Classic Film Review: Hepburn and Finney, MGs, Mercedes and Alfas, “Two for the Road” (1967)

Channel surfing Valentine’s Day lured me back into “Two for the Road,” a sophisticated and sweet “road comedy” that altered the genre for half a century afterward.

Sure, “It Happened One Night” was the Ur film of this genre, dating from over thirty years before. But Stanley Donen’s sleek, smart take on a romance seen through the years in a montage of their drives around “the continent” is what a film fan sees when one closes one’s eyes and imagines “the definitive road picture.”

I’ve seen it many times, mostly in chunks as it’s on many of Ye Olde Movie Channels I drop in on. I always joke that “Let me check again.” Because I still can’t believe Albert Finney would ditch Jacqueline Bisset for the regal human clothes hanger that was Audrey Hepburn.

But “Jackie,” as she’s called in the movie, a traveling companion in the early “hitchhiking” episode of the history of this couple to be, caught the measles. So grumpy architect Mark is fated to be with Joanna (Hepburn), for better or worse.

The pairing of the rising star Finney with the long-established (and a few years older) Hepburn works swimmingly, because to paraphrase what people always said about Astaire and Rogers, “She gave him class, and he made her younger.”

Hepburn isn’t exactly an ingenue here. But she’s pretty bubbly and madcap, something we hadn’t seen her attempt since “My Fair Lady,” and mostly much earlier.

The couple — hitchhiking as they first meet — share a ride with a crowd in a VW Microbus, tour in a 1950 MG-TD (which catches fire, spoiler alert), travel later with obnoxious American friends (William Daniels and Eleanor Bron) and their insufferable daughter crammed in a Ford Country Squire, successfully age and trade up to a Mercedes 230 and always make their way through France (mostly), taking in the pre-EU/pre-superhighway era scenery as it was meant to be experienced.

They drive the paper-roadmap blue highways and pigpaths in the great motorcars of the ’50s and ’60s. Renaults and Citroens and Opels pass them, and when Mark gets a new red British ragtop to replace the torched MG, that’s a sign he’s reached a midlife crisis cheating episode.

The situations — lost keys, spoiled brats, rushed tours of cities (Chantilly), car trouble, fights, flirting and seductions, fine French dining, French price gouging, and foreshadowing the life they’d lead together in the future — have become road picture cliches.

The dialogue is crisp and light, with the occasional cutting line drawing blood.

“Just wish you’d stop sniping!” “I haven’t said a WORD.” “Just because you use a silencer doesn’t mean you’re not a sniper.”

Joanna is the queen of “I LOVE you” and mistress of “I HATE you.” Mark gives her reason for both.

Mark is bossy in ways no modern woman would tolerate this side of a Promise Keepers convention would stand for today.

“The trouble with women is they try to label you – put you in a pigeonhole. What they don’t realize is – the only thing that fits in a pigeonhole is a pigeon.”

“Two for the Road” underlines virtually every single rule that every single romantic comedy must follow to work, starting with “You’ve got to ROOT for them as a couple,” even as everything comes apart, to some degree, in virtually every era of the relationship. That’s one thing most rom-coms get wrong, and if Netflix’s teen romances have an Achilles Heel, it’s that.

“Road” is like a time capsule now, back when travel was more seat-of-the-pants than planned by Expedia or Costco, when credit cards were for the rich, the Riviera wasn’t overrun, when gender roles were more rigid and restrictive — but loosening — and cars were a lot less reliable, and a lot more stylish.

Love this, and yes it still holds up. But damn, it’s a pity about that MG.

Rating: unrated, “ruined virgin” innuendo, mild profanity

Audrey Hepburn, Albert Finney, Jacqueline Bisset, William Daniels, Eleanor Bron, Claude Dauphin

Credits: Directed by Stanley Donen, scripted by Frederic Raphael. A 20th Century Fox release.

Running time: 1:51

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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