Review of The Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition. Downhill Racer d. Michael Ritchie (1969) Spine: #494 Blu-ray Release Date: December 1, 2015 Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc, but resolution has been reduced from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed. You may click on them to view the 900x506 image.
Had I known that James Salter penned the script for Michael Ritchie’s Downhill Racer, I would have picked up the Criterion Collection DVD a long time ago. Luckily for me, The Criterion Collection is releasing the film as a Blu-ray upgrade today, and I fortuned upon Salter’s work unknowingly — and it was fantastic. When I first started reading Salter in 2008, shortly after I started this blog, I was taken in by his abrupt, short sentences and his lack of transitions, which give the narratives a punchy structure rather than a conventional flow. I was thrilled to see this style translate wonderfully to the big screen in one of Salter’s few scripts, based on a 1962 Oakley Hall novel (that Salter probably never read).
Robert Redford is the man responsible for getting James Salter and first-time director Michael Ritchie on the Downhill Racer team. In his interview for the Criterion edition, Redford said he was planning to make a trilogy about winning, and he wanted to focus on a sport that doesn’t often feature in a sports film: downhill skiing. He also talks about Salter’s style and relates a metaphor Salter shared with him: if you hold a leaf up to the sun, you see the veins; in his writing he likes to remove all of the extra filler and focus only on the veins. We work through a plot, then, without a smooth escort from A to B; rather, we jump from A to B, and A and B may not even seem very important on the surface, just a glance between a couple of characters and then on to some more interaction. These are accentuated by Ritchie’s visceral body cam downhill racing scenes. Consequently, we get a film that is all about the veins and the blood pumping through them.
Redford, in his early thirties, would of course be the star, playing the talented but arrogant downhill skier David Chappellet, who is on a quest to join the U.S. Olympic team and win a gold medal. And what an interesting performance! Redford, who is often so charming and charismatic, works magic in Salter’s script, which not only gives Redford’s downhill skiing champion little to say but also makes his character essentially unable to connect and communicate with those around him.
Redford’s inability to connect is a problem for his coach, Eugene Claire, played by the rock solid Gene Hackman. However, while the coach recognizes that Chapellet is a potential liability to the team — no one really likes him — he also recognizes that Chappellet may be the only way to the gold medal he is also seeking. And, as assistant coach Mayo (Dabney Coleman) says to a teammate who is complaining that Chappellet is not a team player: “Well, it’s not exactly a team sport, is it?”
The principals are all willing to sacrifice a lot in order to get that elusive gold medal. But, again, this is played out not in big scenes that underline the cost of winning but in small scenes, where one character looks away rather than toward the other.
Downhill Racer was a fantastic discovery for me; I’m already looking forward to another viewing to further mine its riches that lie primarily under the surface.
The Criterion Disc: Back in 2009 when the original DVD was released (the film’s 40th anniversary), Criterion’s edition was nominated for a Satellite Award for Best DVD Extras. We get those same extras here, and they are indeed strong.
- My personal favorite is the 33:48-minute series of interviews with Redford and Salter, who was nearly 85 years old when he did his portion of the interview. They each talk about how the film came to be, which is an interesting story involving Roman Polanski (who was first slated to direct this film) and Rosemary’s Baby (in which Redford was to play the husband eventually played by John Cassavetes). Also interesting is their discussion on changes from Salter’s original script, including the film’s ending, which I won’t give away here other than to say I think it’s rather brilliant.
- These two interviews are followed up by another series of interviews with production manager Walter Coblenz, editor Richard Harris, and Joe Jay Jalbert who was responsible for the great camera work on the slopes. This runs 29:51 minutes.
- Next we have a 1:01:29-minute audio-only American Film Institute seminar put on by Ritchie in 1977. By this time, Ritchie had made another film with Redford, 1972’s The Candidate, and had gone on to make Prime Cut, Smile, and The Bad News Bears. Fletch was still a few years away. It was an active eight years between his debut and this seminar, in which he talks about his work both in film and, before that, television (with very little about this debut).
- Last, other than the trailer, we get a 12:25-minute featurette called How Fast?, which was initially used to promote the film. This is a nice supplement that shows some interesting behind-the-scenes footage, which I very much craved after watching the fantastic skiing scenes.
- With the book we get a fold-out insert featuring “Trailblazers,” an essay by critic Todd McCarthy that looks at the production and themes of the film.