Judge Patrick Rogers will now make a point to buckle up more often.
"When I see something really horrible, I put my foot down. Hard! Because I know that everyone else is lifting his."
A perfect slice of Old Hollywood melodrama that shows signs of New Hollywood with its shocking in-your-face attitude and penchant to experiment behind the camera. Grand Prix is in a class of its own, for better or worse.
Facts of the Case
Aging racer Pete Aron (James Garner, The Great Escape) is racing to stay relevant among a cast of gentleman, misfits and megalomaniacs. His last Grand Prix race ended in disaster as his own ego and desire landed his teammate in critical condition and the injured man's wife in his arms. Frenchman Jean-Pierre Sarti, played by Yves Montand (Le Cercle Rouge), is consumed by regret for a life spent chasing trophies, while Nino Barlini (Antonio Sabato, Barbarella) is the upstart Italian racer with enough skill and ego to eclipse them all. This eclectic cast of heroes and villains—along with their girlfriends, wives and mistresses—collide on the streets of Monaco in a grandiose display of testosterone, melodrama and action that only Hollywood could supply.
Grand Prix is a film that should not work. It combines testosterone fueled racing sequences with long drawn out segments of melodrama and upper class sensibilities. And, at just shy of 3 hours, the film tests the viewer's limit to stay focused on languid cross cutting character stories that all border on being cliché and generic. These main characters and their women are all archetypes, characters that we've seen a thousand times before, and we can predict their actions before they even do.
There's the eager hothead who constantly finds himself between a rock and a hard place because of his callousness. We have the injured man nursing himself back to health to try and regain his former glory. And to tie it all up in a nice little bow, there's the king at the top who has grown weary of the sport and the competitors constantly nipping at his heels. These characters, and especially the melodramatic surroundings that they find themselves in, are hallmarks of Old Hollywood melodrama and were stale tropes even back in 1966 when Grand Prix came out, let alone now. However, what saves the film is John Frankenheimer's hard nosed directing that shows strong shades of the type of style that we would see a year later with Bonnie and Clyde and also in 1969 with Midnight Cowboy, two films that helped usher in the New Hollywood era.
Frankenheimer's film is marked by a desire to shatter our expectations of what was capable with a camera, at least for sheltered American viewers. This is achieved by using cross cuts and split screen to pummel the viewer with several concurrent plotlines and actions. Secondly, and most memorable, is Frankenheimer's penchant to strap his camera to the front of rocketing Formula 1 cars and not cut until the audience is about to explode with exhilaration. The revving of ear shattering engines, the precise gearshifts and the screech of rubber truly are the score to the film.
It's strange in this sense to combine such visceral racing scenes and a formalist, avant-garde camera style with a European sensibility with an overblown, clichéd Hollywood melodrama that overstays its welcome by a good 45 minutes. And yet it worked for me, it truly did. Grand Prix really is like Old and New Hollywood colliding at 200 mph to create a twisted framework of groundbreaking technique and conventional narrative. It's a slice of pure entertainment that is both too ahead of its time and too stuck in the past.
The most astonishing thing about this Blu-ray is the gorgeous transfer struck from what the case says are "original 65mm elements." While the image is not consistently breathtaking, much of it is. The film retains that old school film grain that you just can't top. Grand Prix, having been originally filmed on 70mm Super Panavision film stock and in Metrocolor, is the type of film that lends itself beautifully to the Blu-ray format and this transfer captures the viewing experience that used to only be achievable on the big screen. This is a very wide style of widescreen, like if John Carpenter's camera-style was put on a rack and stretched to the breaking point. There's an amazing clarity and vividness especially in the race scenes, though some of the languid scenes of melodrama have a softness to them. Whether this was an artistic choice or not is unknown. On the whole though, it's a transfer that will floor you.
The DTS-HD Master 5.1 track is where this release truly shines. The sounds of twisting metal, rushing engines and screeching tires are reproduced with such an astounding level of clarity and fidelity on this track. And this mix itself expertly melds the sounds together to create a wonderful cacophony instead of a muddled mess of noise. This is truly one of the best Blu-ray audio tracks that I've ever heard, though it won't satiate you bass junkies out there.
On this disc we have five featurettes and a theatrical trailer. The featurettes themselves round out the whole viewing experience by offering us both a look behind the scenes of the film and the making of the Blu-ray and also a fleshing out of the real world Grand Prix and those who would choose to defy death by racing in it. While it's not an overloaded disc, there's not much more you could really ask for unless we dug up Frankenheimer and put him in front of a mic for a commentary.
While Grand Prix is too long (by a good 45 minutes) and has enough melodrama to choke an old lady, Frankenheimer injects his film with a lethal dose of testosterone, grit, and ingenuity, making it a memorable viewing experience. The high quality of this Blu-ray release further solidifies this as a film that should at least be rented.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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