Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Grand Prix is unique among 1960s Roadshow spectacles. Director John Frankenheimer had veered into the realm of political and technological fantasy with films like The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May and Seconds. Much of this racing saga is instead an exercise in technique like Frankenheimer's The Train, where Burt Lancaster played smash-up with real French railway hardware. Grand Prix posed a man's (or boy's) challenge: To capture the thrills of top-level Formula One racing in a way that puts the audience right into the driver's seat. Indeed, perhaps the most relevant dialogue line in the "dramatic" part of the movie is when Eva Marie Saint turns to Yves Montand and observes that the racetrack spectators don't seem to get a very good look at the action. Grand Prix does one thing exceedingly well, and that's give each viewer the experience of zooming down a track at 180 mph, in a car barely larger than a bathtub.
At Monaco, Jordan-BRM teammate Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford) has a near-fatal accident for which he faults American Pete Aron (James Garner), a driver noted for being too aggressive. Scott is sidelined to recover, a disability his wife Pat (Jessica Walter) uses to start an affair with Pete. Meanwhile, sponsor-less Pete is forced to become a TV reporter until Japanese racing boss Izo Yamura (Toshirô Mifune) hires him to drive again -- but only if Aron pulls out all stops to win. French racer Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand) is at an age where he's tired of racing and fed up with his bad marriage to Monique (Geneviève Page); he takes up with American photojournalist Louise Frederickson (Eva Marie Saint). And Jean-Pierre's Sicilian teammate Nino Barlini (Antonio Sabàto) enjoys himself with a quick racetrack pickup, Lisa (Françoise Hardy).
Grand Prix combines the roller coaster of This is Cinerama! with impressive technical ingenuity. It could have been titled Grand Camera Mounts, as the most arresting images come from 70mm cameras rigged right on the moving race cars. Besides giving us a dizzying blur of motion on the Super Panavision 70 screen (Super Cinerama in Cinerama ® Theaters), the camera can pan from a sideways view of the driver to a forward view looking over the right front tire. On a big screen, the experience is like being strapped into a rocket. On the steep banking of the Monza race course the car-mounted camera remains level while the car tilts 40° to one side. In theaters one could observe the entire audience tilting their heads and laughing in wonder. This "viewer participation" phenomenon must have inspired Stanley Kubrick and/or Douglas Trumbull to come up with the Star Gate slit-scan "trip" in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The featurettes and docus on this Special Edition detail the means by which Frankenheimer achieved his specific racing effects. Several of his actors were car enthusiasts or had racing experience so we're frequently treated to real shots of James Garner or Yves Montand blazing through the curves. Expert editing and some acceptable split-screen work add to the effect, aided by dizzying helicopter shots that twist with the cars as they negotiate the streets of Monaco. Grand Prix expends most of Frankenheimer's tricks in the first twenty-minute racing scene, and succeeding races are either abbreviated or augmented with visual themes. For one race, Maurice Jarre's music takes over and Saul Bass's split-screen visuals give us a soft-focus reverie of racing images.
Earlier racing films had followed the lead of aviation pictures: Give 'em one big action scene at the beginning, another at the end and fill the middle with montages. Executive producer Kirk Douglas made a Fox film called The Racers in 1955; its "big crash" in the opening race happens when somebody's French poodle wanders onto the track! Other racing car movies tended toward melodramatic plots, with drivers avenging the deaths of martyred brothers or going berserk on the track while competing for the attentions of the leading lady. The most ridiculous example is a Clark Gable show about midget car racing, To Please a Lady. Just seeing Gable crammed into his tiny, inconsequential-looking speedster is hilarious.
Grand Prix labors nobly to dramatize the love lives of its racing car drivers. We have two illicit affairs, a driver obsessed with living up to the legacy of his dead brother, an aging warrior stuck between an unforgiving wife (Geneviève Page of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes) and a domineering boss (Adolfo Celi), an ambitious American and a jet-setting Sicilian swinger. Frankenheimer does his best to promote a glitzy continental sophistication to all of these complications but is defeated by a basic rule of blockbuster filming: It all has to be in English. Thus we're deprived of the Formula One circuit's multilingual European atmosphere.
Newcomers Antonio Sabàto and Françoise Hardy aren't great actors in their native languages and appear to have been coached like chimpanzees. Their dialogue scenes flatline for everything except Hardy's "I don't dance, I don't drink ..." come-on tease. Yves Montand already proved his incompatibility with English in the Marilyn Monroe movie Let's Make Love. He gets by but forfeits most of his natural charm and individuality, and Eva Marie Saint must work overtime to keep their scenes alive. Jessica Walter lacks the effortless Euro-glamour needed for her role, and has to interact with more dubbed Frenchmen like Claude Dauphin. Brian Bedford is the most interesting character, but his dramatic scenes invariably end with a snappy line before anything really insightful transpires. Frankenheimer relies far too often on "meaningful" looks to cap his dramatic scenes.
James Garner comes off the best of the four drivers even though he has the worst language problem, talking to Toshirô Mifune. Mifune's entire performance is dubbed by Paul Frees, and not well. It's like talking to the host voice at the Disneyland Haunted House, or the narrator in The St. Valentine's Day Massacre.
In Grand Prix we learn that racers race for the same reason mountain climbers climb. It's an existential riddle. Lovers are reunited or disillusioned, fortunes rise and fall. Although the movie never becomes boring, the bedroom drama never takes hold. Yett those unforgettable racetrack scenes are real grabbers. At the finale James Garner stands alone on the vast empty track, an image that cruel critics took as a metaphor for the film as a whole. We almost expect Garner to give us a Naked City benediction, something like "There are only one or two workable stories in the Big World of Grand Prix racing. This wasn't one of them."
Warner DVD's welcome disc of Grand Prix blows away previous home video versions with a bright and sharp enhanced transfer abetted by a DD 5.1 sound remix. It was transferred from 65mm elements; a few hairline scratches show up here and there. We love Maurice Jarre's score but his single march-waltz theme gets old after the two-hour mark, especially when played by Oom-pah-pah marching bands.
The film's exact length is a mystery. Some reference books list 179 minutes without overture and ent'racte music, but this disc's official running time is 176. Since this transfer is supposed to be from the 70mm Roadshow version we don't expect it to be cut. Perhaps MGM snipped the film by a few minutes when they recalled it to revoice Toshirô Mifune's vocal track.
A second disc contains four well-researched docus that concentrate on the making-of story, with chapters covering the historical racing context, the movie's superb soundtrack (authentic racing sounds add immeasurably to the film's effect) and the race courses themselves. A fluffy featurette from 1966 does its best to make us think that all of the filming was done at actual races!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Grand Prix rates:
Movie: Excellent / Good
Supplements: Featurettes and docus: 40th Anniversary making-of documentary Pushing the Limit: The Making of Grand Prix; Flat Out: Formula One in the Sixties; a look at the style of Saul Bass and the film's sound design The Style and Sound of Speed; Behind the scenes tour of the famous raceway used in the movie Brands Hatch: Behind the Checkered Flag; Grand Prix: Challenge of the Champions 1960s featurette behind-the-scenes at the Grand Prix; Trailer
Packaging: 2 discs in Keep case
Reviewed: June 25, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson
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