Two-Lane Blacktop - Limited Edition Blu-ray Review
If you pop this disc in a Region A player then it comes up with the following interesting message:
We hoped you wouldn’t have to see this screen.
This Blu-ray is Region B encoded (Europe). Your player must be a different region.
We apologise profusely but we have been forced to encode this disc Region B at the express insistence of the film’s licensor and a global industry afraid of a level playing field.
Music and books are not region encoded – why should films be?
Suffice to say, the UK Blu-ray release is Region B-locked, and presents the movie with a 1080p High Definition video rendition in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 widescreen. Now you have to remember that this movie was shot over four decades ago for a very limited budget and, as you will find out from listening to the Commentary, the video process was never completed because the processing company went bust. This led to a hefty amount of unwieldy grain which was certainly not all a product of the filmmaker’s vision. All that said, and bearing in mind that Criterion already did a wonderful job with their DVD rendition of the movie, this is a remarkably decent presentation which arguably showcases the movie unlike it has ever been seen before.
Detail is generally very good throughout and there is no evidence that the authors of this release have attempted any frustrating unwelcome DNR over-manipulation. Edge enhancement is non-existent and print defects are kept to a bare minimum. Indeed the only thing to really complain about is that grain, which only ever becomes an issue in a few scenes – normally lower-level-lighting sequences and a couple of car interiors. There’s really nothing that could have been done about it, and it’s far from the end of the world, at least the original grain structure has clearly been left intact, and at least the detail level remains strong as a result of that fact. The colours scheme is also fairly impressive – although the material has a fairly dour tone to it, with glum locations and sometimes brooding weather, the colours on offer are generally well-represented, with some particularly good elements, like the gold yellow Pontiac itself. Blacks are reasonably strong but often suffer as a result of the aforementioned grain. Overall it’s a pretty damn good presentation considering the original issues with processing the film, and will likely impress any fans of the film.
On the aural front things are just as impressive, although, again, you have to consider the material that they were working with. There are two flavours of mix: a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 remix and the original mono replicated with a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track. I’m sure purists will go for the mono track but the surround offering is much more effective all-round, and should be the preferred choice for those who can accept the tinkering that had to be done to make it work. Dialogue comes across clearly and coherently throughout, never really obstructed by any of the other elements in the track, and well-reproduced from across the front and centre channel. The score is almost more minimalistic than the film requires, barely noticeable during the proceedings, with the majority of the scenes shot using natural sounds. Indeed, again, if you check out the commentary (or listen to the third soundtrack option – and original effects track) you’ll find that most of the effects noises are authentic. They used muffled-engine cars for the dialogue scenes and then had separate cars for the required engine sounds – the growling beast motors roaring around in a way that would have made Steve McQueen turn his head. Decent enough artificial separation and a little rear action, together with a bit of rumbling bass rounds out a solid aural accompaniment which should please fans all-round.
This commentary was recorded in 1999 for the original DVD release of the film and features director Monte Hellman with associate producer Gary Kurtz.
Arguably the best extra, this superb commentary has the two of them talking quite frankly about their production, the length of the original cut, their restriction to return a film under 2 hours long, and some of the footage that was cut which will never be found now, including some alternate scenes. They talk about casting, how Oates was locked from the outset but the rest were non-actors, and how the script was entirely new based on just the basic premise of the original story – a pair of cross-country racers, as well as noting that they persuaded real-life street racers to assist in many of the scenes. They discuss the difficulty they had getting a DVD release because of the music rights, the production issues which prevented the grain from being balanced, and basically go from pre-production through to post-production, together with the decades since, giving you just about all the information you would want to know about their work.
On the Road Again: Two-Lane Blacktop Revisited is a 43-minute retrospective piece that has the director, along with a number of his film students, return to the filming locations, discussing with them how the production came about; how it got funded; the problems they encountered and relating some of the actual locations to the scenes from the film, explaining how they were shot.
Somewhere Near Salinas is a 28-minute conversation between Hellman and singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson, who was originally due to play one of the two lead characters but had to pull out due to other commitments, but who did end up contributing to the soundtrack.
Sure Did Talk to You is a 24-minute round-table discussion between producer Michael Laughlin, production manager Walter Coblenz, the director’s son Jared Hellman, Steven Gaydos of Variety magazine, and director Dennis Bartok, who all chat retrospectively about the production.
Here we get 26 minutes of screen test footage taken from Monte Hellman’s own archives, showing us footage of James Taylor and Laurie Bird testing for their roles.
Finally the disc is rounded off by the Original Theatrical Trailer.
The package itself also comes with a lavish production Booklet.
Well I only wish that I hadn’t seen Monte Hellman’s disappointing, failed comeback film Road to Nowhere first, as this much earlier work, a film which is a large part of the reason why he has such a good reputation in the first place, is a far better piece. Often more inspired than improvisational, Two-Lane Blacktop is a low budget production featuring mostly non-actors who perform their own driving on a genuine road trip across the US, one which starts out as a race but turns into a journey. Although tonally abrupt at times, and sometimes limited by the acting inexperience of the newcomers (particularly when juxtaposed with Warren Oates’s more refined character portrayal) this is still a strong contender for one of the greatest existential road movies of all time, easily up there with the more accessible but also more blunt Easy Rider. Two-Lane Blacktop may sustain itself on largely metaphors for life, community, friendship, loneliness, commercialism, consumerism and independence, but it is still, at the end of the day, a surprisingly compelling watch – and perhaps that’s the truest test of all.
This Region B-locked UK release comes courtesy of Eureka and their Masters of Cinema Series which once again rivals Criterion with its treatment of this cult classic. Surprisingly decent video and audio go hand in hand with a hefty selection of extras, all of which should please even the most discerning fans. For those who’ve never heard of Hellman, but are intrigued nonetheless, then this is the best place to start. A surprising little gem.
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