Two-Lane Blacktop was, to quote screenwriter and former Time critic Jay Cocks, easily the best of the “odd, off-pitch movies that followed in the wake of Easy Rider and were immeasurably superior to it.” (Just as The Heartbreak Kid, made a year later by Nichols’s old partner Elaine May, was immeasurably superior to The Graduate.) In Easy Rider, the fabled “road” equals freedom, befouled by ugly Americana, another big “theme.” While in Two-Lane Blacktop it becomes something altogether different and far more interesting: a repository of dreams and fantasies, for squares, hipsters, and obsessives alike. Where Hopper’s film is set in the Great American Dreamscape, Hellman’s vision of the American West is far less pretentious, parceled out in nicely measured, seemingly offhand portraits. Where Hopper wears his hipster credentials on his sleeve, Hellman obscures his and even tones down his well-chosen soundtrack choices in the mix. Where Hopper and Fonda “play” disenchantment and disaffection (offset by Nicholson’s authoritative charm), James Taylor, Dennis Wilson, and Laurie Bird are three nonactors who embody a sense of youthful restlessness (offset by Warren Oates’s heartbreakingly eloquent woundedness). And where Easy Rider is finally a series of choices and strategies and inventions clustered around a big thesis, Two-Lane Blacktop is a great film devoted to nailing the particulars of something far less likely to launch magazine think pieces or talk-show digressions. It is a movie about loneliness, and the attempts made by people to connect with one another and maintain their solitude at the same time—an impossible task, an elusive dream.
That is to say, Two-Lane Blacktop was not Easy Rider II—posters of Taylor and Oates did not adorn the walls of adolescent bedrooms. Defeated before its release by a well-meaning but misconceived advance publicity campaign (Rudolph Wurlitzer’s original script was published in Esquire under the unfortunate heading “The Movie of the Year”—wish fulfillment run amok, or aground), misunderstood by critics and audiences in search of the next big Youth Movie, and subsequently reviled by the very studio that produced it, Hellman’s film was something of a buried treasure for many years. There were prints here and there, but they were scarce. Universal studio boss Lew Wasserman maintained a deep-seated personal dislike of the film, presumably because it both epitomized the generational upheaval of its era and failed to incite the new youth audience to empty its pockets. Universal’s studio projectionist took an equally dim view, and for years the studio print was shorn of its final images (in which the film appears to burn out from the center—every projectionist’s worst nightmare). Two-Lane Blacktop turned up on public television once in the eighties, panned and scanned. A few new prints were struck in the following years, but it was not until the late nineties, when it appeared on laserdisc and then DVD in the correct aspect ratio, that it assumed its proper place as one of the most striking American films of its era. At this point, it is well on its way to being recognized as one of the greatest, and most moving.
Original theatrical trailer and a video essay by A. O Scott after the jump.