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Monte Hellman, who died in April aged 91, once said he believed every “legitimate movie” was set on the road or in the street – that the transporting power of cinema depends on the great outdoors; anything else is theatre.

Two-Lane Blacktop, Hellman’s opus, which premiered 50 years ago this July, is the ultimate road movie and perhaps the ultimate outdoors movie, even if its claustrophobic finale forces us to look inwards.

Towards the end of the film, after a cross-country race that has pitted the lonesome GTO (Warren Oates, driving the Pontiac of the same name) against two cold-blooded hippies – ‘The Driver’ (James Taylor) and ‘The Mechanic’ (Dennis Wilson), who travelled in a Chevy 150 – GTO picks up a pair of hitchhiking soldiers. He reflects on his most recent contest and reveals that he won his Pontiac in a race behind the wheel of a 150. “There’s nothing like… wiping out one of those Detroit machines,” he says. “That’ll give you a set of emotions that’ll stay with you. Those satisfactions are permanent.”

Though there is reason to doubt GTO’s sincerity, the romantic interpretation is clear: in sharing his name with the iconic car, GTO is shown to be at one with the machine – but also with its rebel status, its unforgettable roar, its Orbit Orange paint job. To the boys he races against, GTO might as well be Henry Ford. But in that final disclosure, we see a nostalgic, even altruistic nomad looking for a protégé and some company on the open road. Maybe this curmudgeonly racer has more in common with the adolescents than we realised.

What follows to end the film is a cinematic flourish lifted from Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966): as The Driver prepares for another drag race, the sound cuts out. He slams the gas pedal and the image slows, almost to a halt. The celluloid begins to burn up in front of us, as if caught on the projector. It then catches fire and the movie itself disappears. Roll credits.

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

If Two-Lane Blacktop’s avant-garde sensibility aligned it more closely with the European auteurs of the day than with old Hollywood, the same can be said for its politics, which critique the hippy zeitgeist not from the right but the left. The Driver and The Mechanic may be children of the revolution, but their rebellions are little more than aesthetic – driven by haircuts and casual sex. Ultimately, it is GTO who becomes the nuanced and emotional voice, seeking treatment for his loneliness among strangers on the roadsides of middle America. His opponents aren’t seeking anything: the road is their playground and their play is an act of avoidance.

To that end, the contention of ‘The Girl’ (Laurie Bird), who asks, “What is this anyway, some kinda masculine power trip?”, is on the money. When she later abandons the warring boys, it’s at least in part because she sees through their futile bourgeois games. For Hellman to reframe the counterculture as a poor excuse for individualism is bold in a film targeted at the counterculture audience.

In Two-Lane Blacktop’s two-sided coin of a final scene, The Driver is exposed as a kitsch loner whose saving grace is that he has the face of James Taylor. But even that isn’t enough to stave off the loneliness: as Dennis Wilson’s Mechanic gets into the passenger seat next to Taylor, they don’t even look at each other.

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

That was all too much for an audience hoping for the next Easy Rider (1969). An existential journey through an America in angst, with barely any music, Two-Lane Blacktop’s commercial prospects weren’t helped by its ambiguous climax. But it’s an unforgettable finale, a jarring counterpoint to the film’s otherwise muted atmosphere. As a symbol of the cultural revolution’s impending burn-out and the coming strife, few images in cinema have endured like it.

What Hellman reminds us in the final moments of Two-Lane Blacktop is how keenly he believed in cinema as a mirror for the collective experience. Hellman’s irreverent attitude to film history would influence the likes of Quentin Tarantino – whose breakthrough, Reservoir Dogs (1992), Hellman executive produced.

Much like Tarantino’s Once upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), Hellman’s greatest work is a tribute to the humanness of the magicians behind the wheel and the quirky, sometimes tragic souls they pick up along the way. Those satisfactions are permanent.

Further reading

RIP Monte Hellman, patron saint of obsessional cinephiles

By Brad Stevens

RIP Monte Hellman, patron saint of obsessional cinephiles

“Every movie is in some way a road movie”: Monte Hellman looks back

By Matthew Thrift

“Every movie is in some way a road movie”: Monte Hellman looks back

“Monte Hellman made westerns unlike any before or since”: Quentin Tarantino hymns Ride in the Whirlwind

By Quentin Tarantino

“Monte Hellman made westerns unlike any before or since”: Quentin Tarantino hymns Ride in the Whirlwind

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