(The Criterion Collection)
Studio: The Criterion Collection
Cast: Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Camilla Sparv, Dabney Coleman
Director: Michael Ritchie
Release Date: December 4, 2009, 8:01 am
Rating: Not Rated for
Run Time: 01h:41m:45s
Movie Grade: A-
DVD Grade: B+
It's hard to think of a movie star with a more assured sense of his place in the popular imagination than Robert Redford, and he has been able to use his iconic status to participate in some landmark motion pictures, functioning not just as a leading man, but as a producer and director as well—he and Warren Beatty are in some way the last links to the studio star system, and surely it's no accident that both took the reins of their own careers early, nor that their Academy Awards have come for work behind the camera and not in front of it. Downhill Racer is striking in a number of respects—it's been called the greatest sports movie ever made, but even that sort of ghettoizes it, as it's a smart and canny portrayal of the nature of competition in any field, and retains a resonance both on and off the slopes.
The set-up couldn't be more straightforward: Redford plays Dave Chappellet, hotshot American skier, who joins the national team, fights for his spot on the Olympic roster, and is driven to pursue gold medal glory. Many things are notable about it, though, starting with director Michael Ritchie's fantastically kinetic filmmaking style—there's not an overwhelming amount of racing action, but what's here is shot with panache and flair, even in a relatively technologically primitive time by our digital standards providing coverage that would be worthy of anything we'll be seeing on NBC next year. There's a clear vérité influence on Ritchie's camera work as well, and the handheld footage, both in scenes of competition and in emotional sparring, have an urgency and immediacy to them that we don't associate with staid, classically made studio pictures.
We don't get a lot of backstory on Chappellet, but the brief sequence in which he returns home to Colorado to see his flinty, laconic father, and in which Dave plays the angry young man, is a keen portrayal of modestly dysfunctional family dynamics, and suggests how close emotionally Redford's character is to Jack Nicholson characters of the period, in movies like Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens. James Salter's honed, pared script goes in for a brief romantic interlude as well—perhaps inevitably, given that the film is made at the zenith of Redford's charisma—but the relationship between Chappellet and the fetching European ski equipment manufacturing rep is, for her at least, seemingly as much about commerce than matters of the heart. There's something almost existential about the character—he is who and what he is because he can go fast, faster than just about anyone.
Redford has spoken frequently (and does so again on this DVD) about his interest in the time in exploring the notion of winning in America, and you can see that this movie is very much of a piece with another picture he made with Ritchie a few years later, The Candidate. There are a couple of great supporting performances as well, especially from Gene Hackman as the intense coach of the U.S. Olympic team, challenged with organizing individual performers into a cohesive unit; and Dabney Coleman, playing it straight as Hackman's aide de camp. You can watch the movie and wonder at how much has changed—intercontinental telephony, the practice of sports medicine, training regimens for first-tier athletes—but that's sort of too easy an out; we're mighty forgiving of winners, and are likely to remain that way.
Criterion's transfer of this film, now forty years old, is excellent, and the extras package is relatively modest but quite informative. In new interviews, Redford and Salter (33m:45s) discuss the genesis of the project; and production manager Walter Coblenz, editor Richard Harris, and technical advisor Joe Jay Jalbert (29m:48s) go over its tehnical and journalistic aspects. Michael Ritchie passed away in 2001, but he's represented here by audio from a 1977 interview at the American Film Institute, talking about this and a number of his other films; also on the disc are an original trailer, and a 1969 making-of piece, How Fast? And the accompanying booklet features an informative essay by Criterion stalwart Todd McCarthy.
Jon Danziger December 4, 2009, 8:01 am