[2 December 2009]
Sports movies are often pegged as predictable by nature. And when they don’t follow an established formula closely enough they are met with disappointment by fans of the sport. Downhill Racer, a 1969 movie about competitive skiing, is a sports movie that tweaks the formula just enough to make a personal, thoughtful film without refuting genre expectation.
The film follows a team of US Olympic hopefuls coached by Eugene Claire (Gene Hackman). They’re all stationed in Europe and vying for Olympic gold with friendly rivalry; all except Dave Chappellet (Robert Redford), a reserve skier who gets bumped up to the team when a teammate gets badly injured. Cocksure but with the talent to back it up, Dave isn’t interested in building relationships or playing the publicity game. He’s out there for one reason: to win. His approach is met with stern disapproval from Eugene, but his success leaves Eugene with little room for argument.
The skiing sequences are filmed with captivating immediacy by director Michael Ritchie and much of the footage captured handheld by professional skier Joe Jay Jalbert. The footage includes stunning first-person skiing shots that rival Star Wars’ Death Star battle in terms of inducing me to instinctively duck and swerve along with the camera. As remarkable as these sequences are, they do become redundant soon enough, a fate that befalls most sports movies. But Downhill Racer compensates for this by developing Dave’s back-story.
Between sessions, Dave returns to his hometown of Idaho Springs, Colorado. He stays with his father, a judgmental man of reticent emotions who queries Dave on how much money he makes for his efforts. The short answer: none. The scene gives insight into why Dave is such a callous jerk but to the movie’s great credit, things never become sentimental as Redford’s performance maintains an icy, unsympathetic demeanor from start to finish.
Redford’s performance here is one that begs for comparison with his contemporary Warren Beatty. Redford and Beatty possess remarkably similar personas and mirroring career trajectories as actor / producer / director. Both star images are rooted in dashing good looks and reserved emotions – both in their calculated minimalist performances and in their powerful influence behind the scenes. In Downhill Racer, Redford exhibits a quality rarely seen in Beatty’s work: an understated potential for violence.
Beneath his calm exterior, there’s the sense of a brimming temper that could escalate at any moment into a fierce physical attack. While Beatty was plenty violent in Bonnie and Clyde, he didn’t display this kind of unsettling menace. Downhill Racer was one of Redford’s early performances but his youthfulness does nothing to offset his discipline and confidence.
Downhill Racer marks Michael Ritchie’s feature directorial debut but like Redford, he performs masterfully with gusto and creativity. Inspired heavily by documentary and French New Wave (handheld cameras, jumpcuts, on-location shooting), it’s surprising that this was a studio funded film. The documentary techniques are particularly effective (and later reprised in the campaign sequences of the other Ritchie-Redford collaboration, The Candidate) and extend beyond camera style to an interest in the quotidian: the difficulty of boarding a train with skis, local radio station jingles, where to place a napkin after dinner, etc.
The only distraction is that some of the skiing scenes appear to have been filmed at a lower frame rate, causing the skier to move in cartoonish fast motion from time to time. But other than such shots, the film has aged gracefully.
Available for the first time on DVD, The Criterion Collection has put together a stunning transfer with fantastic visuals. This is the kind of DVD you want in your collection if for no other reason than to demonstrate the beauty found in your new flat screen TV.
As usual, Criterion has also compiled a fascinating blend of vintage material and new supplements. Of the new footage, there are two 30-minute interview segments recorded in 2009. The first is with Redford and screenwriter James Salter, who are recorded separately but both discuss the film’s inception and the production headaches of getting the movie made. The second is more technical and features production manager Walter Coblenz, editor Richard Harris and former skier Joe Jay Jalbert.
Also included in the DVD liner notes is a persuasive essay by Variety chief film critic Todd MacCarthey, although he stretches a bit when he comparing it to Five Easy Pieces and The Graduate. The archival material includes a lengthy set of audio excerpts from a 1977 AFI seminar with Ritchie. The director, whose other notable films include The Bad News Bears, Smile and Fletch (a personal favorite of mine), is very knowledgeable in film history and engaging to listen to – however, it does require patience to get through these audio-only features. Rounding out the special features are a theatrical trailer and a 12-minute promotional featurette called How Fast? which highlights the skiing footage and features narration by Redford.
Skiing is among the under-explored sports in cinema. There have been a few forgettable sex comedies set on the slopes – Ski Patrol, Hot Dog… The Movie and Out Cold – and James Bond has slalomed his way out of danger more than once, but Downhill Racer is the only major film to take the sport seriously. I wonder if this has anything to do with skiing having a reputation as a leisure activity enjoyed by the privileged upper-middle class. The film does little to convince otherwise.
Training is acknowledged and the emphasis on strength is repeated, but the story does not spend time on rigorous practicing. It’s also hard not to notice that the skin color of all the skiers in the film matches the snow-covered mountains – a point slyly acknowledged in a scene where a broadcaster misidentifies Redford’s character with another skier of similar physicality. Of course the homogony is also a product of the film being made in 1969 – four years before non-profit organizations like the National Brotherhood of Skiers were formed to help bridge the racial divide. Which makes me wonder, if another sincere skiing movie were ever to materialize, would race play a larger role?