In 2012, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
Two street racers, the Driver (Taylor) and the Mechanic (Wilson) live on the road in their highly modified, primer-gray, 1955 Chevrolet 150 two-door sedan drag car and drift from town to town, making their income by challenging local residents to impromptu drag races. As they drive east on Route 66 from Needles, California, they pick up the Girl (Bird), a female hitchhiker, in Flagstaff, Arizona when she gets into their car at a diner. Although the Driver develops a crush on the Girl, she sleeps with the Mechanic when the Driver goes out drinking one night. In New Mexico, they begin to encounter another car driver, GTO (Oates), on the highways. An atmosphere of hostility develops between the two parties. Although GTO is not an overt street racer, and, in fact, seems to know little about cars, a cross-country race to Washington, D.C. is suggested. The Driver proposes that the prize should be "for pinks," or legal ownership of the loser's car. Along the way, GTO picks up various hitchhikers, including an importuning homosexual hitchhiker (Harry Dean Stanton). When GTO's inexperience becomes apparent, he, the Driver and the Mechanic form an uneasy alliance; the Driver even drives with him for a while when GTO gets fatigued.
Needing money, the Driver, the Mechanic and GTO compete at a race track in Memphis. While the Driver finishes his race, the Girl hops into GTO's car and they leave. The Driver pursues them to a diner located on US129 (today the location is known as the Tail of the Dragon) where the Girl has just rejected GTO's idea to visit Chicago. The Driver proposes going to Columbus, Ohio to get parts, but the Girl rejects him too. Instead, she leaves with a stranger on a motorcycle, abandoning her belongings in the parking lot. Later, GTO picks up two soldiers and tells them that he won his car by beating two men driving a custom-built 1955 Chevrolet 150 in a cross-country race. At an airstrip in East Tennessee, the Driver races against an El Camino.
Two-Lane Blacktop originated with producer Michael Laughlin who had a two-picture deal with CBS Cinema Center Films. He convinced the production company to pay Will Corry $100,000 for his original story, about two men, one black and one white, who drive across the country followed by a young girl, which was inspired by his own cross-country journey in 1968. Returning from Italy after a film project had fallen through, Hellman was introduced to Laughlin who presented Hellman with two projects, one of which was Two-Lane Blacktop. He asked Hellman to direct, who found Corry's story "interesting, but not fully realized". Hellman agreed to make the film only if another screenwriter was hired to rewrite the script and Laughlin agreed. A friend of Hellman's recommended underground writer Rudolph Wurlitzer. Hellman read his novel Nog and was impressed enough to hire Wurlitzer, who began reading Corry's story, but gave up after five pages. Hellman and Wurlitzer agreed to keep the basic idea of the cross-country race as well as the characters of the Driver, the Mechanic and the Girl. Wurlitzer invented the GTO character and the rest of the supporting cast. To prepare for writing the script, he stayed in a Los Angeles motel and read car magazines, as well as hanging out with several obsessive mechanics and "stoner car freaks" in the San Fernando Valley. Wurlitzer said that he did not know much about cars, but did "know something about being lost on the road". He wrote a new script in four weeks.
In February 1970, Hellman began location scouting and was a few weeks from principal photography when Cinema Center suddenly canceled the project. He shopped the script around to several Hollywood studios that liked it, but wanted a say in the casting. However, Ned Tanen, a young executive at Universal Pictures gave Hellman $850,000 to make the film and gave him control of the final cut. Hellman saw a picture of James Taylor on a billboard on the Sunset Strip and asked the musician to come and do a screen test. Four days before beginning principal photography the role of the Mechanic was still not cast. Hellman was desperate and tested people he met in garages. A friend of casting director Fred Roos suggested musician Dennis Wilson. Wilson was the last actor cast and Hellman chose him because he felt that the musician "had lived that role, that he really grew up with cars".
Principal photography began on August 13, 1970 in Los Angeles and lasted for eight weeks with a crew of 30, three matching Chevrolets and two matching G.T.O.s traveling through the southwest towards Memphis, Tennessee. Hellman insisted on going across country, like the characters in the film, because he felt it was the only way to convince the audience that the characters raced across the United States. He said, "I knew it would affect the actors — and it did, obviously. It affected everybody". Hellman took an unconventional approach of not letting his three lead, inexperienced actors read the script. Instead, he gave them pages of dialogue on the day of shooting. The actors felt uncomfortable with this approach. In particular, James Taylor, used to having control when it came to his music, was upset at being unable to read the script in advance. Hellman eventually gave him permission to do so, but Taylor never did read it.
