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Sports haven't fared well in classic Hollywood, where hero-worship comes first and authenticity second. The reality of personalities like coach Knute Rockne (Knute Rockne All American, 1940) and Native American star Jim Thorpe (Jim Thorpe - All American, 1951) has been forever distorted by their filmic surrogates Pat O'Brien and Burt Lancaster. The sports content of these movies is more often than not reduced to superhuman feats and stylized montages.
This background makes Michael Ritchie's semi-documentary drama Downhill Racer all the more significant. The 1969 film about competition skiing began as a "deal" picture concocted by Paramount to attract hot director Roman Polanski, an avid skier. When Polanski chose instead to do Rosemary's Baby the project's enthusiastic star Robert Redford put together the production on his own. The directing nod was given to Michael Ritchie, a TV talent untested on the big screen. Filming in distant Austria proved to be a major plus that allowed the show to maintain independent of studio oversight.
Using a camera style more suited to documentaries, Downhill Racer fashions an intelligent drama around the American Olympic skiing team, then considered inexperienced outsiders outclassed by the European pros. James Salter's lean script establishes the character of David Chappellet, a highly motivated country boy from Colorado who gets his break when an injury creates an opening in the team lineup. Chappellet is a handsome, vain and anti-social loner who considers his own teammates enemy competitors; he's only interested in winning. He has no interest in the problems of his coach Eugene Claire (Gene Hackman, excellent), who must bow and scrape to woo team sponsors. Robert Redford is perfect for the role, and uncharacteristically for a Hollywood star, he's willing to portray David as an unlikable heel. Chappellet picks up an old girl friend back in Colorado for some fast sex; he refuses to waste the time or effort to even have a conversation with her.
Salter and Redford use Downhill Racer to tell the truth that movies never admit: after all the sentiment about sportsmanship, competition is all about winning and nothing else. Even today, television injects fake dramatic conflicts into the Olympics. When not promoting national rivalries the coverage exploits insipid inspirational back stories, with athletes overcoming hardship and trauma on their path to glory. Focused sports pros are certainly not all like David Chappellet, but hotheaded egoists are often the best performers.
Unlike John Frankenheimer's Formula One racing epic Grand Prix, Downhill Racer doesn't use announcers and random voiceovers to explain the facts and mechanics of the sport. We learn by observation. We see the skiers preparing their equipment and shivering at the top of the ski runs. Nobody need tell us that the athletes are cold. The freezing waits must surely leave their muscles in knots.
When the races begin director Ritchie's docu methods take over completely. The racers fly down the narrow, bumpy runs at up to 80 mph, sometimes racing through snowy fog. The skiing action is excellent. Realizing that they needed to roll thousands of feet of film to get a few useful seconds, the production switched to 16mm for much of the downhill action. When they captured an impressive spill, they'd then contrive to have one of their skier-actors dress in the same color suit and helmet to match continuity. The large numbers printed on the racers' elastic Bibs don't really matter. In the ultra-fast skiing scenes, the Bibs are largely unreadable anyway!
Ritchie extends the docu filming style throughout the show, shooting with long lenses and arranging and cutting scenes as if the camera just happened to catch important moments. This European look was very fresh in Hollywood of 1969. The film was one of the first to show TV announcers fumbling in stage waits and false starts, a revelation that amused audiences that wouldn't think to question the polished surface of The Wide World of Sports. Most scenes are fragments without full exits or entrances. Dialogue rarely extends beyond an exchange or two. As David spends most of his time being sullen and incommunicative this method works out quite well. David becomes particularly irate about his lowly status in the starting order. Starting back in the pack he must race down a course already rutted and torn up by dozens of skiers that have gone before. Eugene tells him that low Bib Numbers have to be earned.
Downhill Racer keeps its dramatics lean, but telling. On David's trip back home we learn that his father considers him a worthless ski bum. He dismisses David's desire to be a champion in four bitter words: "World's full of 'em". The narcissistic David eagerly pursues an affair with Swiss beauty Carole Stahr (Camilla Sparv), who works for a ski equipment manufacturer hungry for product endorsements. David gives Carole his best silent charm treatment; she seems another easy conquest. Only too late does he discover that a European woman might be an even more experienced User than he is.
The unspoken lesson behind all of this is that talent trumps all notions of sportsmanship and even civility; David Chappellet is a promising contender and therefore is indulged at every turn. He's "centered" and "focused", positive terms for conceit and insensitivity. David's mind is wired only for self-interest. He has no reaction to the fate of teammates who suffer career-ending injuries. The film challenges our automatic approval of winners.
Downhill Racer's brilliant ending opts neither for easy cynicism nor an audience-pleasing comeuppance. Even as he accepts his big prize David realizes that more talented and ruthless competitors will be coming down the runs every year. Like a western gunfighter, he'll eventually be overtaken by the winner-take-all code. For the Lone Wolf competitor, forced retirement is only a bad season or a single accident away.
Criterion's DVD of Downhill Racer is a great-looking enhanced transfer of an excellent picture that was reportedly not given much of a release by Paramount Pictures. The digital cleanup is careful not to disturb original flaws in some of the 16mm material, including a brief flurry of emulsion spotting during one of the best high-speed spills. Kenyon Hopkins, a composer noted for his work with Elia Kazan and Robert Rosson, provides an effective and unobtrusive score.
Robert Redford and screenwriter James Salter appear in a new interview explaining the studio politics that both aided and obstructed the film's production. Another set of interviews gathers the production manager, the film editor and a pro skier / ski double to provide technical details of the shoot. Director Ritchie would work again with Redford on The Candidate; he passed away in 2001. Ritchie appears in an audio interview from 1977 when he was at the peak of his career.
In addition to an original trailer the disc offers How Fast?, a promotional featurette narrated by Robert Redford that plays more like a quality short subject. The insert booklet carries an exceptionally good essay by critic Todd McCarthy.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Downhill Racer rates:
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