Michael Ritchie's debut feature,
Downhill Racer (1969), is a quietly thrilling, beautifully-shot
film about a particularly American theme. What does it mean to
be a champion? Is it a worthy goal in and of itself? These
questions are posed in a far more elegant fashion within the film,
but what's interesting about them is the fact that they are in a "sports
film" at all.
Usually the key question for
characters in films about athletics is, "How do I win?" We
watch, we wonder, and we wait, hoping that they figure out what it takes
to persevere and triumph. In Downhill Racer, Robert Redford
plays a character driven to achieve those same heights - but without
knowing himself, without knowing why he wants to win; winning, for him, is messily tied up with a pretty empty vision of his own self-worth. This is
the dark side of athletic competition, and the movie poses the unasked
and unanswered questions behind each and every sports film that preceded
it - along with many that followed.
When a member of the US Ski
Team suffers an injury, coach Eugene Claire (Gene Hackman) calls in
hotshot David Chappellet (Robert Redford) as his replacement.
Chappellet has had some success racing in the US, but has not been tested
on the international scene. He quickly proves his potential, and
earns a place on the Olympic team. All the while, he faces his
father's indifference, engenders a temporary romance with a Swiss
ski manufacturer's assistant, and endures fractious relations with
his teammates. Claire does his best to rein in Chappellet, knowing
how good he is, as well as recognizing the personal perils his champion
is creating for himself.
As an actor, Robert Redford
is consistently underrated. Perhaps a little hampered early in
his career by a focus on his pretty-boy looks, Redford's very real
skills as a performer took a back seat to his status as a movie star.
But this was to overlook a major talent, an actor whose subtle control
of his physicality characterizes his seamless, seemingly effortless
approach to acting. Rare for a leading man, he has a rather still, quiet
presence. You rarely find Redford in a role where any kind of
blatant emoting is required. Instead, he examines his characters'
interiors, exploring their thoughts and emotions via body language.
In Downhill Racer, Redford's method is in the spotlight; his
character, David Chappellet, is a driven, inarticulate show-off whose
only concern is being the fastest downhill skier in the world - going
after the gold, and nothing else. Chappellet is not very nice,
not very open, not very talkative - not terribly likable. What
we "root for" is not that he wins the gold at the Winter Olympics
(his ultimate goal, and one that we're pretty sure will come to pass
from the start of the movie), but that he learns something - anything
- about what drives him and what his life might look like post-championship.
Ritchie employs a lot of methods
associated with European filmmakers whose influence in the US was at
its height when Downhill Racer was made. The camerawork
and editing style borrows from verite via Karel Reisz and others, while
Ritchie's masterful sense of tone utilizes the calm focus on behavior
that Antonioni was known for. This is not to say that Downhill
Racer is simply the sum of certain stylistic effects. The
film has a decidedly American point of view - and is very much about
American insecurity in the face of European "ownership" of the sport
of downhill skiing and the culture around it. Ritchie, Redford,
and screenwriter James Salter make this very much a part of the story
- and the visual style actively contrasts Redford's wholesome American
appearance with the film's European settings. The racing sequences
are captured thrillingly, with the dangers of the sport on full view.
In one of Chappellet's races, we experience the entire event from
his point of view. The filmmakers also manage to effectively convey
the dangers of ice on the mountain without resorting to expository dialogue
- and this is part of a larger appreciation for the nature of snow,
its varied consistency and form, and how this is dealt with by the skiers.
In the end, Chappellet faces
a situation much like Redford's Bill McKay in The Candidate
(1972), which was also directed by Ritchie. The relative value
of "winning" remains an open question, just as this film's challenge
to American concepts of athletic competition is undiluted after forty
Criterion's standard clear keepcase is adorned with typically-lovely
double-sided artwork. The single disc is accompanied by a slim
booklet featuring a new essay by Todd McCarthy.
The image is absolutely stunning. This enhanced transfer represents
an incredible achievement in film preservation and/or restoration.
Save a very few shots that look slightly stained or otherwise damaged,
the movie looks like it was shot yesterday. The bright snowy whites
contrast wonderfully with eye-popping colors on racing suits, skis,
cars, and buildings. The film's rare blacks are deep and solid.
This forty-year-old low-budget film (about $2 million) looks absolutely
The mono soundtrack is good, but not great. Some of the mixing
is oddly aggressive at points, and the eccentric, minimalistic score
by Kenyon Hopkins is sometimes harsh on the ear. Still, the soundtrack
is generally pleasing and dialogue is clear. Sounds of the schussing
competitors are well-timed and help build tension during the races.
Criterion has included a few very interesting bonus features.
First and foremost is an interview piece featuring Robert Redford
and James Salter, in which they discuss the film's background
and production. This is a fascinating piece, although strangely,
Oakley Hall's name is not mentioned once. Hall wrote a novel
in the early 1960s called The Downhill Racers, which I always
understood to be the film's source. But his name is nowhere
on the credits, and he is not mentioned in the bonus content.
It's true that the story of the film departs significantly from the
novel, so maybe the formal connection between the two really is scant.
In any case, Redford and Salter take full credit for the film's screenplay.
Next is another interview piece with editor Richard Harris, production
manager Walter Coblenz, and technical advisor (and former downhill skier)
Joe Jay Jalbert. Naturally, this segment is much more technical
than the first, although it's full of interesting anecdotes.
Lengthy audio excerpts from a 1977 AFI seminar with director Michael
Ritchie allow the late director to speak for himself, and his thoughts
will be of great interest for anyone with an interest in the finer points
of film production. A promotional featurette called How Fast?
(12:25) is narrated by Redford and incorporates interesting behind-the-scenes
Downhill Racer is a
rare film. Anchored by a character who doesn't do a whole lot
of talking - and therefore dependent upon a skilled performance by
Robert Redford - the movie takes us inside a highly competitive mind
and reveals the empty places therein. Criterion's disc is visually
stunning and is the first time this minor, underrated classic has been
released on DVD. Highly recommended.
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.