Forty years ago, under the inspiring editorship of Harold Hayes, Esquire magazine picked out Two-Lane Blacktop in advance as “the film of the year” in 1971. That was the sort of nose for young culture that some editors cultivated in those days. I suppose they thought the film could repeat the sensational business of Easy Rider, offered two years earlier, and it had a similar affectation—that in this America you could live on the road if you kept moving and if you trained your cool sensibility to follow the blacktop and trust your engine. It was a film made on the road, with a singular absence of professional actors. Alas, it came nowhere close to the numbers on Easy Rider, but it is so much more worthwhile as a film. Indeed, I’m going to push my luck and say there has never been a better film about sweaters.
That is not a facetious comment. As the picture starts, two kids are driving a 1955 Chevy 150 that they have worked on. Most of its bodywork peels away, but its engine has been refined. The Chevy is unpainted gun-metal and the kids are simply the Driver (James Taylor) and the Mechanic (Dennis Wilson). Neither of those musical stars contributes to the sound track: They are “acting”—Mechanic is easy-going, and Driver is obsessed. Moreover, in 1971, no one looked better suited to being in a movie than Taylor. Either he had that confidence, or director Monte Hellman urged it into him, but he didn’t emote a lick. Taylor just stared through his sparse lines and gazed at the highway. Until the Girl came along. She seems about seventeen, with the experience of forty-seven, pretty but casual, and ready to get laid across the highway system of the wide United States, so long as no one wants to get serious about it. She is Laurie Bird and in the most obvious way she got the part because she was having a thing with Monte Hellman at the time.
This trio are plausible kids from 1971, but they are also like aliens or zombies unimpressed with any other life. That’s why the film depends on Warren Oates, who is G.T.O., named for the yellow Pontiac he is driving. G.T.O. claims he has lived an adventurer’s life, and Oates was past forty. His hair is going, there are cracks in his assurance to match his toothy grin. He knew nothing about this road life, but he was sure as hell not going to be stared down by these young punks, and anyway, he was as ready to fall in love with the Girl as he was to hang a right.
In a way, Oates represents the parental generation, bewildered by these kids, but yearning to horn in on their freedom. So G.T.O. does the thing Oates was blessed at: He shoots a line at every opportunity. One hitch-hiker he picks up on the road takes about two minutes of this and then asks to be let out—somehow he’s heard the mad emptiness of G.T.O. and knows it could go anywhere. He’s more reckless than the kids. So with every character he meets, G.T.O. has a new story and he breaks into it with the yarning escapism that Oates loved, as if he’s making it all up as he goes along. It’s another part of G.T.O.’s helpless instability that in every fresh scene he is wearing a new sweater. The guys on the road have very few spare clothes, but G.T.O. (who wears an ascot all the time, too) has endless, lyric sweaters (and I’ll bet they’re cashmere)—black, blue, red, yellow, saffron, ginger, Kelly green, on and on they go. It’s the clearest sign that G.T.O. is nothing but an actor with a wardrobe on the road. He’s abandoned normal life as fully as the kids, and it’s all going to end badly.
Oates talks up a streak and it hardly matters whether the boasting comes from the script by Rudy Wurlitzer or is stuff Oates made up. The point is far more that mature years, a collection of pasts, a dandy little car, and the words that go with experience and sophistication are just a set of myths. G.T.O. is as hopelessly gone as the kids. One of the things Hellman does all through the film (and this puts it in a different world from Easy Rider) is stress the clash between the zip-pan liberty of the road and the numb or becalmed stasis of the guys. Their only hope really is to become their cars, and to be driving on automatic.
Then there’s the Girl who makes it clear from the start that she’s available but unattached. So she slips around from one to the other for a while like good cards in a night of poker. And then there’s the day when they’re in a diner and a new kid notices her. Hellman never gives this moment close ups and reaction shots. But the girl simply ups and follows the boy out into the car park. When she sees he has a motor bike she dumps her bag on the ground—her possessions, her past—and rides off behind him. There’s not a hint of romantic urge, but it’s a very funny scene with the guys left stranded. You can see how a man who’s been around is likely to fall back on sweaters.
So Two-Lane Blacktop never stoops to the hippy v. redneck politics of Easy Rider, and it is a film that doesn’t do drugs—who needs such things with the euphoria of cars, the road, and sweaters? The race they engage in is supposed to be headed for D.C., but no one believes they’ll get that far. Somewhere in Tennessee the Driver and the Mechanic pick up a challenge with a side bet and the picture ends—not with that race or a conclusion—but with the film of Driver’s face jamming in the gate of the projector and beginning to burn. You can say that’s an easy way out, but I think it’s true to the harsh, deadpan poetics of this rare movie.
David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.