Downhill Racer

Director: Michael Ritchie
Screenplay: James Salter (based on the novel by Oakley Hall)
Stars: Robert Redford (David Chappellet), Gene Hackman (Eugene Claire), Camilla Sparv (Carole Stahl), Joe Jay Jalbert (Tommy Erb), Tom J. Kirk (Stiles), Dabney Coleman (Mayo), Jim McMullan (Johnny Creech), Oren Stevens (Tony Kinsmith), Karl Michael Vogler (Machet), Rip McManus (Bruce Devore), Jerry Dexter (Ron Engel), Kenneth Kirk (D. K. Bryan)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1969
Country: U.S.
Downhill Racer Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Downhill RacerDownhill Racer could have only been made by a major studio in the 1960s, a period of significant recession in which European cinema was taking the world by storm, audiences were dominated by younger and more educated moviegoers, and the studios were finding themselves perpetually out of step with the culture to which they were trying to supply entertainment. As a result, by the end of the decade more and more studio heads were willing to entrust projects to young actors, producers, and directors who were largely untested, but seemed to have a better grasp on the slippery and ever-changing American zeitgeist.

This is the only imaginable explanation for why Paramount chief honcho Charles Bluhdorn entrusted even this relatively low-budgeted project to actor Robert Redford, who was certainly a rising star, but hardly a sure thing; producer Richard Gregson, a British agent who had never produced a film; screenwriter James Salter, who was well regarded as a novelist, but was just starting out in the movie business; and director Michael Ritchie, who would go on to notable Hollywood success with such comedies as The Candidate (1972), The Bad News Bears (1976), and Fletch (1985), but at the time was a television director who had never helmed a major motion picture. Yet, this unlikely team was given free reign to make the film their way, which meant that, even though on paper it could be lumped into the convenient category of “uplifting sports drama,” it was in fact a challenging deconstruction of all the underdog clichés associated with that genre.

First, the film is about downhill skiing, which at the time was a sport in which American athletes were not particularly competitive (at the time no American had won the downhill competition at the Olympics and wouldn’t until 1984) and was therefore not as familiar to audiences as it is now. Downhill Racer was, in fact, one of the first major American films about skiing as a competitive sport, which Ritchie uses to the film’s advantage by putting us directly into the experience with exhilarating first-person shots as skiers fly down the slopes at upwards of 80 miles per hour. It gives the racing sequences an immediacy and intensity that is contrasted sharply by the rest of the film’s subtle, often oblique narrative structure that tends to emphasize silence over dialogue and internal rumination over external exposition. In some ways, this seesaw of action and interiority makes for an uneven film, but it also underscores the fundamental gap between what champions do on their field of competition and who they are when they’re not in the limelight.

This is where the film is at its most challenging because it presents us with a central character who is not only remote and inarticulate, but is quite frankly self-centered and narrow-minded. Of course, a certain amount of egotism and selfishness is inherent to champions, as these attributes are what allow them to focus all their energies on the singularity of victory. Redford’s David Chappellet, who Salter describes as a “street dog who is more talented than all the thoroughbreds,” is such a man, and Redford’s performance makes no apologies for the character’s intensity and single-minded focus on his own glorification. When he joins the U.S. Ski Team after one of the team members is injured in a crash, he never pretends to be part of the team effort or to be interested in anything other than his own achievement. When asked by his aging father (Walter Stroud) why he does what he does, Chappellet’s immediate response is that he wants to be “famous” and a “champion,” to which the father says with hollow effectiveness, “World’s full of ’em.”

That may be true, but Chappellet is still driven to join those ranks, which often puts him at odds with his idealistic and team-minded coach, Eugene Claire (Gene Hackman), a decent man and good leader who nonetheless must ultimately concede to Chappellet’s ego in order to bring home the gold at the Olympics. The key to the film is that Redford’s performance as Chappellet is not grandstanding and attention-directing; rather, it is aloof and deeply focused within, as if his character cannot see anything (or care about anything) past his own skin. His disaffected relationship with his father is the most telling evidence, but we also see it in his relationships with women, which seem to satisfy an immediate desire for connection, but never amount to anything beyond the moment.

