Thursday, March 12, 2020

TWO-LANE BLACKTOP 1971


"You can never go fast enough..."


"Those satisfactions are permanent" 
                                                                  Warren Oates as G.T.O.



     During the violent social and generational upheavals of the late '60s and early '70s, American cinema hit the road most often times traveling through the desolate byways of the arid west and along endless stretches of highways dotted with diners, seedy motels & small-town gas stations. Starting with the explosion of the "New Hollywood" in 1967 with the release of THE GRADUATE and BONNIE AND CLYDE and climaxing with Dennis's Hopper's EASY RIDER in 1968 which in turn became ground zero for these films featuring disaffected and alienated young people on road trips through a fractured and sometimes violent country searching for an America that oftentimes did not exist.
    These existential road trips and/or journey films reached their apex with director Monte Hellman's 1971 TWO-LANE BLACKTOP.  Hoping to replicate EASY RIDER (the golden ring that every studio was chasing post-1968), it was hyped heavily by Universal but ultimately bombed with audiences on its initial release. Falling into cult-like obscurity it was damnably impossible to find for years on home video (for years I kept a highly treasured but brutally pan & scanned VHS taped off the Speedvision channel), but it's now gained a healthy following currently represented by a Criterion blu-ray edition no less.   
     Written by novelist and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer (who in a few years would toil away on Sam Peckinpah's PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID which can be looked upon as western version of a road movie), the film stars Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson and singer-songwriter James Taylor (whose star was just beginning its ascent in 1971) as a pair of drifters whose sole existence centers around driving endless miles and finding pick-up drag races in which they compete in with their souped-up primer gray 1955 Chevy sedan. We never learn the character's names as Wilson is credited simply as "The Mechanic" and Taylor as "The Driver". The pair seem unable to relate to anything or anybody (including interacting between themselves) outside of the car's maintenance and it's performance in the races as they pass the time in stony silence gazing straight ahead through the windshield. Almost immediately it's established that the men having a regimented structure of duties as Taylor silently sits on a park bench watching Wilson change the racing slicks on the car to street tires.




      Into this tightly closed & claustrophobic world comes a young hitchhiker played by Laurie Bird (billed only as "The Girl" in an achingly beautiful performance) who simply climbs into the back of the car while they're eating at a roadside diner (the film is an almost endless succession of pre-chain gas stations, strip motels & diners) while the men enter the car and barely acknowledge her. When she asks where they're heading Wilson flatly states "east" and although she tries to engage them in conversation ("you guys aren't the zodiac killers are you?) she only receives curtsey responses from Wilson ("nope, just passin' through"). Although Wilson does spend the night with her in a motel he seems to only look at their encounter as something to pass the time. While this is happening Taylor sits by himself in a bar drinking, although it obvious he's the one that Bird's "The Girl" is attracted to.
    The trio meets up with another wandering gypsy in the form of Warren Oates (billed as "G.T.O.")  who drives a brand new 1970 G.T.O. and has a different life story for everybody he meets on the road (including a wonderful early role for Harry Dean Stanton billed here as "H.D. Stanton"). Wearing shirts with almost laughably large collars and a succession of brightly colored sweaters, Oates has a fully stocked bar in his trunk, along with hard-boiled eggs, various pharmaceuticals and a wide variety of cassette tapes. He tries to function like he read a late 60's article in Playboy on how to interact with the younger generation. Although initially seen as a member of "the establishment", it's very quickly shown that he's just as rootless as Wilson and Taylor. The difference is that Oates brings a great deal of pathos to his portrayal and he's amazing in this film as alternates between a loud-mouthed braggart and pitiful dreamer. In a perfect world, he should have been at the very least nominated for an Academy Award.
     Unable to function properly outside his car, Oates paces about unable to finish drinking a bottle of coke at a gas station and cannot even lean up against a wall without feeling self-conscious. Inside his car, he lets loose with a verbal torrent of stories concerning his backstory including being an ex-jet pilot and or associated with a secret testing mission for the "big auto companies". Later when Bird is riding with him there's a very poignant monologue by him (Wurlitzer's best lines all belong to Oates). "We're going go to Florida", he tells her in the film's most deeply moving sequence. "And we're gonna lie around on the beach, and we're going to get healthy. Let all the scars heal. Maybe we'll run over to Arizona. The nights are warm... and the roads are straight. And we'll build a house. Yeah, we'll build a house. 'Cause if I'm not grounded soon... I'm going to blast into orbit." However, she's drifting off to sleep while he's speaking and he ends up talking to himself.