Hellman shot almost the entire script as written. The first cut of the film was three-and-a-half hours long. He was his own editor: "I can't look over someone's shoulder. I need my hand on the brake". He had control of the final cut, but was contractually obliged to deliver a film no longer than two hours. The final version ran 105 minutes. In their April 1971 cover story, Esquire magazine proclaimed Two-Lane Blacktop, "film of the year". Hellman initially thought that the Esquire article would be good publicity for the film, but in hindsight was not, because "I think it raised people's expectations. They couldn't accept the movie for what it was". There was a lot of advance buzz about the film, but Lew Wasserman, head of the studio saw the film and hated it. He refused to promote it and when it opened in New York City on the Fourth of July weekend, there were no newspaper ads promoting it.
Unlike other existential road movies of the time (such as Easy Rider and Vanishing Point), Two-Lane Blacktop does not rely heavily on music, nor was a soundtrack album released. The music featured in the film covers many genres, including rock, folk, blues, country, bluegrass, and R&B. James Taylor and Dennis Wilson did not contribute any music.
However, there are some notable tracks featured in the film, including "Moonlight Drive" by The Doors, the traditional folk tune "Stealin'" performed by Arlo Guthrie, and the original version of "Me and Bobby McGee" performed by the song's author Kris Kristofferson. A song titled "Truckload Of Art" written and performed by Terry Allen can be briefly heard coming out of the GTO.
In 2003 Plain Records issued a tribute album made in honor of this cult classic called "You Can Never Go Fast Enough" featuring exclusive tracks by Wilco, Sonic Youth, Will Oldham/Alan Licht, Calexico & Giant Sand, Suntanama, Steffen Basho-Junghans, Charalambides, Mark Eitzel/Marc Capelle, Roy Montgomery and Alvarius B with rare tracks by Cat Power, Roscoe Holcomb, Leadbelly & Sandy Bull.
Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, "What I liked about Two-Lane Blacktop was the sense of life that occasionally sneaked through, particularly in the character of G.T.O. (Warren Oates). He is the only character who is fully occupied with being himself (rather than the instrument of a metaphor), and so we get the sense we've met somebody". In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, "Two-Lane Blacktop is a far from perfect film (those metaphors keep blocking the road), but it has been directed, acted, photographed and scored (underscored, happily) with the restraint and control of an aware, mature filmmaker". Time magazine's Jay Cocks wrote, "The film is immaculately crafted, funny and quite beautiful, resonant with a lingering mood of loss and loneliness ... Not a single frame in the film is wasted. Even the small touches — the languid tension while refueling at a back-country gas station or the piercing sound of an ignition buzzer — have their own intricate worth". In his review for the Village Voice, J. Hoberman wrote, "Two-Lane Blacktop is a movie of achingly eloquent landscapes and absurdly inert characters". In his review for the Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, "The movie starts off as a narrative, but gradually grows into something much more abstract — it's unsettling, but also beautiful".
The film has since become a cult classic. It currently holds a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 7.3 out of 10 score (based on 7,334 votes, April 4, 2015) the Internet Movie Database.
Two-Lane Blacktop was unavailable on video for years because Universal Studios only released a few films from their catalog each year and it was not a priority. In 1994, Seattle's Scarecrow Video invited Hellman to show the film at their store. They proceeded to collect 2,000 signatures, including Werner Herzog's, for a petition to get the film released on video. Both People magazine and Film Comment ran articles about the store's effort and the film.
For years, Universal had been looking for a partner to give Two-Lane Blacktop a proper release befitting its cult film status. However, efforts to release it had always been hampered by issues with music rights, in particular the use of "Moonlight Drive" by The Doors. Director William Lustig, also a "technical advisor" for Anchor Bay, got Hellman to approach the surviving band members to get their approval. In 1999, Michigan-based Anchor Bay Entertainment licensed the film from Universal and released it on VHS and DVD, with an audio commentary by Hellman and associate producer Gary Kurtz and a documentary on Hellman directed by George Hickenlooper. The limited edition DVD was packed in a metal tin and extras included a 48-page booklet featuring behind-the-scenes photographs and liner notes about director Monte Hellman, a 5" X 7" theatrical poster replica, and a die-struck miniature car key chain. Anchor Bay released a regular edition without the poster and key chain.
At a July 2007 screening of the film, Hellman revealed that the Criterion Collection was releasing a two-disc special edition DVD that featured a new documentary made by Hellman that included an interview with Kristofferson about how "Me and Bobby McGee" has become so closely associated with the film. This DVD set was released on December 11, 2007. Two-Lane Blacktop is available on Blu-ray disc from UK distributor Masters of Cinema, having been released on 23 January 2012; this release was marked as a Region B disc, which would only play in Blu-ray disc players in Europe, Africa and Australia. The Criterion Collection released a U.S. Region 1 Blu-ray edition in January 2013.