Drag racing east from Los Angeles in a souped-up ’55 Chevy are the wayward Driver and Mechanic (singer-songwriter James Taylor and the Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson, in their only acting roles), accompanied by a tagalong Girl (Laurie Bird). Along the way, they meet Warren Oates’s Pontiac GTO–driving wanderer and challenge him to a cross-country race. The prize: their cars’ pink slips. But no summary can do justice to the existential punch of Two-Lane Blacktop. With its gorgeous widescreen compositions and sophisticated look at American male obsession, this stripped-down narrative from maverick director Monte Hellman is one of the artistic high points of 1970s cinema, and possibly the greatest road movie ever made.
Criterion ports over their deluxe two-disc DVD edition of Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop to Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of about 2.35:1 on a dual-layer disc. The high-definition transfer is delivered in 1080p/24hz.
This looks to be based on the same transfer for the DVD, but this full high-definition presentation delivers the expected improvements, though it can still look fairly similar to the DVD. It can be a bit noisy when rendering the film’s grain structure, particularly during night sequences, and sometimes it looks like some sharpening has been applied, but in general the image looks clean and natural. Edges are clearly defined, minor details manage to pop, even in long shots, and the image never goes out of focus or comes off soft. The film’s colour scheme can be dreary as whole, with a few pops of colour, but the colours look natural and perfectly saturated.
In terms of the source material’s quality it looks about the same as the DVD, never presenting any significant damage of note, simply limited to a few specs of debris here and there. The improvements over the DVD aren’t huge but it does present a noticeable, cleaner look, coming off far more filmic and losing some of the DVD’s compression problems.
The disc presents two audio tracks, a lossless PCM 1.0 mono track and a remixed DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround track. I actually liked the 5.1 track on the DVD and it carries over well to the Blu-ray. It’s not the most immersive surround track, limiting its use of surrounds, but it has far more depth and range in comparison to the mono track. The racing scenes with their revving engines are especially impressive. Some effects make their way to the surrounds but the track still remains front heavy. Dialogue is clear and never drowned out by anything else in the presentation, though can still sound about as flat as the mono’s presentation.
The mono track is a little flatter overall, most noticeable during those racing scenes, but it’s still serviceable, presenting clear and intelligible dialogue and never sounding distorted. I usually prefer the original tracks in cases like these but the remix is actually pretty good, never overdoing it or drowning out anything else, and it adds more depth and range. But they’re both fine and it will ultimately come down to personal preference.
Criterion ports most everything over from the DVD edition, but do leave out one of the more significant features of the DVD edition. The disc starts off with not one but two (!) audio commentaries, one featuring director Monte Hellman and filmmaker Allison Anders, the other featuring screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer and author David N. Meyer. Both come off as general conversations between each participant, the first with Anders more or less interviewing Hellman. She asks him plenty of questions about the production, talking about the story, cast, how certain scenes were filmed (particularly in the cramped cars,) influences, and then the release. Anders also relates some of her personal experiences in filmmaking to some of the stories Hellman shares. It’s fine enough but I actually preferred the second track, featuring Wurlitzer and Meyer. This one feels less like an interview and more like two people just chatting. Since it features Wurlitzer the track of course focusses on the writing of the script with talk about the themes found within the film, the dialogue, character motivations, and how it’s all been translated onto screen. In all, both tracks are fine but if you only listen to one I’d probably point most to the Wurlitzer/Meyer track as the material in the Hellman/Anders track actually gets covered elsewhere on the disc.
Criterion then includes a number of interview features, starting with a rather lengthy 43-minute one featuring Monte Hellman. Entitled On the Road Again it features the director and some students from his class going on a road trip visiting key areas pertaining to Two-Lane Blacktop, whether they be locations used in the film or places key to the development of the film. On this trip the students ask him questions about the film and its production, and he freely answers them. They talk about the development, the casting, and the issues in getting funding. He talks fondly of the actors that appeared in the film, particularly Oates and Bird, and shares some anecdotes about them, including one about how Taylor freaked out when Hellman wouldn’t show him the script. He also goes over the studio politics that probably occurred and led to the film bombing during its theatrical release. It more or less summarizes Hellman’s commentary but I think I actually preferred it to the track.
