Downhill Racer (Blu-ray Review)14 Dec, 2015 By: Mike Clark
Stars Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Camilla Sparv.
There were about six or seven years during his big-screen beginnings when it looked as if Michael Ritchie were a real comer, and in that period, he directed two of the best sports movies of all-time: The Bad News Bears in 1976 and his obviously earlier feature debut: the best fictional movie about skiing — ever. Though Robert Redford’s baby from its inception, Downhill Racer was an extraordinarily collaborative effort, a point made clear during the informative interviews that constitute much of this Criterion upgrade’s bonus materials. And a Blu-ray upgrade it is (from the 2009 standard DVD) because the film now looks exactly as I recall it from 1969, when I managed to see it at least twice in theaters despite its having been buried (Redford’s word) by the studio.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here and Racer all came out within a two-month period in later-to-late 1969 (amazing), with Butch coming first. As it turned out, that wise-guy Western’s commercial power was so profound in terms of refining Redford’s screen persona into one of consummate blond coolness that any movie in which the actor played a heel probably didn’t have a chance (fabulous skiing vistas or not). Not too long post-Butch, Redford seemed to go all out protecting his screen image, and this isn’t necessarily meant as a knock; he was savvier about knowing what the public wanted him to be than just about anyone, and you had to admire his chops. Still, something may have been lost: He is really good here as someone just begging for a fall — on the literal slopes or otherwise.
We start with the physical tools. Cast as a young guy who comes out of Idaho Springs, Colo., to compete all through Europe as an Olympics hopeful, Redford has the looks of someone who ought to be comfortable carrying not just skis on his shoulders but the world as well. Yet he is, as it turns out, insecure, inarticulate and lousy with people — compensating for this by being driven and self-centered when he is, after all, part of a skiing team. The closest the movie comes to explaining the motivation for his behavior comes in the memorable interlude where he goes back to visit a decent-enough father back in Colorado whose main ambition seems to be repairing a fence. The old man has a point in regarding his son as a glorified bum, but we also sense that any young person with drive would simply have to bolt the town. This is, of course, ironic because the town is in the Rockies and thus a place where an uncountable number of people would love to live (where do I sign the lease?). But the irony is unstated because Ritchie and the script (by James Salter) never once hit the story points directly on the head. Today, just about any filmmaker would, which is one of so many reasons the movies have lost so much.
Gene Hackman, looking about as close to young as was likely possible for him, plays Redford’s harried but nice-guy coach — battling to submerge his dislike for a team member whose skills he nonetheless needs to attract financial backers and tandem career benefits. (As one of the bonus-section commentators notes, this is one of the many ways the movie hasn’t dated.) Still coming off his Bonnie and Clyde breakthrough and subsequent Oscar nomination, Hackman was industry-hot at the time — though still not the easiest to cast as a conventional lead. So here was a smooth casting fit, though Redford notes that his not quite co-star wasn’t certain about taking the role and had to be cajoled. Camilla Sparv is the jet-set looker who takes up with Redford for a while, though we know from the beginning that they’re not likely to settle down someday in John Denver country to enjoy Bronco Sundays. She gives Ritchie what he needed: a character who’s not a bad person but one with a definite sense of entitlement (Redford would like to secure that sense for himself, but would it make him any happier? — probably not).
Redford, Salter, editor Richard Harris (no, not that one), production manager Walter Coblenz and downhill skier Joe Jay Jalbert combine for two interview segments — the last having taken on an invaluable array of assignments: technical adviser, ski double (for multiple characters) and even cameraman responsible for the film’s still thrilling POV skiing shots. This was in keeping with Ritchie’s raw and somewhat off-the-cuff approach to filmmaking in those days; Redford, looking for a director he could afford, sampled a lot of TV directors and was taken with how Ritchie had permitted an evocative “mistake” to remain in the aired cut of one drama. The rest is history, and it paid off further when the two reteamed three years later for The Candidate (with an Oscar-winning Jeremy Larner script).
Ritchie’s best movies were about competition (see also The Bad News Bears and Smile), and it was after Smile that most of the gas went out of his career, though Fletch was at least popular and Diggstown a critical success. A nice bonus treat here (and especially for me) are lengthy audio excerpts from a 1977 interview Ritchie did up in the AFI Theater screening room (portions later featured in American Film magazine) for a small select group when I was in my second full year of AFIT programming during a nine-year run. That’s my late, great buddy Burt Shapiro on the tape asking Ritchie about Tatum O’Neal tossing what looks to be a bonafide curveball in Bears, an I’ll-brook-no-argument classic one would have expected to have a Blu-ray release by now were Paramount Home Entertainment not so contemptuous of its own library.