"Le Mans" may have been beaten to the punch by John Frankenheimer's "Grand Prix" as the first mainstream film covering the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans race, but 40 years later, it's clear which film has the lasting legacy as one of the, if not THE greatest racing film ever made. Billed as a Steve McQueen film, "Le Mans" does indeed feature the iconic star, but I would be willing to bet if McQueen were still alive today, he'd agree he was the supporting star of the film, with top billing shared by the racecars of the film. The cars are the ones doing the talking, their engines whizzing by the camera, their metal bodies crashing against pavement and guardrails, the screech of their rubber tires like screams of anguish as defeat and death permeate their world. Director Lee H. Katzin apparently feels the same way as he entrusts these magnificent precision machines to carry "Le Mans" for the first act, leaving McQueen and the supporting cast with not a single line of dialogue.
"Le Mans" is not just testament to the world of racing, but the power of imagery in a film. In the first act of "Le Mans" not a single line of dialogue is needed as the imagery is strong enough and clear enough to tell the audience all they need to know as we follow Michael Delaney (McQueen) as he prepares for another Le Mans race, driving for Porsche. Haunted by the crash of a rival, Ferrari driver a year prior, the shadow of tragedy is intensified by the presence of the deceased driver's widow (Elga Andersen). Delaney is a man only alive while racing and the casting of McQueen in the role is an obvious choice, drawing on the actor's real-life passion for racing and tremendous talents as a driver himself. For any McQueen detractors, "Le Mans" is the film that displays the actor's incredible physical presence and wordless abilities to perfection. His striking, iconic blue eyes speak volumes on their own and his physical demeanor from situation to situation let us know his comfort level. He fleshes out Michael Delaney over the course of the movie with only once verbally summarizing his worldview that "anything that happens before or after [racing] is just waiting."
On the action front, "Le Mans" is a take no prisoners film, capturing the intensity of the race inside and outside the driver's seat. Katzin's direction is finely tuned and his visual eye, likely aided by McQueen's own vision of how a racing movie should be made, sells the two-fold high stakes of the race. The drivers aren't just racing to win, they are racing to live, with spinouts and crashes always a bend in the road away. Woven into the race sequences are the motivations of the Porsche and Ferrari teams' coaches, and in "Le Mans'" final act, the story of rivalry plays out in high-speed, linking every racer and machine together to conclude a story about winning, which isn't as clear cut as one may think. It's a film that could have only been made 40 years ago when the world had a Steve McQueen and filmmakers were willing to take risks (tragically, one stunt driver lost a leg during production) to capture a spectacle like an auto race "in the wild." It's well known a great portion of the footage was captured at the actual 1970 Le Mans race and a greater rumor persists McQueen secretly drove in the race, finishing ninth. I'd like to believe the rumor because I know there will never be another Steve McQueen and there will never be another "Le Mans."
The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is incredibly striking, with rich colors contrasting against the tranquility of the French countryside. Detail is above average, only masked by a mild amount of persistent grain. Edge enhancement is light but noticeable, while contrast is just a little higher than it should be. "Le Mans" is a very beautiful looking film, especially when celebrating its 40th birthday this year and this transfer does it great justice.
The Dolby Digital English 5.1 audio track is incredibly immersive with human dialogue clear and well balanced. The dialogue of the cars, the sounds themselves do experience some high-end distortion and given the numerous times they whiz by the camera, this can be a little annoying. A French mono track is provided as well as French subtitles and English subtitles for the hearing impaired.
The two extras are a brief but informative making-of-featurette titled "Filming at Speed: The Making of the Movie 'Le Mans.'" Hosted by McQueen's son Chad (who you may remember as Dutch in "The Karate Kid"), it will make you at the very least appreciate the effort and artistry that went into making the film, even if you didn't much care for its intended purpose. The film's theatrical trailer is also included.
As glorious a film as "Le Mans" is, one must have at least a passing interest in the world of auto racing to want to invest nearly two-hours of their time into a film sparely populated by dialogue. "Le Mans" is a film of living in the moment and the emotions that come before, during, and after the big race. It's a technically astounding spectacle of speed that is absolutely worth watching at least once, however repeat value comes from an appreciation of the themes presented. In other words, it's not a movie for everyone. Recommended.