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
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.