Downhill Racer (1969/Criterion Collection DVD)
Sound: C+ Extras: B- Film: B-
Skiing has been around for thousands of years, remaining a
popular sport and recreation, but for whatever reason in film, the late 1960s
was a peak time to see it in narrative films.
Spy films (the James Bond classic On
Her Majesty’s Secret Service and The
Double Man) had them and more naturalistic documentaries in general were
being made, but one drama of note became a film fan favorite and is considered
one of the most realistic looks at the sport ever: Downhill Racer, now on DVD from The Criterion Collection.
Michael Ritchie was an able-bodied TV director of shows
that included action like Felony Squad,
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (reviewed
elsewhere on this site) and Run For Your
Life when he made this distinctive feature film debut. An on-the-rise Robert Redford plays a hotshot
skier with issues that does not know what to do with his life. He may be afraid of success and also does not
know how to find happiness. When he
joins up to be on a U.S. team that could win a Gold Metal if they work hard
enough, he gets along well enough with the team, but it’s coach (Gene Hackman
in a solid early performance) is not sure about him at all.
While that goes on, David (Redford) does his usual
womanizing and in between, we see some of the best skiing and ski footage still
in cinema history with a realism worthy of John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix (1966, reviewed elsewhere on
this site) and though I think the film can be awkward and uneven at times, more
of it holds up than expected versus my last screening of it decades ago.
The film is dead on about a situation that has become
worse in all sports and that is the cut-throat win-at-all-costs mentality that
has ruined them to some extent and Redford
chose wisely in making this film and how to make those points. It is a minor classic of sports cinema and
maybe more, but certainly one worthy of the Criterion treatment. Camilla Sparv, Dabney Coleman, Oren Stevens,
Karl Michael Vogler, Jim McMullan, Kathleen Crowley, Jerry Dexter, Joe Jay
Jalbert, Tom J. Kirk and Norman Pitlik also star.
The anamorphically enhanced 1.85 X 1 image is impressive
throughout despite some moments where the film quality is not great, but most of
the time, this has fine depth, good detail for the format and the color is
close to what you would expect from a film originally issued in three-strip,
dye-transfer Technicolor. Director of
Photography Brian Probyn (Badlands, The Mango Tree) delivers some of the
best work in his career and he was joined by eight additional cinematographers
and camera operators (including Arthur Wooster, later of the James Bond
franchise) making for some remarkable moments.
A fine grain positive print master was used for the transfer and the
results are impressive.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono is from a 35mm magnetic master
and the results are good overall, but some dialogue cannot be heard, while the
music by Kenyon Hopkins (12 Angry Men,
The Hustler) is one of the clearest
sonic elements. His score is good, but
some sections date the film in ways that work against it, while others work
Extras include a booklet inside the DVD case with tech
info, illustrations and Todd McCarthy essay, while the DVD has the 12-minutes
original How Fast? featurette, audio
excerpts from a 1977 American Film Institute seminar with Director Ritchie, the
original theatrical trailer and new interviews with Redford, Screenwriter James
Salter, Editor Richard Harris, Production Manager Walter Coblenz and co-star Jalbert
(who was a skier in real life as well), who additionally was a Technical
Advisor, Ski Double and one of those eight Cameraman.
- Nicholas Sheffo