Two-Lane Blacktop (1971): Monte Hellman’s Road Movie

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There’s always a certain relish in seeing non-actors given a stake in a film, but whether it’s mere fallacy or not, there’s this sense that they are more like us — there aren’t as many techniques to get in the way of our joint experience. In other words, what they are giving us has a chance of being utterly authentic.

Monte Hellman is a modest maverick of a certain era and because of his content and his approach to it, there’s little question why he has become a cult icon. The Shooting reimagined the West for a Hippie-infused generation that had a bleaker outlook on post-war American. Exceptionalism, as it were, had come and gone leaving a disillusioned remnant behind in the progeny of the WWII or “Greatest” Generation.

These are the young men and women who listened to 93 KHJ on the airwaves in Los Angeles and not only forged Easy Rider but had their very experience catalyzed by the film. It is the same movement that Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop captures so seamlessly. It exhibits the gritty, no-frills portraiture of American highways and byways.

Admittedly, the soundtrack of Easy Rider is one for the ages and supremely difficult to even consider surpassing. However, this subsequent road picture might fill in for a fine companion piece, although, for a film featuring two prominent musicians at its center — it is not devoted to its songs.

In other words, it does not function as a soundtrack movie nor a hit parade for a generation. Still, one could argue its images are just as relevant and the malaise captured here pervades many analogous explorations from the era like Easy Rider or even Model Shop.

Two-Lane Blacktop also carries some of the same mythos of an American Graffiti, albeit set up against a contemporary rather than a nostalgic backdrop. Likewise, this is a sprawling road movie, as opposed to a contained small-town vignette.

With it, the characters — the aforementioned non-actors — James Taylor and Dennis Wilson, head East in the never-ending search for a race and some dough to keep them going until they find their next competition.

To his credit, Hellman doesn’t make much of a knowing nod to his stars as world-renowned musicians. They’re just car guys pure and simple, and he leaves it at that. It’s simultaneously blessed by the on-location, sequential shooting and the lack of makeup or other thrills. It maintains this illusion of pure authenticity even as it drifts further and further toward the outskirts of reality.

I didn’t think of it immediately but while this film starts in California, it definitely functions to go other places. Two-lane roads are nothing if not a sign of the vast rolling expanses of Middle America. They crop up a long way away from the 405 freeway.

It’s in spaces where you can really make a nuisance of yourself by either dawdling and holding up everyone behind you or being so revved up you just about blow everyone off the road.

However, it’s also on such adventures you interact not only with all sorts of people but unique places as well that are imbued with a character you cannot fabricate. Gas stations out in the boonies and hitchhikers on the side of the road — when such a custom was still in vogue.

In the case of the driver (James Taylor) and his buddy, the mechanic (Dennis Wilson), they end up toting along a Girl (Laurie Bird) on Route 66, who all but stows away in their car after they make a pit stop at a diner.

Her presence would have been a shock to other more apprehensive characters. They take the minor revelation with nary a blink, much less a long-winded altercation. Because they are the definition of laconic. Casually taking life as it comes and maintaining their greatest passions, which seem to be cars and living life on the road.

They know nothing else. They care about little else. Their life is being lived in the here and now without outside responsibilities or ambitions that reach beyond their current reality. There are hints of the implicit loneliness of the lifestyle, tensions, all the human emotions, but they are never fully realized. They are not necessarily meant to be. Still, it becomes obvious enough a girl can get between men and their passions.

On multiple occasions, the movie is filmed with the backseat camera setups reminiscent of the famed heist scene from Gun Crazy. Of course, this film has little to do with small-time crime but there is a similar intimacy to the space and our relation to these characters. I would stop short of saying we get to know them well, all their inner workings remain obscured, but we do get to spend a lot of time in close proximity. You cannot help but appreciate someone in such circumstances.

Furthermore, while I’m by no means an automobile authority, Two-Lane Blacktop just might be one of the preeminent car movies of all-time with a select company. There is a certain chivalry projected on the art of racing even when it all comes down to burned rubber and who has the most dexterity and guts on the road. There’s also this constant tension between longevity and the inevitable. Things break down and fall apart. Both those things of steel and those of flesh and bone.

