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RCE Info


Downhill Racer: The Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection // PG // December 1, 2015
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted November 30, 2015 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

In an interview recorded about the making of Downhill Racer, Robert Redford is quick to address the gray-area focus on victory and sportsmanship in his late-'60s depiction of competitive skiing, emphasizing that the idea of it not mattering whether one wins or loses, instead how they play the game, is wrong. Not as an idealistic creed to follow, but in how those around the competitors ultimately perceive the outcome of their efforts, where tact and teamwork matter little unless they're standing atop the winner's podium. It's a contentious message within a culture that perpetuates the balancing act between maintaining etiquette and rewarding those who come out on top, whether we're talking about professional sports or the entrepreneurial and political arenas. Under the direction of Michael Ritchie, challenging ideas rush at the audience in a wobbly but viscerally triumphant portrait of a speed-based, individual sport that's tough to dramatize without crashes, trumping its generally shallow plotting with nuanced comments on the game itself and a calculated performance from Redford.

Following an injury to a member of the US skiing team while abroad, coach Eugene Claire (Gene Hackman) calls up competitors for their moment to shine in the big league, giving them enough time to gain their bearings and develop some winning momentum before the Winter Olympics in two years. David Chappellet (Redford) is one of those replacements, a largely unknown racer from the small town of Idaho Springs. His humble roots don't detract from his confidence, though, easily interpreted as arrogance, which distances himself from the rest of his team as he vies for a more desirable spot in the rankings. Downhill Racer follows the peaks and valleys in Chappellet's career -- both figurative and literal -- as he garners the attention of the media, of product sponsors, and of the women drawn into his chilly charisma and daring spirit, progressing forward to the arrival of the Olympics and whether he can hold onto his victorious drive and his shaky relationships with his teammates until then.

The intensity of the races and the snowy atmosphere of Europe propel Downhill Racer with engaging cinematic experiences, elevated by shaky camera movement and natural streaks of motion that take great strides towards emphasizing the solitary nature of Chappellet's sport. Typically, sports movies thrive on either head-to-head competitiveness or the dangers involved with the game, but these are difficult to emphasize in a situation where the contestants race by themselves amid time trials, in situations where a crash instantly breaks the suspense. Director Ritchie employs an almost-documentary style of filmmaking that captures the beautifully realistic tension of those rickety blitzes downwards, making the audience feel as if they're seeing and feeling what the racers are experiencing in a tense, twisty blur of blue and white. These sequences offer a window into the vigor of the sport itself and, by association, into Chappellet's composure while tackling each course, becoming a facet of the film's examination of his character just as much as making audiences appreciate a sport that they may know little about.

Chappellet isn't an easy individual to navigate, either, a reserved yet arrogant athlete whose lone-wolf attitude makes him a rather unlikable force among the skiing team. Loosely adapting from the novel "The Downhill Racers" in a secondhand fashion, screenwriter James Salter doesn't offer a particularly complex or involving progression of events surrounding him, driven by a chain of races, smug outbursts, and cliche speeches from his coach -- sturdily buy dryly played by Gene Hackman -- that blur together into the small-town skier's largely predictable meteoric rise. When filtered through a callous demeanor by Robert Redford, however, they're given weight as the conditions ignite his frustrations and fuel his ego, communicated through the actor's terse body language and angry glances. His behavior adds a new layer of depth to commonplace happenings in the athlete's life, from his hollow and discouraging return home between sessions to his vague romantic endeavors with Carole (Camilla Sparv), a beautiful and free-spirited employee for a ski manufacturer whose motivations remain unclear.

That sobering depiction of Chappellet's rigid self-focused attitude shifts Downhill Racer towards a subversive look at the trajectory leading towards victory and successfulness, the ultimate payoff for a competitor's invested time and energy. Director Ritchie's understated perspective glides towards comments on the fleeting, fickle attention of the media and sponsors alongside the damage done by Chappellet's lack of graciousness or teamwork mentality, but it merely brushes against these themes without tackling them head-on, letting the athlete's coarse reactions speak for themselves. By sticking to this examination of his flawed and unlikable traits, the film cleverly asks the audience whether they actually want to see him succeed once Downhill Racer crosses the finish line, undercutting the traditional mind-set of rooting for the underdog. Chappellet overcomes obstacles, rising above his small-town origins and earning his moment in the spotlight like other conventional sports dramas, yet the film's complicated power ultimately rests in deciding whether he deserves it after witnessing how he played the game.

