Judge Chris Claro is more of a downhill tumbler.
"Skiing isn't a team sport."
Few things are more suited to drama than competition. From athletics to politics to beauty pageants, contests—replete with underdogs, infighting, and dramatic finishes—are the stuff of dynamic cinema, and one filmmaker created much of his most indelibly incisive work examining the American fascination with competition.
Michael Ritchie's roaming, intrusive, verité camera always seemed to find itself in places where it didn't belong, to peer at things it probably shouldn't have seen. With its handheld restiveness, Ritchie's lens fought through smoke-filled rooms to see idealist Bill McKay fall prey to the image makers of The Candidate. It prowled a northern California used-car lot as proprietor Big Bob Freelander reveled in his status as judge of the Young American Miss pageant in Smile. And it watched as Little-Leaguer Tanner Boyle went off on his racist rants against his teammates in The Bad News Bears.
Though Ritchie's career slid rapidly—his post-glory days were littered with unseemly fodder like The Island and Cops and Robbersons—for about ten years he was the most trenchant observer of competition in American cinema. And it all began with Downhill Racer.
Facts of the Case
David Chappellet (Robert Redford, Lions for Lambs) joins the American ski team as a replacement for an injured skier as the team tours Europe. As adept as he is on the slopes, Chappellet is arrogant, impolitic, and narcissistic the minute he reaches the bottom. His antagonism and immaturity are tempered only somewhat by his ski skills and it falls to his coach (Gene Hackman, Unforgiven) to drum into Chappellet the fact that athleticism is only part of being a champion.
As he makes his way around the circuit, Chappellet realizes that his ability as a downhiller carries with it a measure of ancillary and unwanted attention, with success turning him into prey for marketers, a plaything for women, and the last, best hope for his team.
As Chappellet, Redford makes the most of both his matinee-idol looks and the bemused detachment that makes many of his characters such captivating ciphers. Despite the character's unrelenting self-regard, Redford makes the viewer feel that Chappellet's taciturn über-masculinity is a shield that obscures what is probably a heaping helping of vulnerability.
Nowhere is this more evident than when the film shifts stateside and in a series of stark scenes, offers insight into Chappellet's origins. In contrast to the loose cinema-verite style Ritchie employs to emphasize the bustle and rush of the European action, the quiet stillness of his camera in the skier's interactions with his father and hometown girlfriend is unadorned and effective. Still guarded and aloof in this sequence, Chappellet is less the arrogant hot dog on his home turf that he is overseas.
Hackman, not surprisingly, is outstanding as the coach who has to get the most out of his athletes even as he charms and schmoozes sponsors to bankroll the team. His dressing-down of Chappellet, in the wake of a juvenile stunt that gets a skier injured, is stellar, with Hackman showing the inner conflict of a coach who's disgusted by the skier's behavior, and furious at himself for knowing he needs Chappellet.
Ritchie's quasi-docu vibe gives the ski sequences a pulsing vitality that accentuates the danger of the sport and its solitary beauty. His restless camera works both on the slopes and in the nooks and crannies of the small European villages on the ski tour.
Aside from the packaging—which, considering the source, is a surprisingly standard, cheap-feeling keepcase—Criterion has done a standout job with Downhill Racer. The 1.85:1 transfer itself is beautiful, highlighted by the stunning contrast of the white snowscapes and the athletes hurtling down them and the mono soundtrack makes the most of skis cutting into the fresh powder.
The extras are in keeping with Criterion's level of enhancing the experience of the film. There are new interviews with Redford and screenwriter James Salter, each of whom offers a wealth of information about the circuitous route the film took to its completion. Also weighing with their recollections of the filming are production manager Walter Coblenz, editor Richard Harris, and Joe Jay Jalbert who was a technical advisor on the film. Criterion has also unearthed the audio of a 1977 interview with Michael Ritchie from the American Film Institute, as well as a twelve-minute featurette created as a promotion for the film in 1969. Finally, there's a handsome booklet containing photos from the film and an essay written by critic Todd McCarthy. All in all, an elegant package for an enduring film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
A word about the score of Downhill Racer, and that word is "Wha?" For a film that is as precise and detailed as this one, the score is oddly off-putting. Heavy on the muted brass and tonally similar to '70s cop shows, the music, composed by '70s cop show mainstay Kenyon Hopkins (Mannix), seems to have been ported from an old episode of Barnaby Jones. Fortunately, the music is just a small blemish on an otherwise excellent work.
Though Michael Ritchie's examinations of competition are first and foremost entertainments, they're also treatises on the nature of victory and the lengths Americans will go to win. As his initial foray into that territory, Downhill Racer represents Ritchie at the peak of his game. The director's expertise in tandem with a fearless performance from Redford makes Downhill Racer as relevant today as it was forty years ago.
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