THROUGHOUT A LONG AND EXTRAORDINARY CAREER, Monte Hellman has remained simultaneously at the cutting edge and at the very farthest margins of post-studio-era American cinema. In influential major films such as The Shooting (1965) and Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Hellman defined a distinct brand of art cinema by reinventing traditional genre formulas--here, those of the western and the road movie--to create boldly minimal and mesmerizing portraits of characters inexorably driven by obscure desires. Hellman's debut film and improbable entry as an auteur director was, in fact, a horror picture--Beast from Haunted Cave (1959), an almost impossibly threadbare creature feature produced by Roger Corman and transformed by Hellman into a gripping, visually striking crime drama that announced his unusual talents as a bold stylist and intuitively resourceful artist. The early stage of Hellman's career was, however, crowned by two relentlessly dark and violent revisionist westerns, The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind (1965), both produced by Corman and shot just weeks apart from each other in the barren hinterlands of Utah. Together, the two films took Hellman's stylistic minimalism to a new and unyielding extreme, refining the tight economy of image and narrative displayed in Beast into frighteningly elliptical fables of innocence mercilessly destroyed by rabid posses and cold-blooded contract killers.
While extending the eccentric approach to genre defined in the 1950s by a group of maverick American filmmakers that prominently included Samuel Fuller, Joseph H. Lewis, and Nicholas Ray, Hellman's westerns also reveal his singular approach to performance and his meticulous distillation of narrative into nuanced and mysteriously intense character studies. Hellman's steady interest in performance as a central focus and, eventually, a major theme of his films points back to his own roots in the vibrant West Coast theater scene of the 1950s and culminates in his best-known film, Two-Lane Blacktop. At one level a vivid documentary of American road fever and the obsessive world of street racing, Two-Lane Blacktop is also a sustained meditation on film acting as one of the most dangerous games, a form of high-stakes gambling where everything, including the film itself, is on the table. Indeed, the spontaneous cross-country race between two cars that forms the narrative spine of the film is also an extended and explicit showdown between two distinct modes of performance--with the musician nonactors James Taylor and Dennis Wilson in their stripped-down Chevy pitted against the ultimate actor's actor, Warren Oates, driving the decked-out orange GTO that gives him his name. If the laconic restraint of Taylor and Wilson, whose minimal dialogue remains almost entirely focused on their car, recalls the calibrated reticence of Robert Bresson's "models," Oates's endless small talk and almost desperate search for hitchhiker companions to hear his invented autobiographies instead resemble a nervous mode of hyperacting closer to the style cultivated in John Cassavetes's cinema at its most theatrical extreme.
There is, of course, deep irony in the fact that the musicians' car has no radio and is instead an echo chamber for the rich sound track of the motor, the wind, and the steady purr of rubber on the asphalt ribboning away behind them, while Oates's GTO is a veritable jukebox of popular music, thanks to its driver's extensive collection of eight-track cassettes. The distinct attitudes toward sound and music--austerity versus excess--extend into the stark differences between the two cars themselves and the contrasting modes of acting they seem to embody. The musicians' sparse vehicle is devoid of even the simplest accessories, with neither heat nor backseat, and the two musician drivers are indifferent to the comfort of the girl who joins them for much of the long journey described by the film. …