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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Grand Prix (HD DVD) (HD DVD)
Grand Prix (HD DVD) (HD DVD)
Warner Bros. // Unrated // September 26, 2006 // Region 0
List Price: $28.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted October 8, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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John Frankenheimer's Ronin offers one of the all-time greatest car chases ever caught on celluloid, and his skill at capturing the inescapable danger and adrenaline rush of high speed chases may be owed to his 1966 film Grand Prix.

James Garner stars as Pete Aron, a racer in the Formula One circuit who's floundered in the three years since he and Ferrari parted ways. The season opens at the Grand Prix de Monaco as these men propel themselves in tiny aluminum shells through the streets of Monte Carlo and La Condamine at breakneck speeds. Pete may be racing but he's never really in the race; it's immediately apparent that his teammate Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford) or French competitor Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand) will be the first to roar past the checkered flag. A mishap with Pete's gear box sends him careening into the Mediterranean and nearly costs Scott his life, and it doesn't seem likely that either of them will ever race again. Much to chagrin of his estranged wife Pat (Jessica Walter), Scott places his still-battered body behind the wheel as soon as he's able, continuing with both the season and his morbid determination to carry on late brother's legacy despite his crippling pain. As Pete struggles with an ill-advised career in broadcasting and as he's courted with a potential comeback by a Japanese manufacturing mogul (Toshiro Mifune), he also finds himself drawn inextricably towards his former teammate's wife, giving that broken man all that much more incentive to return to the circuit.

Frankenheimer wasn't interested in Grand Prix being a passive experience. He wanted to capture a sport most had only seen in blurry black-and-white photographs in vivid color and immaculate detail, and most of all, he wanted to place viewers in the cockpits of these cars. Great pains were taken to make Grand Prix as realistic as possible, and even all these decades later, it's still thrilling to watch. Frankenheimer captures the action -- much of which was shot during actual Grand Prix races -- from numerous different perspectives, most memorably from an engaging, convincingly shaky first-person view. The wrecks are so devastatingly swift and brutal that there were a couple of times where I instinctively shouted after being caught off-guard. The racing sequences in Grand Prix are perfectly shot and masterfully edited, and I wish I could've had the opportunity to see the Super Panavision 70 photography on a 100 ft. Cinerama screen the way audiences did forty years ago.

The movie drops into neutral whenever Frankenheimer aims his cameras away from the track. It's not that these scenes -- moments that make up around half of Grand Prix's three hour runtime -- are bad; it's just that no one had ever seized the danger and kinetic thrill of auto racing on-screen the way Frankenheimer had. Grand Prix set the standard for every other racing movie that's followed since, and the photography and editing still hold up flawlessly today. The melodrama is by comparison so much more ordinary. Even with so much time devoted to globetrotting romances, a love triangle, and a gifted but reluctant racer tormented by the specter of his late brother, these characters are defined purely by their subplots and are never shown to have any depth or personality beyond what the plot demands. The movie in particular can't seem to figure out what to do with Jessica Walter's Pat, who's painted as a love interest but in some ways is even more loathesome than the judgmental boozehound Walter played on Arrested Development.

It's to Frankenheimer's credit -- and to a lesser extent the cast, which is admittedly somewhat uneven -- that these more conventional scenes don't ever feel like an interminable bore. It's also nice to see Grand Prix steer clear of a few of the usual competitive clich├ęs: there's no moustache-twirling villain in the piece, and Garner doesn't have any melodramatic motivation to win the climactic final race other than a hunger for the championship. Still, without its skillfully shot racing sequences to buoy the rest of the movie, Grand Prix would have been more of a disaster than any of its crippling car wrecks.

Grand Prix isn't a great film like several of the other classics Warner has dusted off from their archives for HD DVD. Still, a movie can be entertaining without being essential. Despite being lensed forty years ago, Grand Prix's racing sequences should thrill even those viewers with little-to-no interest in the sport, and I have to confess to being among them. There's such skill and craftsmanship behind these moments that they make the considerably less compelling framing story far more tolerable than it would've been otherwise. Perhaps a stronger premise off the track could've compelled Grand Prix to greatness, but even with its shortcomings, I enjoyed the movie and its presentation on HD DVD enough to recommend it.