    The occupants of the two cars propose a cross-country race to Washington D.C. for "pink slips" and they both begin a meandering journey to their destination with it soon becoming evident that none of them really care what the outcome will be. While many road films such as EASY RIDER and SCARECROW made a point about the bonding of being on a journey and the friendship that goes with a common hope or a dream (however misplaced that dream may be) among the participants, TWO-LANE BLACKTOP is a film about loneliness and isolation. It lacks even a hint of the romanticism of being on the open road even though all the characters spend time with one another in the confines of their "homes" i.e. the cars. With all that being said there are some lighter moments in the film including Harry Dean's hitchhiker and an endearingly sweet sequence where James Taylor tries to teach Laurie Bird how to drive a straight shift.
    Hellman ignored the studio suggestion to film exclusively in California (most likely for a cost-saving measure) and instead scouted locations from Needles, Calif. through Flagstaff AZ., Oklahoma, Arkansas and finally ending up in western N.C. with the result is that we get a real feel for a journey as we see the various scenery and hear the regional dialects. Hellman also faced pre-production criticism with given the fact that the majority of the film takes place in a car is that there's only one way to shoot a film within a car - the classic two heads talking over the hood through the windshield. Hellman and cinematographer John Deerson (SWEET SAVAGE) fashioned a series of camera mounts that allowed them to shoot in various angles both in and outside the car (and never once do we see two heads talking over the hood through the front windshield).
     Hellman's original cut lasted approx. 3-1/2 hours and he was bound by his contract to deliver a two-hour or less movie. Later in interviews, he ruefully acknowledged that a lot of great material was left on the cutting room floor and sadly all the trims were lost decades ago. It's fascinating what ended in the final cut as we get lots of the "in-between" stuff that most other directors would cut such as footage of cars driving through lonely stretches of highway and dialogue-free driving sequences. He often uses actual people not actors including the state troopers who pull over Oates at one point and early in the film he shot an actual illegal street drag race run by an L.A. car club.
     Both Taylor and Wilson are terrifically wooden as actors here but in a way, this works as the characters are supposed to be unemotional and the air of detachment fits in the film although Wilson does crack a grin a couple of times. Both he and Taylor have odd chemistry together as while they both represent the counter-culture, Taylor seems right at home drinking boiler-makers in a working-mans bar and with his long sleeve denim shirt brings more of east coast WASP-ie feel to his character while Wilson definitely has the west coast surfer thing (which aptly fits to both actors actual backgrounds). They seem here to thrown together by necessity of skills (driver/mechanic) rather than an actual friendship and appear to get no joy or satisfaction out their racing almost as if it's just their lot in life to keep driving and racing.
    Sadly for the small company of actors here, several met tragic early ends within a few years of each other as Wilson drowned in 1983, Laurie Bird committed suicide in 1979 via an overdose of Valium and Oates died of a heart attack in 1982. As mentioned the film was promoted very heavily by Universal including Esquire magazine reprinting the entire screenplay along with a cover story featuring Laurie Bird "Read it first! Our nomination for the movie of the year: Two-Lane Blacktop"








  






All the above screencaps are from the Criterion DVD  

G.T.O. "Well, here we are on the road.."
The Driver "Yep, that where we're at all right"






Tuesday, March 10, 2020

AND SOON THE DARKNESS 1970


"Two beautiful girls...a bright summer day... trapped 
in a terrifying web of shock and suspense"



    One of the more underappreciated and underseen thrillers of the '70s and taking the unusual tact of unfolding almost entirely in the bright sunshine of the French countryside, AND SOON THE DARKNESS, takes a simple economical plot concerning two women alone on a biking holiday who slowly come to the realization that they're being stalked by an unseen perpetrator with the universal fear of being isolated in a foreign country where you don't speak the language. 
    Two young English nurses Jane ( Pamela Franklin THE INNOCENTS)  and Cathy (Michele Dotrice THE BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW) are on a holiday bicycling through the French countryside of the Lorie Valley. Although obviously "work friends" it's apparent straight away that the two women are opposites in what they expect out of their vacation. The dark-haired Jane is the more practical one wanting to stick to a schedule while Cathy just wants to spend time relaxing and meeting men. The film neatly sets up the premise that neither girl is at fault for their strained relationship or is a bad person, they are simply two people who probably shouldn't be traveling together. 




