Sunday, 15 November 2015

DOWNHILL RACER - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Competitive Ski Drama Hits Criterion Slopes

When American Cinema hit the slopes.
Downhill Racer (1969)
Dir. Michael Ritchie
Starring: Robert Redford, Gene Hackman,
Camilla Sparv, Dabney Coleman, Walter Stroud, Carole Carle

Review By Greg Klymkiw

David Chappellet (Robert Redford) is a winner. He's also a self-absorbed empty vessel with little regard for anything and anyone - other than being the best of the best. Being a member of the official American amateur skiing team places him higher than the mountains he conquers with speed and skill.

To be part of a team is one thing, to be a winner is something else altogether. He's not a team player in any sense of the word. Even when he tries to be, he's a bad actor. All he cares about is winning. And why not? Team or no team, when he's cascading down those slopes, he's completely unto himself.

How could it be likewise?

It's like death. On those blinding white slopes, you are truly alone.

Downhill Racer might be the best, or at least one of the best films about sports ever made. What takes it well beyond the realm of typical little-guy-beats-the-odds-to-be-the-best, is that the picture is bereft of a sentimental bone in its body - kind of like its main character, David Chappelet. Like those frosty alps, both the picture and its hero (or rather, antihero) are cool and crisp as cucumbers.

On the surface, the film's plot is deceptively simple. America ski coach Eugene Clair (Gene Hackman) adds Chappellet to the team he's preparing for an eventual Olympics run and we follow the action for a couple of preliminary seasons before the big banana. Chappellet, a major prima donna, inspires more than a few clashes twixt himself, his coach and fellow players, but no matter, he hot-dogs his way through the trials, losing some, but winning many, many more.

Along the way, he meets a beautiful executive (Camilla Sparv) from a ski manufacturer hoping to sponsor him and he eventually slaloms into her open arms. On a brief trip during off-season training, he visits his old hometown, visits his gruff unimpressed father and takes a brief tumble with an old flame. Eventually, the Olympics await. By this point, his gal has dumped him, his Dad has no use for him, he treats his old flame like a piece of crap and his immature rivalry with a fellow player leads to some incredibly dangerous shenanigans with serious consequences.

Chappellet finds himself alone, the way he seems to like it, facing the slopes and formidable rivals from other countries. Winning means everything to him and without that, he has nothing.

So the games begin.

Redford seriously developed Downhill Racer with Roman Polanski and much of what remains thematically in the picture is rooted in that collaboration, as well the contributions of acclaimed novelist James Salter's detailed and visual screenplay. Michael Ritchie wound up making his feature-length debut on the picture when Polanski took a powder to direct Rosemary's Baby. This might have been the best thing, since Ritchie dove into Salter's great script with a combination of adherence to its masterful detail and bringing his own unique comedically sardonic vision, used to such great effect, not only here, but also in his later work (The Candidate, Prime Cut, Smile).

The film places considerable emphasis, almost documentary-like, on all the tiny details of downhill racing, but also paints indelible portraits of the world itself: anonymous hotel rooms, antiseptic dining halls, the fakery of all the alpine beautiful people and almost vapid nature of the skiers themselves.

To this day, Downhill Racer is a major groundbreaker in how skiing is captured on film. Yes, there is a certain degree of excitement to how Ritchie covers the races with various wide shots and judicious closeups of his actors, but first and foremost, these sequences are nothing less than drawer-fillingly terrifying. The height and especially, the speed is what wrenches you this way and that with Ritchie choosing downhill POV shots. We see and experience what the skiers do.

And NONE of this is captured with steadicams and/or digital effects. It's the real thing, baby!

This approach is what gives us an important way into Chappellet's character. Let's face it, he's not a nice guy. Even when faced with a father who practically disowns him and a girlfriend who dumps his cold, self-satisfied ass, Redford as an actor is likeable enough that we regard these things with some empathy, but getting us there is like pulling teeth. This, of course, is what makes the picture so terrific. There's no room in this coldhearted world of competitive sports for any "Win just one for the Gipper" speeches or love-filled cries for "Adrian!" and especially no "if you build it they will come" nonsense.

Ritchie seldom focuses on the grace of skiing. It's sheer speed and danger. What we finally understand is why winning is everything to Chappellet. Winning is all he wants. And why not? As we speed down through those steep slopes from his perspective, we begin to understand how the only way to keep one's sanity is to place victory above all.

Winning is what keep the sportsman alive.


Downhill Racer is an astounding Blu-Ray/DVD release from the Criterion Collection. Sound and picture are as exciting as when one first saw the movie on 35mm and the extra features offer ample insight into the making of the film. Included on the disc are Interviews from 2009 with actor Robert Redford, screenwriter James Salter, editor Richard Harris, production manager Walter Coblenz, and former downhill skier Joe Jay Jalbert, who served as a technical adviser, ski double, and cameraman; Audio excerpts from a 1977 American Film Institute seminar with director Michael Ritchie; "How Fast?", a rare twelve-minute promotional feature from 1969; the film's trailer and an essay by film critic Todd McCarthy.