Video: Even though most living rooms don't have quite enough wall space to accomodate the 100 ft. Cinerama screens that this 65mm production splashed across forty years ago, this HD DVD of Grand Prix comes as close to replicating that experience as modern technology will allow. 2006 may mark the film's fortieth anniversary, but this 2.20:1 high definition image is more pristine than far more recent theatrical releases. Only one or two barely perceptible specks were spotted throughout the movie's 176 minute runtime, along with a few thin, unintrusive vertical lines. Likewise for the numerous optical effects contributed by the immeasurably talented Saul Bass; unlike The Dirty Dozen, these effects aren't marred by any softness, unusually heavy grain, or any other sort of noteworthy degradation. Another in an increasingly long line of catalog titles from Warner demonstrating that high-definition isn't just a playground for post-2000 $120 million CGI effects spectacles, Grand Prix boasts a striking level of detail and clarity along with a bright, vivid palette. Clocking in at just under three hours in length, Grand Prix may be the longest movie available on HD DVD at the moment, yet it doesn't buckle under the 30 gig capacity of the format and is devoid of any compression-related woes. The tell-tale signs of digital noise reduction and filtering to ease compression are all wholly absent as well. So much of Grand Prix's success is owed to its visual strengths, and this presentation on HD DVD is outstanding.

Audio: The Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 remix doesn't betray Grand Prix's age in quite that same way. There's little activity in the lower registers, and even the scores of Formula One engines and several nasty spills don't coax much of a rumble from the subwoofer. The surrounds do an admirable job of placing the viewer in the car's cockpit when the camera shifts to a POV perspective, but the mix otherwise prefers to spread most of the action and channel separation (and there is fair amount of it) across the front speakers. A negligible hiss lurks in the background, and some stretches of dialogue sound shrill, harsh, and dated. None of this is particularly unexpected or even unusual for a film of this age, but the remaster isn't in the same league as the high-definition video.

Monaural soundtracks are offered in Spanish and French along with the usual assortment of subtitles.

Supplements: This HD DVD includes all of the extras from the recent two-disc special edition DVD. They may all be in standard definition, but the documentary and most of the featurettes are presented in anamorphic widescreen.

The centerpiece is the comprehensive half-hour documentary "Pushing the Limit: The Making of Grand Prix", which features interviews with John Frankenheimer, his widow Evans, filmmakers Peter Yates (Bullitt) and Simon Wincer, surviving cast members James Garner, Jessica Walter, Eva Marie Saint, and Antonio Sabato, and a small army of racing historians, camera operators, and drivers. Among the most interesting comments are those from the late Frankenheimer, culled from a vintage interview shot on the set as well as a 1998 Speed Channel retrospective. Among the many topics covered are the near-casting of Steve McQueen, Frankheimer charming Ferrari with a half-hour of footage from Monaco after they (along with seemingly every other driver and car manufacturer) were reluctant to have anything to do with the movie, the clarity and detail never before seen in its racing photography, how the spectacular wrecks were executed, and that the actors really were doing a good bit of the driving without resorting awkwardly sped-up shots. The highlight would have to be footage shot on the set of James Garner dressing down an obstinate shopkeeper in Monaco that was holding up production.

"The Style and Sound of Speed" (12 minutes) focuses much of its attention on what Saul Bass -- the man who meticulously plotted the week-long shoot of Psycho's legendary shower scene -- contributed to Grand Prix. Aside from the verisimilitude that Bass' attention to detail brought to the film, there are comments about using the roar of car motors largely in place of a traditional score, the movie's Academy Award winning sound design, and the effect of the movie's use of split-screen photography on 100 ft. Cinerama screens.

A couple of the remaining featurettes are inspired by the film but aren't straight making-of pieces. The ten minute "Brands Hatch: Chasing the Checkered Flag" is a detailed run through what was certainly then and arguably still is Britain's signature racetrack. "Flat Out: Formula One in the Sixties" (17 minutes) sells how dangerous racing was at the time and that the body count and crippling injuries seen throughout Grand Prix really weren't far-fetched. As with the Brands Hatch featurette, the discussion is led by heavily-credentialed racing professionals, and they also comment on the evolution of car design, the sport as a whole during those transitional years, and how these cars really were more of an extension of their drivers than is seen in racing today.

The last of the featurettes is the thirteen minute "Grand Prix: Challenge of the Champions", a nicely restored, heavy-handed promotional piece from the '60s on the shooting of the scenes in Monaco. Rounding out the extras are a worn, non-anamorphic trailer and a 30 second PSA from the Speed Channel.

Conclusion: Grand Prix is uneven but still tremendously entertaining, and despite its flaws, I doubt I'd argue with anyone who'd claim that this remains the definitive racing movie. The Formula One sequences are still thrilling four decades after Frankenheimer's cameras rolled, and the quality of the disc's extras and its tremendous high-definition video make this HD DVD even more compelling. It's not the most essential of Warner's classic catalog titles, but Grand Prix still comes Recommended.
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