Appreciating Director Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop

It’s a movie about existentialism, self-creation, obsession, camaraderie, nihilism and a thousand other things. There’s barely any dialog and it stars two musicians who don’t play a single note. It’s likely the only movie ever made that includes a scene where the main characters shop for GM QuadraJet carburetor parts. The whole thing is paced like a long, lugubrious bong hit, includes sequences shot at long since closed drag strips and drive-in joints, and features Richard Ruth, the fabricator who actually screwed together the lead vehicle, as a gas station attendant wearing a Glendale Speed Center T-Shirt. And 50 years ago, in anticipation of its release, Esquire published the screenplay and pronounced it to be the best film of 1971. The movie is Two-Lane Blacktop. Its director, Monte Hellman, died on April 20 after falling in his Palm Springs home at the age of 91.

“In Monte Hellman’s new film, Two-Lane Blacktop,” wrote Vincent Canby of The New York Times in his review, “the godhead is the crankcase of a 454-cubic-inch, high-performance ’55 Chevy with aluminum heads, the car through which two young men, identified only as The Driver (James Taylor) and The Mechanic (Dennis Wilson), realize their destinies in a series of drag races in Esso country, across blacktop space and through stop-watch time.”

Hellman, born Monte Himmelman in Brooklyn on July 12, 1929 and raised in Albany, was in his early forties when he made Two-Lane and was barely hanging on in the movie business. He had directed a few films for the low-budget producer Roger Corman that went by almost unnoticed. He made four films starring a then-unknown Jack Nicholson. But up until then, he was best-known—which means barely known—for the western The Shooting which he shot on an $80,000 budget in 1965. In America, it had a cursory release in New York City and showed up as a late-night movie once on a local TV station. But in 1968 it opened in France to critical acclaim. “A western brought back to its essence … You must see this little film which is a big success,” wrote France‐Soir, a now long-defunct Paris newspaper. French enthusiasm wasn’t enough to ensure his family was housed and fed, but it put his name into the consciences of obscure film buffs. And that eventually earned him the support of Universal Studios, which reportedly put up $850,000 to make Two-Lane Blacktop.

“Essentially, the experience of filmmaking for me is one of constant discovery,” he explained to Nicholas Pasquariello of Jump Cut in 1976. “If I know too much in advance, I just tend to become disinterested sooner. The ideal situation for me is working on a film like The Shooting or even Two-Lane Blacktop where there are so many unconscious things happening in the creation of it that even after finishing the editing and mixing, and the making of the final print, I can go to see the film and still find new things in it. That to me is a stimulating experience.”

us film director monte hellman poses pri

Monte Hellman

MICHAL CIZEKGetty Images

There’s nothing slick about Two-Lane. It’s filled with non-actors doing their best to non-act. They amble through scenes, stare off into the distance, and often seem completely disaffected. Hellman sought out a naturalism so natural that it seemed unnatural. The one exception being the fine actor Warren Oates, who played the constantly lying, seemingly sociopathic “GTO” with theatrical flamboyance and infinite quirks. And yes, GTO drove the second automotive star of the film, a 1970 Pontiac GTO.

Watching Two-Lane now is like trying to decipher cave paintings or hieroglyphics. What dialog there is feels as if it were ripped out of Car Craft Magazine, no character seems concerned with anything rational, and there never seems to be much of a point. There’s some sort of race to Washington D.C. but no one seems too concerned about trying very hard to win it. It’s all so painfully 1970s. And it ends with the film itself apparently burning away.

1971  james taylor and laurie bird rehearse a scene with the director monte hellman for the movie two lane blacktop which was released in 1971 photo by michael ochs archivesgetty images

Director Monte Hellman (right) with James Taylor and Laurie Bird on the set of Two-Lane Blacktop.

Michael Ochs ArchivesCar and Driver

But then there are the cars. Besides the ’55 Chevy and ’70 GTO, there are glimpses of street races involving a 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona and dozens of small-time drag racers. All in their native environment–on the dirt lots surrounding the quarter-mile strips of places like Tennessee’s Lakeland International Raceway. It’s some of the only film that survives of those long ago and obscure people, places, and machinery. There are film geeks who will always cherish Hellman’s work for its fearless weirdness. And car people who will always love him for having captured a moment that no other filmmaker seemed to even know about.

Two-Lane wasn’t a hit. “Nobody will ever know if the movie would have been successful, because its life was cut off even before it had a chance to breathe, really” Hellman told Roel Haanen of Flashback Files in 2011. “This was just the power of one studio executive who decided he was going to stop it.” That executive was, Hellman claimed, Universal’s head Lew Wasserman. “He killed it the same way Congress kills the president’s agenda, by not spending any money on it. He provided money to make the movie, but no money to distribute it.”

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Still, Two-Lane was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2012. Not bad for a movie that was barely acknowledged in its own time.

After Two-Lane, James Taylor would take a few small acting roles, but never star in another movie. Dennis Wilson was in plenty of Beach Boys videos, but never acted in anything beyond Two-Lane. As for Hellman, he directed several more films and none of them rose much above obscurity.

However, he was an executive producer of Quentin Tarantino’s breakthrough film, Reservoir Dogs, in 1992. And Hellman was still pushing his (usually frustrated) projects forward in the 21st century.

The two automotive stars of the film would have extensive careers. The GTO made it back into Universal’s motor pool and for several years would show up in TV series like Adam-12, Kojak, and Beretta wearing its distinctive Keystone mags. The ’55 would get some black paint and go on to portray Bob Falfa’s sinister beast in George Lucas’s massive 1973 hit American Graffiti.

There’s no evidence that Monte Hellman ever cared about cars or car culture, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t leave something special for all of us to remember.

“The only person that I ever met who really understood one of my movies—the movie was Two-Lane Blacktop—was a man who worked in a brewery, he came to me and told me what he saw,” Hellman told Film Talk last year. “Now that didn’t matter to me, I mean if someone had a different interpretation, that was okay too, you know. But I thought it was interesting; here you had this one guy who saw what I saw.”

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