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The shaggy-haired driver eventually goads an affluent out-of-towner in a shiny GTO (Warren Oates as an impeccable foil) into a little cross country competition, and he’s prepared to blow these punks out of the water in their souped-up 1955 Chevrolet 150.

What forms is this oddly symbiotic relationship, initially antagonistic, and then somehow morphing into a laid-back camaraderie. Soon they’re helping their adversary along even after momentarily hitching him up with the police.

Some of the best films are capable of literally transporting the viewer to a time or place. There is almost a tactile, visceral quality that puts us right in the moment on the cusp of a new decade and simultaneously still riding the tailpipes of the 60s counterculture.

Haircuts, music, gas stations, Coca-Cola, even the actors do it for us, and the beauty of it all is how unintentional it feels. Hellman may or may not have had the prescience to know people would be watching his film decades later. Regardless, his stripped-down aesthetic is perfectly paired with the era he came to prominence in. It doesn’t feel like there’s so much artifice or smokescreens getting in the way — only exhaust.

Such an experience might take getting used to for some. Although Two-Lane Blacktop has a central driving force, it’s a road movie about cars after all; in commonly attributed cinematic terms it feels lax, observational, and loose in its progressions.

To this day, it’s this very quality helping to solidify it as one of the great road pictures. The trick is allowing for the verisimilitude and space for things to happen. We feel the nomadic yearnings and the deep-seated restlessness present in every frame.

It gives glimpses of something with the hint of reality and yet without pretentiousness or an attempt at verbose commentary. It simply exists and unfurls a story and a world for us to imbibe as an audience. Consequently, it also makes me want to dust off some Beach Boy and James Taylor records. They are the sounds of a generation just as this is a film for a generation.

4/5 Stars

Ride in the Whirlwind (1966)

Ride_in_the_Whirlwind_(movie_poster)Anyone who takes the time to search out this movie whether the reason is a young Jack Nicholson who wrote, helped finance, and starred in this western or because it’s directed by cult favorite Monte Hellman,  they probably already know it was shot consecutively with The Shooting. Whereas the first western has an unnerving existential tilt as the plot takes us through an endless journey across the oppressive desert plains, you could make the claim that Ride in the Whirlwind is a more conventional western.

However, it’s still highly intriguing for its main premise and the dilemmas that evolve as a result. But that’s enough with the big picture. Here are a few more details to fill in between the lines. The action begins with a holdup, a true western staple. True, a pair of men get injured but it’s about what you expect from such a skirmish. In the end, the stage rides off generally unimpeded and the bandits retreat to their lair up in the nearby mountains to wait it out for a while. Maybe they know a posse is on their trail and maybe not.

Either way, they’re mighty careful when a trio of riders make their way through the main pass. Of course, they don’t know that these are only a few cowhands making their way to Texas and they’re looking for a place to bed down for the night.

Both sides have a general sense of the other but rather than make waves they do the mutually beneficial thing and everything goes about their business nice and easy. There’s no need for guns and no ones looking for any trouble.

But the next morning a posse that means business rolls in and they’re not about to wait and ask questions. They set up posts to pin down their adversary and they hardly discriminate between who was a bandit and who is innocent. That’s not the way their righteous form of justice works.

Rather like the early Hollywood Classic The Ox-Bow Incident, they are searching for the men to lynch and it hardly seems to make any difference if the men are innocent or not. They shall be avenged. However, an interesting observation is that in once sense this does not seem like mob rule. The posse is calculated and cool in executing their objective although that’s no comfort to those who are actually innocent.

In the ensuing standoff, one of the ranch hands, caught in the crossfire gets it and the two bandits who come out with their lives get about what we expect. The second half of the film follows the two men who were able to escape and they just want to find a pair of horses so they can ride away from the whole business.

Their quest on foot leads them to a nearby homestead and this latter half of the story brings to mind earlier pictures such as Shane or Hondo where families are seen trying to make a life for themselves out on the plains.

Wes (Nicholson) and Vern (Cameron Mitchell) are desperate to get away yes, and they sneak into the families home but what makes them so different is the very fact that they are not real criminals. They are only doing this out of necessity. They treat the womenfolk respectfully including the ranchers taciturn daughter Abigail (Millie Perkins) but they’re also bent on taking for themselves a pair of horses.

