison Anders – Excellent conversational commentary track between Hellman and Gas, Food, Lodging director Anders, the two covering almost every aspect of the film and its production save for the final, iconic image, both filmmakers deciding it best to leave it up to the viewer what the burning of the celluloid signifies.
· Audio Commentary with screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer and film professor/author David N. Meyer – Another strong track, Wurlitzer going into to fairly great detail as to his opinions towards Hellman’s take on the script.
· On the Road Again (42:46) – Hellman hits the road with a group of his film students revisiting many of the iconic locations from the film while discussing the picture’s genesis as well as Universal’s response to it when he turned in his final cut.
· Make It Three Yards (38:28) – Hellman and Taylor discuss the film, its iconic status and why the singer/songwriter never acted in another motion picture.
· Somewhere Near Salinas (27:37) – Hellman and singer/songwriter Kris Kristofferson talk the use of music in the movie and about what it is that makes a great ‘road movie.’
· Sure Did Talk to You (23:20) – Interviews with producer Michael Laughlin, production manager Walter Goblenz, Monte Hellman’s son Jared Hellman, Steven Gaydos of Variety and filmmaker Dennis Bartok, all edited together into one smartly constructed featurette.
· Those Satisfactions are Permanent – Screen tests, interviews and outtakes featuring Laurie Bird and James Taylor.
i. Laurie Bird (14:48)
ii. James Taylor (10:50)
· Color Me Gone – Behind-the-scenes photos and publicity stills from the film.
· Performance and Image – Photos of one of the three ’55 Chevys used in the film, painstakingly restored by car enthusiast Walt Bailey with the assistance of Richard Ruth.
· Original Theatrical Trailer (2:30)
Also included is a 38-page Illustrated Booklet featuring an essay by critic Kent Jones, appreciations by director Richard Linklater and musician Tom Waits, and a reprint of the 1970 Rolling Stone article “On Route 66, Filming Two-Lane Blacktop” by Michael Goodwin.
Two-Lane Blacktop blew me away. It is a fantastical existential road trip through a dusty American landscape, achieving an elegantly haunting mellifluence few films of a similar nature before or since have ever been able to themselves achieve. Criterion’s Blu-ray presentation is close to immaculate and fans should pick this disc up for their personal collections right away.