River Of Grass
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On Film4: 4 Sep 1:00AM
Two drifters race their way across America in their souped-up Chevy. Road movie starring Warren Oates, James Taylor and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, directed by Monte Hellman
Described by Repo Man director Alex Cox as a cult movie par excellence, Two-Lane Blacktop is fully deserving of so lofty a title. Directed by Monte Hellman, the 'lost man' of 1970s American cinema, the film was scripted by Rudy Wurlitzer, author of brilliant if bizarre books like 'Nog' and great if grandiose movies such as Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid.
As for Wurlitzer's co-authors, they included Will Corry, a man better known for writing TV westerns than weirdo road movies, and Floyd Mutrux, a compelling figure whose contributions to film include the scripts for another fine road film, Richard Rush's Freebie And The Bean, and American Me, a Chicano gangster movie infamous for containing so much anal rape, it makes Deliverance look like an uneventful canoeing holiday.
Blacktop's cult credentials also extended to an incredibly eclectic cast. Determined that his idiosyncratic film should reach as large an audience as possible, director Hellman went out and hired two of the biggest music stars on the planet. Unfortunately, neither James Taylor nor Dennis Wilson turned out to be particularly good actors but they significantly up the film's cult ante, what with Taylor being a massive junkie before he found comfort in the Laurel Canyon scene and Wilson being the Beach Boy who spent as much time schlepping around with Charles Manson as he did surfing.
Since Two-Lane Blacktop largely consists of non-actors Wilson and Taylor swanning about and racing other rev heads for money, you might think it'd be a bit inconsequential. That it is in fact a counter-culture classic to rival Easy Rider and The Last Movie has a lot to do with its third male lead, Warren Oates. One of the finest American actors of the post-war period, Oates's list of important films is incredibly long, including as it does such Sam Peckinpah classics as Ride The High Country, The Wild Bunch and Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia.
Here he plays G.T.O., the ageing driver of a Pontiac who challenges Taylor and Wilson to a cross-country race to Washington DC. So excellent that we miss him whenever he's off-screen, it's interesting to see Oates's man of the road as a younger version of the burnt-out debt collector Harry Dean Stanton plays in Repo Man, his smart mouth and flash outfit ultimately giving way to jaded cynicism and a rumpled sports jacket.
If Oates navigates Two-Lane Blacktop towards greatness it's Monte Hellman's handling that makes the film more Formula One than formula. From the amazing racing sequences to the incendiary finale, Blacktop never lets up. It also never forgets to give the people as much prominence as their steeds, something that grants it a weight that's absent from similarly themed films such as Vanishing Point.
As for that climax, Hellman has claimed that the image of the film catching fire was a happy accident. Whether or not this is the case, it's hard not to read parallels between the stunning image and Hellman's sudden career collapse. For in the 35 years since he set the world ablaze, Monte Hellman has completed just four further films. And one of those was the execrable Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out!.
The ultimate road movie and one of the great American movies of the 1970s.
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