Because he is played by Robert Redford at the height of his golden-boy good looks, Chappellet has a certain level of charm, which sets up the film’s truly subversive agenda in constantly upending our desire to like him in subtle, provocative ways. One of the film’s most memorable moments is when Chappellet, upset that his European girlfriend (Camilla Sparv) has not shown him the attention he feels he deserves, cuts off her discussion of Christmas with her family by blaring the car horn. Unable to express his hurt feelings or disappointment, all he can do is override her, which ends not just the conversation, but also the relationship (the irony, of course, is that he can’t recognize that her dismissal of him is a reflection of his own cool distance from others). The fact that we have little sense of what effect this has on Chappellet personally is testament to his density and complexity.

Aesthetically, Downhill Racer is very much a product of its era, a kind of time capsule filled with all manner of late-’60s stylistic flourishes, most of which were borrowed from various European new waves and are wielded by Ritchie with a mixture of assurance and a first-timer’s willingness to try anything. Quick zooms, rack focus, documentary camerawork, crowded framings, strangely timed cuts, sudden lack of sound, slow motion, extreme shallow focus—nothing isn’t worth using at least once, which turns Downhill Racer into a fascinating compendium of all the visual devices with which Hollywood filmmakers were experimenting at the time. This also gives the film a somewhat dated quality, as some of the aesthetics feel forced and awkward, although others (particularly the crowded framings that entrap the characters among blurred foreground objects) feel just right, as does the film’s stunning location photography amid the snowy peaks in Switzerland, France, and Austria.

Downhill Racer didn’t make much of a splash during its initial release because Paramount ended up dumping it quickly with little marketing support, but over the years it has developed a cult following of both cineastes who respect its daring and ski junkies who recognize it as the first major effort to cement their passions into the annals of cinematic lore. It is not a great film, but it is an exceedingly interesting and provocative one that illustrates both the elasticity of Hollywood cinema at the end of the ’60s and the daring of young filmmakers with bright futures ahead of them.

Downhill Racer Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioEnglish Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
Subtitles English
  • Video interviews with Robert Redford and screenwriter James Salter
  • Video interviews with editor Richard Harris, production manager Walter Coblenz, and former technical advisor and cameraman Joe Jay Jalbert
  • Audio excerpts from a 1977 American Film Institute seminar with director Michael Ritchie
  • “How Fast?” promotional featurette
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Essay by critic Todd McCarthy
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateDecember 1, 2015

    Downhill Racer’s high-definition presentation appears to come from the same HD transfer that was used on Criterion’s 2009 DVD, except now it is presented in its full 1080p resolution. The transfer was taken from a 35mm fine-grain master positive print and digitally restored with the MTI DRS system, Pixel Farm’s PFClean System, and Digital Vision’s DVNR system. Although it is the same transfer, the full resolution on Blu-ray makes a strong difference in image quality, and fans of the film will definitely want to upgrade. The film certainly looks like a product of the late 1960s, with a slightly soft appearance in most scenes and the visible presence of grain, especially in the scenes dominated by whiteness (which are many). Of course, this is how the film should look, and the folks at Criterion should be applauded for maintaining its appearance. Dirt, debris, and damage have been minimized via digital restoration, although there are a few shots near the beginning that bear the traces of strange orange blotches that must be inherent to the film elements. The monaural soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm magnetic soundtrack and digitally restored. The film’s jazzy soundtrack and sharply etched skiing sound effects sound clear and crisp throughout.
    Criterion has also included all of the same supplements that appeared on the 2009 DVD. First there are two sets of video interviews, each running about half an hour in length. The first intercuts face time with star Robert Redford and screenwriter James Salter, who discuss the film’s fascinating origins (how close it came to being directed by Roman Polanski) and the unique nature of its production. In the second set of interviews, editor Richard Harris, production manager Walter Coblenz, and former downhill skier Joe Jay Jalbert, who served as a technical adviser, ski double, and cameraman, talk about the film’s production and its legacy. Director Michael Ritchie, who passed away in 2001, is present on the disc via excerpts from a 1977 American Film Institute seminar, in which he discusses his work up until then (which, arguably, were the best years of his career), including Downhill Racer. Finally, the disc includes the original theatrical trailer and “How Fast?,” a rare 12-minute promotional featurette narrated by Redford.

    Copyright ©2015 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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