On a dark night in 1971, in a desert area on the fringes of Los Angeles, the drag races begin. A thin, brooding driver (James Taylor) and his sly, shaggy mechanic (Dennis Wilson) compete and eventually win the races before zipping off into the night in their tricked-out 1955 Chevy. In pursuit of more races and a need to jam the pedal to the metal, the two men rarely make a pit stop during their drive. On the occasion that they do, the pair pull into a roadside diner to eat breakfast while a young drifter (Laurie Bird) stumbles out of a nearby truck, checks out the parked vehicles and quickly picks the Chevy to crash in. Upon finding her, the men seem happy to take her along their seemingly endless road trip. A few days later, they meet up with a man (Warren Oates) in a new Pontiac muscle car who claims he can “beat them in no time.” They recognize the blowhard as the driver who’s been dogging them on the interstate for the last few days. The bet is on.
When maverick director Monte Hellman agreed to steer Two-Lane Blacktop, he saw it as a vehicle for much more than drag racing. He hired Rudy Wurlitzer to rewrite Will Corry’s screenplay and, to Universal Studios’ surprise, Hellman cast two musicians — Taylor and Wilson — and an unknown model (Bird). With the exception of Oates, none of the principals had acting experience, but Hellman rightfully felt that would suit the project.
In search of a raw visual texture that would make audiences feel like they were there, Hellman tapped cinematographer Jack Deerson (The Dark Side of Tomorrow), who was well known for getting low-budget films to look great. Deerson decided to use the Techniscope process, which achieves a widescreen aspect ratio by exposing half the frame (or “two sprockets’ worth”) of negative, giving the image a wide rectangular shape. This process helped Deerson achieve maximum clarity as he and his young assistants — Gregory Sandor and future ASC member John Bailey — spent much of the shoot crammed inside cars or attached to specially built ramps outside the vehicles. The process created a sharp, unsaturated color balance that helps give the film its gritty texture, particularly in the scenes that were shot with available light or minimal source lights.
The Criterion Collection’s two-disc release of Two-Lane Blacktop marks an improvement over the image quality seen in Anchor Bay’s 1999 DVD. This new transfer is incredibly clean of print debris and has been mastered from new source elements. The color balance appears consistent, even in the more difficult magic-hour and late-evening lighting schemes. Sound is offered in a clean monaural track and a nicely remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 track that offers plenty of vibrant, immersive “revs.”
Disc one includes the feature film and offers two interesting commentary tracks, one by Hellman and filmmaker Allison Anders and the other by screenwriter Wurlitzer and film professor and author David Meyer, who discuss the film’s narrative and existential elements.
Disc two includes several supplements. The first is “On the Road Again,” a 43-minute making-of documentary directed by Hellman and some of his students in 2007. Also featured are a 27-minute interview with soundtrack contributor Kris Kristofferson; a 23-minute interview with producer Michael Laughlin, production manager Walter Coblenz and others; extensive screen-test footage of Bird and Taylor; publicity stills; audio interviews; car-restoration photos; and the film’s theatrical trailer. The package comes in a heavy slipcase that also includes a bound edition of the screenplay and a handbook of absorbing essays and commentaries by Kent Jones, Michael Goodwin and filmmaker Richard Linklater.
This freewheeling, mythic slice of American popular culture from the early 1970s has won fans throughout the world, and from the screeching engines that start it to the incendiary images that end it, this handsome DVD will impress those loyal fans as well as newcomers.