First off, Evan ain’t so keen on having his home invaded or his family held hostage and he’s especially not obliging that they’re going to run off with some of his stock because they’re his after all.

This is in itself another brooding film like The Shooting but for different reasons. It’s filled with genuine tension because the irony of the situation is that we know these men are innocent and yet in order to survive in some ways they must take on the mantle of criminals just to live another day. There’s no space for a rational third way. There’s no grace or any type of understanding and so they’re forced to play by the rules already set up by the posse that’s pursuing them. That’s the moral conundrum at the core of this tale.

Ride in the Whirlwind has the dismal type of ending we expect with a bit of a silver lining but it’s that very shred of hope that makes it an affecting western. It feels right at home with the sentiments of the 1960s where the world is not as innocent as it used to be and the world often does not function by the most equitable standards. Some would say that’s why the western fell out of favor because in the classical sense, it no longer reflected the perceived world at large like it once did.

3.5/5 Stars

The Shooting (1966)

ShootingHellmanCrime films, westerns, and horror. It’s easy to see why these genres make arguably the best B-pictures, all things considered. It lies in their ability to deliver thrills with minimal capital and a bit of inspiration. Film Noir is by far my favorite but a film such as The Shooting makes me love shoestring westerns too. Except that’s just an initial gut reaction. What happens over the course of this film truly plays with our preconceptions. Its ambitions being rather curious.

The players are set fairly early on.  The cult favorite Warren Oates is cast as the laconic Gashade who however indifferent he might seem has some shred of decency in him as signified by his friendship with Coley (Will Hutchins) a needy and rather dimwitted miner.

His genial personality makes the addition of our third player all the more important. She’s a woman (Millie Perkins) who comes upon them unannounced and generally unwanted by Gashade. But she also comes with a proposition and money to boot.

Our protagonist is lukewarm to the whole undertaking but for some inexplicable reason agrees to become her guide in tracking someone. He wins a spot for Coley in their caravan as well and it’s easy to see Coley is very much taken with the lady to make up for his buddies complete lack of interest.

The acerbically biting Millie Perkins rivals Jane Fonda and Raquel Welch in the pantheon of cinematic Western women as she verbally spars with her fellow travelers. While the ever-leering Jack Nicholson, here in a very early role as a hired gun robed in black, adds another layer of tension to this extremely peculiar western exercise.

Monte Hellman follows a script penned by Carole Eastman that leads us through the blistering deserts of Utah on a very certain quest that nevertheless becomes increasingly vague and ambiguous as the film progresses. The very fact that The Shooting takes one of the archetypes of a man with a burning vendetta (for example The Searchers or The Bravados) and subverts it so completely denotes how unique this film manages to become.

It’s all orchestrated with a certain idiosyncratic paranoia both musically and otherwise. The opening moments prove just how effectively a score can impart a level of anxiety into a film without anything of much consequence actually occurring. It complements the slow burn that follows for the next hour — slow, brooding, perplexing, all those things — as we wander along with them like the Israelites in Exodus. But there’s an underlying goal to it all, the resolution that we expect to bring everything that has happened thus far to fruition. There will be a cathartic showdown where all is revealed if not made right.

Hitchcock’s long since overused quip that I will nevertheless mechanize one more time goes something like this and seems apt for this film. There is no terror in the bang only in the anticipation of it. That’s the key here. The “bang” as it were, comes but it comes in such a way that we were never quite expecting. The sequential narrative points that we are used to traversing are never quite passed in the succession that we are used to.

There’s a penchant for throwing out names that feel vaguely relevant such as Beckett or Kafka but not being literary enough I will forego such pieces of analyses to simply state in many ways The Shooting feels perfectly at home in the 60s. It’s a real trip and not simply on horseback. More in a precursor to Easy Rider sense. I believe the coined term is an Acid Western.

Paired with another Hellman-Nicholson collaboration backed by Roger Corman and filmed consecutively, The Shooting is made for a double bill with Ride in the Whirlwind. This number, in particular, proves just how mind-bending a western can be. There are no small films only small budgets and with enough vision, not even that can inhibit a truly inventive endeavor like this.

3.5/5 Stars