Summer of Speed

Two-Lane Blacktop

1971

Universal Pictures

Directed by Monte Hellman

Produced by Michael Laughlin

Written by Rudolph Wurlitzer

Right from the start I’m going to tell you that most of you who decide to watch TWO-LANE BLACKTOP after reading this review aren’t going to like it. And I’m going to tell you why so pay attention:

TWO-LANE BLACKTOP was made during a period of American film when experimentation was encouraged and indulged.  Filmmakers weren’t worried about product placement or how much a movie made on its opening weekend.  They didn’t care about rewriting all the heat out of a screenplay to ensure that the characters were likeable or relatable. They gave you a movie with characters and respected the intelligence of you, The Viewer to decide if you liked them or not.  TWO-LANE BLACKTOP is a road movie more concerned with capturing the mood of a period of American history than giving you a thrill ride or a meaningful character study.  Now I say this because for a generation brought up on CGI Summer Blockbusters, By-The-Numbers Action Movies, Generic Romantic Comedies and Lame Ass Horror Movies, TWO-LANE BLACKTOP can be a frustrating 102 minutes to watch.  And unless you’re willing to open your mind and explore the existential nihilistic worldview of the movie you oughta give it a pass.

Now, for those of you who are still with me…

The Driver (James Taylor and yes, that James Taylor) and The Mechanic ( Dennis Wilson and yes, that Dennis Wilson) travel up and down western U.S. highways in their highly modified 1955 Chevy two-door sedan.  The battleship gray beast of a car looks like it’s about to fall apart but it’s fast enough to catch rabbits.  They spend their time picking up money in street races and live out of their car.  They never talk about anything that is not related to the care and maintenance of the Chevy or racing.  They never make small talk or chitchat and never refer to each other by name.  We never find out how they met, where they came from or why they are living this life.

The movie gets even stranger when they pick up The Girl (Laurie Bird)  Or I should say that she picks them up.  She’s a hitchhiker and simply gets into their car without asking them and they drive away with her in it as if she had been travelling with them all along.

They keep passing a 1970 Pontiac GTO being driven by Warren Oates, who thinks that The Driver wants to race.  He catches up to them at a gas station and a race is proposed.  They’ll race to Washington D.C. from their present location in New Mexico.  The winner gets the loser’s car.  Now don’t go getting hung up on this aspect of the movie as nobody makes it anywhere near Washington D.C. by movie’s end.

In fact, nobody really seems anxious in any way, shape or form to win the race.  There’s one point where GTO needs a new part for his car and The Mechanic offers to help him.  The Driver stops along the way to participate in races and GTO picks up every hitchhiker he runs across.

The only real acting in the movie is done by Warren Oates as GTO.  His attempts to connect with other people consists of giving them rides to their destinations while telling elaborate stories about his background.  To various hitchhikers he claims to be a former test pilot, a scout for movie locations and an ex-race car driver.  He’s the only character who appears to aspire to a better life somewhere and there’s a nice scene where he tries to talk The Girl into running away with him.  There’s another really poignant scene where GTO gives an old lady and her granddaughter a lift to a cemetery so that they can pay their respects.  Even though he doesn’t have to, he quietly waits for them.  And look for the scene where a gay hitchhiker clumsily attempts to seduce GTO.  It’s a great “Who The Hell Let Him In This Movie?” moment as it’s Harry Dean Stanton, of all people.

The Girl sleeps with both The Driver and The Mechanic but doesn’t seem to enjoy it much and eventually leaves them, as enigmatic as when she joined them.  The film ends with the race to Washington, D.C. unfinished and the characters still where we first found them: on the endless road.  There’s a constant mood of elegant sadness in the very soul of this movie.  These are characters who have no past and no future.  It’s all about their cars and the road.

And I suppose that if TWO-LANE BLACKTOP has any meaning that it’s that we all lose sight of the goal in our lives by the distractions along the road.  That’s what I get out of it, anyway.  What you’ll get out of it is something entirely different.  It’s not a movie for everybody but it is a movie worth seeing.  Enjoy.

102 Minutes

Rated R

Vanishing Point

1971

20th Century Fox

Directed by Richard C. Sarafian

Produced by Norman Spencer

Story By Malcolm Hart

Screenplay by Guillermo Cain

VANISHING POINT holds a unique place in movie history: it may be the only existential car chase movie ever made.  I’ve seen this movie maybe three or four times and while it is undoubtedly an interesting movie and one worth watching it’s that type of movie where at the end you sit there and wonder just what the point of the movie was.