The Blu-ray:

The Criterion Collection continues to update their standard-definition catalogue to Blu-ray with Downhill Racer, spine #494, presented in their standard clear-case design that duplicates the streamlined designs found on the cover artwork and disc of the initial DVD, sans photographs on the back. The interior has been spruced up, though, featuring a dramatic blurred shot of a skier launching downwards. A foldout Booklet has been included, which contains credits, information about the Blu-ray transfer, and an essay from film critic Todd McCarthy: "Trailblazer".

Video and Audio:

A 35mm positive print was utilized for Downhill Racer's high-definition mastering, presented here from The Criterion Collection in a 1.85:1-framed, 1080p AVC transfer that's not without a few stumbles before successfully completing the course. The documentary feel of the action leaves a lot of the film to cope with stronger grain and complicated motion, which can be seen in the heaviness of the compression and the presence of some unavoidable print damage at many points. Deep-blue shadows juxtapose splendidly with the bright whites of the snow, though, while the points when the skiers cut into the snow and send powder flying in the air offer sufficient moments of clarity and stability where needed. Once they're out of the cold, fine details in close-ups on skin/hair textures and clothing are satisfying, though flesh tones tend to run a bit pink throughout. Nighttime sequences allow details to remain visible with well-balanced black levels, shades of yellow and red are full but not obtrusive throughout the European landscape, and the skiing sequences are satisfyingly stable throughout.

Derived from a 35mm magnetic soundtrack, the monaural LPCM audio track is a prime exercise in serviceability, conveying the soundtrack's intents with its age and limitations clearly observable. Despite being worked on with tools to reduce distortion, a noticeable hiss can be heard at a few points throughout the film at normal listening levels, though never at a distracting level. Sound effects are also somewhat thin and harsh, too, lacking substance beyond the higher-end whooshing of ski action and motors revving. Most of the fidelity comes in the dialogue, which does offer moments of deeper middle-level bass response and well-balanced clarity -- especially within Gene Hackman's line delivery -- to convey the script's intentions, while a few stronger effects like the loud honking of a car horn are appropriately natural. Subtitles are available in English.

Special Features:

Extras are duplicated from the 2009 DVD release of the film, including the terrific arrangement of Interviews with Robert Redford and James Salter (33:48, 16x9 HD). Led by Redford and supplemented by Salter, the pair tell the intriguing and complicated story of how Downhill Racer came into existence: what history it shares with Roman Polanski and Rosemary's Baby, how they achieved such an authentic European ski-culture aesthetic with a shoestring budget, and the unique cobbling together of scripting and themes throughout the process of the project getting passed around. Another interview piece with Walter Coblenz, editor Richard Harris, and advisor/cameraman Joe Jay (29:51, 16x9 HD) discusses the longevity and naturalness of the film, the complications with pre-production and the conditions in Europe, and other technical bits that flesh out the making-of story ... along with a few nice anecdotes, including a cameo by a preserved prop from the film. Together, this hour of material makes for a splendid viewing experience that effortlessly makes one appreciate how the film got made even more.

Criterion have also included audio excerpts from Michael Ritchie at AFI (1:01:29) in 1977, where he discussed his career and Downhill Racer within a question-answer session, as well as a legacy featurette called How Fast? (12:15, 4x3 HD) that's narrated by Robert Redford and features rare behind-the-scenes footage. Rounding out the pack is a Theatrical Trailer (2:40, 16x9 HD).

Final Thoughts:

If thematic ambitiousness and the filmmaking involved with capturing a sport that isn't easy to dramatize were the only things that mattered, then Michael Ritchie's Downhill Racer would be nothing but a triumph. Robert Redford provides a quietly intense performance as David Chappellet, a replacement skier for the US team whose arrogance and solitary mindset create rifts amid his rise in the sport's popularity, and his temperament leads one to think long and hard about honorability, perception, and whether anything else really matters once in the light of victory. Chappellet's ups and downs in rising through the ranks of professional skiing doesn't provide a terribly intriguing story, though, aside from the energetic zooms down the snowy mountains, instead relying on the character's responses in relatively ordinary competitive situations to command the film's interest. That still works, to a degree, but more for the commentary it generates than the cinematic drama provided by the story. The Criterion Collection provide a suitably strong high-definition presentation that's not without a few stumbles, while carrying over the substantive extras from the previous DVD release. Recommended.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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