If you’ve seen Easy Rider, you’ll remember the great, big KABOOM that ends the movie. It was, when it was first shown in 1969, a kind of full stop to the Sixties. The idea of a cultural revolution brought on by posies and drugs and free-lovin’ was receding. There were guys ready to shoot the wheels from right out under you.
It was also a kind of full stop to the motorbike movie itself. Sure, there were others to come in the years ahead, including Chrome and Hot Leather (1971) and Electra Glide in Blue (1973). But it was another vehicle that drove to the fore in American movies in the Seventies: the car. Good ol’ automobiles featured in everything from extended road odysseys to quick-fire chase scenes. They left their tyre-tread imprint across some of the best films of the decade.
Among them is Monte Hellman’s 1971 film Two-Lane Blacktop. In many ways, this is the archetypal Seventies car movie. It certainly belongs in the same family tree as Easy Rider, insofar as it’s about a road-trip that ends in flames, of a sort. But it also differs in character; more sullen and insular than its forbear. Whereas Easy Rider was more about America, Two-Lane Blacktop is more about the American Man. It invites us to gaze at the occupants of the car, rather than the landscape outside of it. And that view isn’t particularly pretty.
It’s not that the main characters of Two-Lane Blacktop are outright dislikeable – far from it. As played by the musicians James Taylor and Dennis Wilson, our two male leads are cool-cool-cool in their greasy denims and t-shirts. It’s just that there’s a slenderness, figurative as well literal, to them. They have both been whittled down to their roles, identified as nothing more than The Driver and The Mechanic. They barely talk, they hardly eat. They simply race. Is it any surprise when they get caught up in a battle of speed and sideways glances with a man named here after his car, GTO? Or when The Girl, a hitchhiker who came along for the ride, decides – in the film’s final punchline – to leave them all for a kid on a bike?
In lieu of a direction, these men simply press down on the accelerator and head for the horizon. But why are they so directionless in the first place? Another car movie from 1971, Richard C. Sarafian’s Vanishing Point, is quicker to provide answers. Its hero, Kowalski, is more romantic than Two-Lane Blacktop’s, to the extent that one character describes him as “the last beautiful soul in the world”. But, as part of the package, he’s also more straightforwardly tragic. As he speeds towards California for a bet, with the police trailing him most of way, we’re shown his past in flashback. His lover is dead; he’s been involved in car races and crashes; and he was wounded in Vietnam. This is not a pleasant world around him.
The Vietnam War: that great, psychic shock to American’s self-image and to many of its menfolk. Kowalski wasn’t the only cinematic veteran of that conflict who sought solace behind a wheel. The most famous remains Travis Bickle from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). His vehicle is reminiscent of – in the words of the film’s writer Paul Schrader – a coffin. Travis died in some foreign field and now haunts the streets of New York, an abstraction among the people. He’s in society but not of it. Ditto Kowalski. Ditto the leads in Two-Lane Blacktop.
Oh dear, all of this makes Seventies car movies sound existential to the point of gloominess. But the same motifs do keep on cropping up, even in some of the lighter films of the decade. The raucous Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974) closes, like Vanishing Point, with its heroes’ car exploding into flames. The uber-slick The Driver (1978) follows Two-Lane Blacktop in naming its characters according to their roles: The Driver, The Detective, The Player, etc. It’s almost as though the people were as mechanical as the cars back then. Driven along the road until there was no more road left to drive on.
If you really want to be cheerless about it, you could even say that the car chase – that great Seventies art-form – represents something fearful and bad. There are those car chases, such as the one in The French Connection (1971), in which our hero does the chasing. But there are also those in which our heroes are the ones being chased. Vanishing Point is one of them. So is Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. And so are Gone in 60 Seconds (1974) and Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and Convoy (1978) and… well, you get the point. Even Two-Lane Blacktop, which is by no means a chase movie, starts its journey with the police breaking up a drag meet. Being harassed by the authorities is part of the deal.
But there’s a flipside to all that, and it’s this: car chases are heaps of fun to watch – particularly when they involve cars like these. For all of the soul-searching in Vanishing Point, that white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T is beautiful, dammit! So is the black Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am in Smokey and the Bandit! The stripped-back ’55 Chevy in Two-Lane Blacktop! All of them muscular cars for muscular drivers. Watching these films, you wouldn’t guess that the American automotive industry was actually going through a hard time in the Seventies, buffeted by everything from oil crises to union activism. This was, don’t forget, the decade that produced the Ford Pinto – a vehicle that had a horrible habit of exploding after read-end collisions.
Perhaps this was always part of the appeal of Seventies car movies: they were angst and elation all rolled into one. Even when they depicted an America on the slide to dictatorship and despair, as in Death Race 2000 (1976), they offered enough chrome, leather and speed to make you go wheeeeeee! As Cledus Snow might put it, it sure beats sitting around and watching the cars rust.