Easy Rider, Badlands, Thelma & Louise—the list of American road movies is long and winding. But the very best of the lot also happens to be the least iconic. It didn’t explain the mood of a generation and demurred on delivering a manifesto.

But if no eras were defined in the making of Two-Lane Blacktop, which turned 50 in July, that’s because Monte Hellman’s existential 1971 film about drag racing transcended its era, even if it stalled at the box office.

Wilson with Laurie Bird (“the Girl”) and James Taylor (“the Driver”) in a still from the film. All three were first-time actors.

The picture featured at least one and a half stars: a bona fide Beach Boy, Dennis Wilson, and an up-and-coming singer-songwriter, James Taylor. The premise, too, seemed built for speed. Taylor and Wilson roam the countryside in a stripped-down ’55 Chevy, challenging easy marks to street races.

Taylor is the nameless “Driver” behind the wheel, Wilson the wingman “Mechanic,” who tends to the engine. They land themselves in a cross-country race with Warren Oates’s character, owner of a gleaming new Pontiac GTO. (The end credits call him “GTO”; in Two-Lane Blacktop, you are what you drive.) A young free spirit—“the Girl,” played by Laurie Bird—tags along. The race is for “pinks,” which means that the winner gets the loser’s car.

Esquire printed the entire screenplay, by novelist Rudy Wurlitzer and actor Will Corry, ahead of the picture’s release. The cover of the April 1971 issue displayed a hitchhiking Bird and declared Two-Lane Blacktop the “movie of the year.”

The veteran character actor Warren Oates as “GTO,” atop his car of that model.

But the movie bewildered audiences. The cross-country race—spoiler?—sputters out when Bird straddles some random guy’s motorcycle at a bar and pulls away. The characters barely speak to one another, and there’s no score, just the occasional song trickling from a radio. Hellman’s static camera doesn’t even stick with the cars during many of the races, instead calmly watching them roar past or dwindle in the distance. It’s as if Samuel Beckett had directed The Fast and the Furious. The film bombed, and by January 1972, Esquire had given itself the “Nobody’s Perfect Award” for hyping the film—an accolade that was part of the magazine’s annual “Dubious Achievements” list.

The crash could have been foreseen. In fact, Beckett was an artistic hero of Hellman’s. A decade before, Hellman had directed the first Los Angeles stage production of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Later, he went to work for B-movie king Roger Corman. When Corman green-lighted two cheapo Westerns, Hellman delivered two art-house objects, The Shooting (1966) and Ride in the Whirlwind (1968), both of which starred a then unknown Jack Nicholson. The French loved them.

It’s as if Samuel Beckett had directed The Fast and the Furious.

Hellman, it became clear to those watching closely, was a serious artist who only appeared to traffic in genre trash. He made the most of his opportunities, and as the years passed, fans and critics came to a consensus: in Two-Lane Blacktop, he’d made a masterpiece.

Bird, Wilson, and Taylor in a promotional shot for Two-Lane Blacktop.

Sure, the characters barely speak, but the story’s all there in Bird’s face, as she sits in the back seat and stares longingly at Taylor while massaging Wilson’s neck. In another scene, Hellman shoots Bird and Taylor from the back seat as Taylor tries to teach her how to shift gears, his hand on hers. (Bird’s shoulders hunch and heave in silent laughter.) Oates, the veteran character actor, is chattier than the rest. But his face, swept variously by warmth, sadness, and confusion, betrays his desperation to connect with others on the road.

The vistas are wide-screen, and Hellman frequently shoots real people in real environments. He infiltrates the drag-racing subculture and moves among its obsessives with documentary precision. Even the leads were non-actors. (Neither Taylor, Wilson, nor Bird had ever been in a movie before.)

Director Monte Hellman on the set of Two-Lane Blacktop. He died in April, at 91.

The movie ends, appropriately enough, in the middle of a race, when the film stock appears to melt. That moment may have burned up Two-Lane Blacktop’s commercial prospects, doing yet more doughnuts on the audience’s patience. But it left its mark on cinema. Today, we’d call it “meta” and applaud the way the film confounds the conventional American road movie.

But moviegoers primed for another guitar-spangled Easy Rider balked. Perhaps Hellman’s themes were too universal. Taylor’s Driver doesn’t know how to tell Bird’s Girl what’s in his heart. Oates doesn’t know how to get taken seriously as a sophisticate. (He keeps a wet bar in the trunk and an onboard record collection for any occasion.)

Most of the principals soon passed away: Bird by suicide in 1979, and Oates and Wilson a few years later, by heart attack and drowning, respectively. Hellman died in April of this year, just shy of the anniversary. But Two-Lane Blacktop, which was added to the Criterion Collection in 2007, has traveled across 50 years, a cult following of obsessive fans in tow.

Jason Guriel is the author of Forgotten Work