“Those satisfactions are permanent.” Two-Lane Blacktop (Monte Hellman, 1971)

GTO

The “New Hollywood” was a period beginning around 1967 with Arthur Penn’s explosive Bonnie and Clyde and ending with the studio-busting catastrophe of Michael Cimino’s overblown Heavens Gate in 1980. Perhaps the most fruitful chapter in the history of Hollywood cinema, one need only mention The Godfather, Taxidriver, Jaws and Star Wars for examples of the calibre of pictures being churned out by the new generation of “Movie Brats”. Coppola, Bogdanovich, Scorsese, Spielberg and Altman all peaked in this era when the bewildered studios threw them money to make whatever pictures they wanted to.

Beyond these giants was a wealth of superb directors. Malick, Rafelson, Lumet and Ashby all deserve the praise lashed upon those mentioned above. It is Monte Hellman who has been most sorely overlooked. He remained only a footnote for many years, responsible for the peculiar Westerns The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind. However, in 1971 Hellman made the definitive existential road movie Two-Lane Blacktop, a picture that like so many classics flopped terribly and took years to receive the reconsideration it deserved.    

Two-Lane features James Taylor as The Driver and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson as The Mechanic, two car aficionados who drive around looking for street drags in their iconic primer-grey ‘55 Chevy. The plot is as pared down as their car revolving around a cross-country race for “pink-slips” between them and Warren Oates’ fast-talking GTO. Thrown into the unlikely group is The Girl, a young drifter who moves between both cars offering these troubled, stoic men the only means for any possible expression.

For a car movie the pace is slow, but I prefer to term it ‘hypnotic’. The race fizzles out revealing a film that’s really about men who are lost. Warren Oates is magnificent as GTO, a pathological liar he epitomises the confidence man, telling wild lies he thinks everybody wants to hear. There are so many great lines in Rudy Wurlitzers script, and Oates gets most of them. His best is “If I’m not grounded pretty soon, I’m gonna go into orbit”, which by the end we realise is probably the truest thing he’s said. The ending is wildly audacious but absolutely perfect, summing up the dictum that the horizon is invisible and the road endless. If you’re looking for a film that will stay with you try this one, it’s a satisfaction that’s permanent. 

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