Paramount // 1971 // 109 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // May 24th, 2011
Steve McQueen takes you for a drive in the country. The country is France. The drive is at 200 MPH!
Gratuitous Porche-on-Ferrari action!
A member of Porche's racing team, Michael Delaney (Steve McQueen, Bullitt) is set to face his rival Erich Stahler (Siegfried Rauch, Patton) of the Ferrari team at the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race. As the two teams of Porche 911S's and Ferrari 512s's hurtle through the course, Delaney is haunted by the death of driver Piero Belgetti in an accident with Delaney the previous year. Belgetti's widow Lisa (Elga Andersen, Elevator to the Gallows) is attending the race, stirring the sports press into manufacture controversy even though Lisa holds no ill-will toward Delaney, and Delaney is singularly focused on winning the race for the Porche team.
I could say that they don't make movies like Le Mans anymore, but the truth is they never really made movies like Le Mans. It ought to be a terrible flick, but it powers along on two sources of fuel: Steve McQueen's unrivaled air of Hollywood tough-guy cool and heaps of close-to-the-bone footage from the 1970 24 Hours of Le Mans auto race. The first fuel source is responsible for the second. A major racing fan and semi-professional driver, McQueen was intent on making a movie about cars going fast. He didn't really give a crap about niceties like characters and story; he just wanted to capture the kinetic grit of competitive driving. In the mid-'60s, McQueen and director John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven) were working on a racing movie called Day of the Champion. The project was abandoned when John Frankenheimer beat them to the punch with Grand Prix.
Undeterred, McQueen pressed on, deciding to make a movie about the world's oldest and most renowned endurance race. He assembled a team of cameramen and technicians and elaborately shot the 1970 24 Hours of Le Mans from every imaginable angle. McQueen's team even entered their own car in the race, qualifying in the trials just so that they could get footage from car-mounted cameras. The results are extraordinary. The racing sequences (which comprise most of the movie's running time) are fast-paced, gritty, and dramatic. If McQueen's goal was to recreate racing with more realism and punch than Grand Prix, he certainly succeeded. Le Mans is a treasure mostly because of its gorgeous widescreen documentation of an actual car race.
The movie is almost without plot. Delaney's guilt over the death of another driver is reminiscent of the character dynamics in Grand Prix, a movie that itself isn't exactly remembered for its crackerjack plotting or character development. McQueen and director Lee Katzin (The Salzburg Connection) didn't have a complete screenplay or even a firm grasp on the story they were trying to tell when they set about shooting Le Mans. Katzin and his editors assembled the movie in the editing room, piecing together surprisingly coherent racing set pieces from the hours and hours of footage they'd captured during the race. Delaney's guilt, his tense relationship with Belgetti's widow, and the press' questioning of his motives in the aftermath of a second accident are handled in an elliptical manner than gives the story something of an art house flavor, though the real purpose of fracturing the narrative was probably to hide its wafer thinness. The movie's story exists primarily to allow Steve McQueen to do what he did best: furrow his brow in troubled contemplation while looking like the hippest badass in motion picture history. To Le Mans' credit, its race ends in a way that eschews Hollywood sports movie cliché, while demonstrating McQueen's intricate knowledge of team dynamics of racing. It also perfectly supports the framing of Delaney as an ace driver who behaves according to the dictates of his own code and not based on the expectations of race fans or the press.
The sheer joy of watching Le Mans is amped up considerably by the stupendous high definition transfer on this Blu-ray. The 1080p MPEG-4/AVC image offers sharp detail, superb depth, and perfect color reproduction. Print damage is minimal, as is any digital manipulation of the image. Audio is presented in a room-shaking DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround expansion of the original analog monaural track. Dialogue is a bit flat at times, but the sounds of the race are surprisingly full-bodied and dynamic given the limited source. Purists can rest assured that a single-channel DTS-HD Master Audio presentation of the original audio is also available, as well as uncompressed dubs in French, German, and Spanish. In fact, most of the space on Le Mans' dual-layered platter is consumed by superb audio options. There are also 10 optional subtitle tracks.
In addition to the feature, the disc offers a surprisingly substantive retrospective making-of documentary called Filming at Speed: The Making of the Movie Le Mans. The piece is hosted by McQueen's son, Chad, and includes contributions from Katzin. There's also a trailer for the movie.
While watching Le Mans I kept thinking that, based on its shaggy writing alone, I really shouldn't like it. But I couldn't help myself. It's not a check-your-brain at the door actioner, but a kind of meditation on racing, propelled by absolutely stunning racing footage. Le Mans is a mesmerizing viewing experience precisely because its unflinching approach to capturing action has never been common in moviemaking, and is flat-out dead in this day and age when it's cheaper and safer (but far less visually satisfying) to shoot virtual models rendered in digital space.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (English)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (French)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (German)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Rated G