Make it Three Yards presents a 38-minute interview between Hellman and James Taylor. The two reminisce about the production and Taylor talks about his one and only acting gig (in film,) admitting he was unsure and a little bit lost. He also talks about the casting process, the screen tests, working with the other actors, and of course recalls how Hellman would not let him see the script. Most surprising, though, is the fact that Taylor still hasn’t seen the film. Taylor can come off a little reserved and Hellman has to keep it going but they resolve some things (Taylor really took offence to Hellman not letting him see the script) and keep it entertaining.
Somewhere in Salinas may be the oddest inclusion since the interviewee in question appears to have very little to do with Two-Lane Blacktop but it surprisingly proves to be the most fascinating interview on here. Running 28-minutes this segment presents a conversation between Hellman and actor/singer Kris Kristofferson. Kristofferson’s contribution to the film is that his song Me and Bobby McGee appears at a pivotal moment in the film. The two talk about the song and how its themes of freedom fit into the film, joke about how James Taylor still hasn’t seen the movie, and then talk about the time period and being an artist during it. There’s little about the film but it’s worth viewing just to listen to the two talk about their work and the 60’s/70’s.
We then get another group interview, this time with members of the crew (and Hellman’s son.) Running 23-minutes, Sure Did Talk to You groups together producer Michael Laughlin, production manager Walter Colbenz, Jared Hellman, Variety’s Seven Gaydos, and filmmaker Dennis Bartok. The group have a round-table discussion of sorts (there’s really no table and takes place in someone’s backyard) covering the film’s production and release, as well as talk about the actors and how the film is one of the representations of the end of 60’s. Hellman also recalls a rather humourous story about Harry Dean Stanton, who briefly appears in the film. It’s good getting a perspective from others involved on the production, though most of the information here is mentioned elsewhere.
Those Satisfactions Are Permanent presents two screen tests, one for James Taylor (around 11-minutes) and another for Laurie Bird (15-minutes). We also get a decently sized photo gallery under Color Me Gone, which has over 60 production and publicity photos, both black-and-white and colour, and then closes with an image of the poster. Another cool gallery is Performance and Image, which, through text notes and photos, covers the long journey of one Walt Bailey and his tracking down and restoring of one of the cars used in the film. Surprisingly the lengthy restoration took him to Canada a few times as he tried to recover pieces. It also has some great trivia, like the fact one of the cars was used in American Graffiti. It’s also amusing to see that a teenager, who had inherited the car at one point, simply repainted it and drove it to and from school (oddly, because this happened, Bailey was able to confirm some parts that he had retrieved were authentic.) A simple text and photo gallery it proves to be probably the most fascinating supplement on here.
The booklet looks to be the same from the DVD. It features an excellent essay on the film and time period by Kent Jones followed by a short list of reasons why director Richard Linklater loves the film. There’s also a reprint of an article by Michael Goodwin written for Rolling Stone about the filming of Two-Lane Blacktop.
As far as I can see all of the disc supplements made it over from the DVD (even the galleries!) but there is one extra missing: a reprint of Rudy Wurlitzer’s screenplay, which was another separate booklet. I thought this was a strong inclusion for the DVD set and I’m a bit sad to see it go.
Despite that disappointment this is still a solid set, covering the making of the film in great detail. Disappointingly there isn’t much in the way of analytical material, something I would have expected for this film, but the material is still mostly worth going through here.
Some minor noise issues aside (they’re easy to overlook) I think the Blu-ray offers a decent enough upgrade over the DVD. It also carries over most of the supplements from that edition, though lacks the reprinted screenplay. It comes with a high recommendation.