Vintage Movies: “Two-Lane Blacktop”

MAGNET contributing writer Jud Cost is sharing some of the wealth of classic films he’s been lucky enough to see over the past 40 years. Trolling the backwaters of cinema, he has worked up a list of more than 500 titles—from the silent era through the ’90s—that you may have missed. A new selection, all currently available on DVD, appears every week.


Two-Lane Blacktop (1971, 102 minutes)

Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop has four principal characters known only as “the driver” (James Taylor, a singer signed to the Beatles’ Apple label), “the mechanic” (Beach Boys drummer and sometimes composer Dennis Wilson), “GTO” (veteran film and TV actor Warren Oates) and “the girl” (novice actress Laurie Bird). “Oddly enough, the only one who sang in the picture was Bird, and she couldn’t sing,” notes Hellman. It was, instead, a road film about a two-car transcontinental race down old Route 66, all the way to Washington D.C.

The mechanic, hands in his pockets on a blustery autumn night, watches carefully as the beefy guys in the embroidered car-club jackets shine flashlights on the big block 454 of the primer-coated, innocent looking ’55 Chevy (except for the sheet metal covering the tunnel ram intake manifold with dual quads protruding through the hood).

With everything checked out, the driver guns it briefly to warm up his pair of oversized Firestone racing tires as an opponent next to him does the same. The fat guy in front of them turns on a flashlight, and they’re off in a cloud of exhaust, tortured rubber and the deafening howl of powerful engines, down a quarter-mile run. Before the pay-off, the siren of an LAPD squad car, screaming toward the impromptu dragstrip, abruptly ends the evening for everybody.

The ’55 Chevy pulls up to Mary’s Cafe somewhere in Arizona, so the driver and the mechanic can grab a bite to eat. With the juke box blaring out “Hit The Road Jack,” they down their sandwiches as a skinny girl in her early 20s climbs out of a panel truck with a garish mural painted on the side. She slings her duffle bag into the ’55 Chevy, then follows it into the back seat. The driver and the mechanic take off, completely ignoring the girl. Finally, she pipes up: “It’s really bumpy back here. What kind of car is this, anyway?” The pair in front says nothing. “You guys aren’t the Zodiac killers or anything, are you?” she asks. The mechanic turns around and says, “Just passing through.”

They pull into a small town in New Mexico for the night and cruise the main drag before finding a lime green ’32 coupe street rod parked at a Lyons Root Beer drive-in. Playing the hayseed card, the driver tells the coupe’s owner, “Gee, mister, I’ll bet it’s pretty quick.” The owner, in his 30s, balding with a mustache, says, “You wanna find out?” Dropping all pretense, the driver says, “Normally I’d jump at the opportunity, but I’m not in the habit of seeing the Chevy work against a two-bit piece of junk.” “Let’s make it 50!” says the coupe’s owner. The driver snaps back, “Make it three yards, motherfucker, and we’ll have an automobile race!”