    Stopping at a roadside cafe they catch the eye of a young man astride a moped (Sandor Elès COUNTESS DRACULA) who seems to be following them in a roundabout fashion as they continue their journey. Cathy and Jane begin to squabble with Jane wanting to press on to the next village while Kathy would lay about in sun and (hopefully) meet up the stranger on the moped. The pair decide to split with Jane pedaling onward while Jane stays behind for a nap and some sun. Laying about in the woods Jane put her laundry out to dry and soon ominously finds a pair of her panties missing, her bike disabled and in a wonderful shot, we see a shadow quickly pass over her face.              Becoming concerned Jane returns and not finding Cathy she makes inquires at a small hotel run by an elderly woman (Hana Maria Pravda) who while not speaking English does project a sense of dread as Jane (and us the viewer) are only able to catch the words "bad road". The film cleverly does not use subtitles so we immediately can empathize with Jane and only are able to gleam the same small snatches of information that she does. She eventually finds an ally in the form of a visiting English schoolmistress (Clare Kelly GEORGY GIRL) who informs Jane that a local young woman was murdered along the same stretch of the road the previous year (and who bears a striking resemblance to Cathy).
     Directed by Robert Fuest (THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES) and written by Brian Clemens (DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE) both of whom had worked on THE AVENGERS TV show, this couldn't have been farther from Fuest's Art Deco horror of the Phibes films or the futuristic sc-fi spy-vibe of THE AVENGERS. Set almost enterally along a long stretch of lonely road and making wonderful use of the sunny countryside it makes use of a deceptively simple premise which unfolds in realtime after Cathy's disappearance. Without his art-deco flourishes, Fuest instead relies on lighting and composition along with the sights and sounds the French countryside all of which in spite of the bright sunshine hint at something forbidding lurking just offscreen. The film also conjures up a suspenseful feeling of isolation and dread as the wide-open countryside although green and sunny provides no sanctuary for Jane. The film's advertising really played up the Hitchcock angle, name dropping him in some of the taglines and name was featured prominently on the poster artwork.   




     Throwing up red herrings with every character introduced the film has a distinct Giallo-like feel to it with Sandor Elès's mysterious sort-of "detective" character astride a Vespa and always lurking in the background could have come right out of a  classic Italian Giallo along with the unknown sense of dread and ambiguity. Fuest doesn't throw out bunches of jump scares but instead relies on a slowly amping of dread to fuel the viewer's unease. The scene with Cathy alone in the woods and being slowly stalked is a textbook example of how to unfold a suspenseful sequence with resorting to screaming and bloodshed. Even though unfolding almost entirely in bright sunlight the sense of desolation and isolation is quite palpable with the longs miles of empty country roadway with no other person in sight. The location filming helps immensely with the lone process shot of Jane and the schoolmistress driving in car sticking out. 
    The cinematography by Ian Wilson (CAPTAIN KRONOS VAMPIRE HUNTER) is also very evocative with subtle uses of changing lighting and framing that gives a sense of something or somebody lurking just off-screen. The trick here is that it would be easy for the film to fall into repetition with its basic story and shots of an empty road, but director Fuest & co-writer Clemmens (along with cinematographer Wilson) do keep the film moving along with their inventive use of the space and locations. But there does feel like about 15 min. or so could have easily been cut as Jane's many meetings with the kind-of-crazy locals/red-herrings do drag a bit with one in particular with a fidget inducing drawn-out encounter.
     As the two leads both Pamela Franklin and Michele Dotrice are excellent with Franklin especially fine in the latter half of the movie where she literally carries the entire narrative alone often time with long stretches of no dialogue using just her body language and facial expressions to carry the narrative. A very gifted actress Franklin had first come to notice in Jack Clayton's superb THE INNOCENTS in 1961 and would later appear in THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE in 1974 with her career winding down with TV work later in the decade before retiring in the early '80s. In 1967 she appeared in the sadly underseen OUR MOTHER"S HOUSE which is a film ripe for rediscovery.
     Dotrice appeared two of the better British folk-horror entries with BLOOD ON SATAN"S CLAW from 1971 and Hammer's THE WITCHES in 1966. She continues to work on the BBC quite regularly. 
     In 2010 in a version best avoided, AND SOON THE DARKNESS was remade transporting the plot to South American with two American women is the objects of peril. 








All screencaps above are from the Kino Blu-ray



Monday, March 9, 2020

The Whacky World Drive-In Podcast is back



   After a bit of a hiatus, my buddy Rob Gray whose behind the really cool Whacky World Lounge and myself have done a new episode of our podcast The Whacky Drive-In, we delve into all sorts of stuff including Giallo films, Star Trek, Japanese Kaiju films and of course bowling. Give a listen here and check out our Twitter page. We've got all sorts of interesting stuff lined up for future episodes so please give us a follow!!