Or does it have a point?  Should it even have a point?  Maybe having a point is irrelevant to what the filmmakers were trying to say. Or maybe, like Oblio in the classic 1971 animated film “The Point” it’s supposed to teach us that we don’t have to have a point to have a point.  VANISHING POINT was made back in the 70’s, which was a good time for movies in terms of movies being made that were experimental in nature.  Today we would call this an independent movie but back then this was considered standard movie fare.  It’s a movie that doesn’t spell out everything for you or beat you over the head with explaining every little thing the characters do or say.  The story’s not dumbed down or panders to a demographic.  It’s a strange story with a baffling lead character and even more baffling supporting characters but it does have one of the best movie cars in history: a supercharged 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T that should be considered Barry Newman’s co-star.

Kowalski (Barry Newman) is a professional driver who transports cars from one place to another.  He delivers a car in Denver and insists that he needs to get to San Francisco as soon as possible.  The Dodge Challenger has to go to San Francisco and despite the fact that he’s had little sleep, Kowalski takes the car.  To help him stay awake Kowalski looks up drug dealer Jake (Lee Weaver) and scores a whole bunch of speed.  For reasons that are still not clear to me, Kowalski makes Jake a bet that he can drive from Denver to San Francisco in 15 hours.  Now this means that Kowalski is going to have to do at least 85-90 miles an hour the whole way.   He naturally attracts the attention of the police who take exception to his driving so damn fast and it’s not long before Kowalski is the target of the state troopers of several states who chase after him in cars and helicopters trying to get him to stop.  But Kowalski refuses to stop for anything or anyone.

Kowalski runs into a series of notable characters along the way, outcasts like himself who live on the fringe of society, existing on the edge.  Dean Jagger plays an eccentric old timer who lives out in the desert and catches poisonous snakes to trade to a traveling old time Christian revival show led by Severn Darden.  A pair of psychotic homosexual hitchhikers try to rob him.  He stops at a shack by the side of the road to score more speed from a biker and has a revealing conversation about his past with the biker’s girlfriend, a beautiful blond girl who likes to ride her motorcycle in the nude.  And the strangest of these characters is Super Soul (Cleavon Little), a blind black DJ running an R&B/Soul radio station in an isolated redneck town.  Super Soul listens to the police reports of this wildass driver who is evading every trap the police set up for him and Super Soul starts hailing Kowalski as “The Last American Hero” and brings the chase to national attention.

What makes the Super Soul character stand out is that during the course of the movie, he and Kowalski somehow establish a psychic bond that enables Super Soul to help Kowalski avoid the police traps that have been sent for him.  At least I’m pretty sure that’s what happens.  Like so much else in VANISHING POINT nothing is explained and it’s left up to you to bring your own interpretation of what is going on to the table.

Barry Newman is very good as Kowalski.  He knows that in a movie like this, the less he says, the better.  Through the use of flashbacks we see Kowalski’s past as a war hero, professional race car driver and police officer.  He apparently sees himself as a failure in everything he’s done and that’s what influences his decision at the end of the movie.  Or maybe not.  Maybe he was just really hopped up on the speed.  Who knows?  Cleavon Little is wonderfully manic as Super Soul although you have to wonder just what the hell such a hip black guy who obviously would be more at home in New York or Los Angeles is doing in a redneck town way the hell out in the desert.  If you look close you’ll recognize John Amos (James Evans from “Good Times”) as Super Soul’s engineer.  The rest of the performances are nothing to brag about but they are quirky and intriguing.

So should you see VANISHING POINT?  You should if you want to see a car chase movie that depends more on character and oddball performances than crashes and stunts.  For that, I’d recommend you see “Smokey And The Bandit” (which is the “Citizen Kane” of car chase movies) or “Cannonball Run”.  It’s a very engaging and somewhat surrealistic movie and I can’t explain why it has such a hold on me but it does and that’s enough.   The best thing I suppose I can say about it is this:  if a bunch of philosophers/existentialists got together and decided to make their version of what they think a car chase movie should be they’d probably come up with something very close to VANISHING POINT.

98 min.

Rated PG

P.S.: This movie was remade as a Fox Made-For-TV movie starring Viggo Mortensen in 1997 and that version should be avoided as you would avoid Ebola.  Trust me.  I’ve seen it.