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HTF DVD REVIEW: Downhill Racer



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#1 of 1 Matt Hough

Matt Hough

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Posted November 09 2009 - 01:57 PM

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Downhill Racer

Directed by Michael Ritchie

Studio: Criterion
Year: 1969
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 101 minutes
Rating: PG
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 English
Subtitles: SDH
MSRP: $ 29.95

Release Date: November 17, 2009
Review Date: November 9, 2009
 
 
The Film
3.5/5
 
The sport of skiing hasn’t been one that has been widely represented in movies, so Michael Ritchie’s Downhill Racer has that going for it from the outset. Being a sports-themed movie, however, there are still certain facets that you know are going to be present: the build-up to the big event with an occasional setback, the temptations that momentarily distract the protagonist from achieving his goals, and the climactic game with everything on the line. Downhill Racer has all of that, but it’s presented in such a spare style and with some exciting sports footage that it still manages to compel despite the inborn clichés and subsequent payoffs.
 
Reckless downhill skier David Chappellet (Robert Redford) is a speed demon on the slopes, but his wild, unconventional skiing style usually results in feast or famine, first place or complete wipeout. Chosen to be a member of the U.S. Men’s Ski Team, he spends three seasons working his way up the rankings to compete at the Winter Olympics. Other members of the team envy his success but resent his lack of team spirit. Coach Eugene Claire (Gene Hackman) echoes the others’ sentiments: his raw talent may not be enough to overcome his uncontrolled, hot dog style of competing. Along the way, David also becomes attracted to skiwear representative Carole Stahl (Camilla Sparv) whose company wants to use David for endorsements should he medal at the Olympics. But Carole is as free a spirit as David refusing to conform to contrite behavior or selfless treatment of a boy friend when other matters occupy her thoughts.
 
James Salter’s script doesn’t quite give us an antihero as our protagonist (not in the same way Kirk Douglas in Champion or Paul Newman in The Hustler could be thought of as self-centered and self-absorbed). He chafes at poor placement in early meets, but he does buckle down to get in better shape and follows the advice of his coach in terms of training (in the matter of extra curricular activities, not so much). His confidence in his abilities doesn’t spill over into contempt for the other teammates. So, Redford’s David garners a much stronger rooting interest from the viewer than he might otherwise have had. It’s also interesting to see him get as good as he gives in the relationship with the alluring but freewheeling Carole, one of the most mature male-female relationships seen in the movies up to that time (it might have been even more thoroughly developed had the producers not been going for a such a lean, spare motif for their storytelling). The Alpine skiing footage is quite extraordinary especially our first trip down the hill with Redford seen almost completely from his point of view in a breathless race to the finish. It would seem to have been a good idea to return us to that point of view for Redford’s climactic run for the gold medal, but we only get a few seconds of the same exhilarating fleetness that we experienced earlier. There’s an ace in the hole for that contest, however, as Redford and Hackman see the gold medal within their grasp and yet just as quickly in danger of being lost as the final German skier beats Redford’s time at the halfway mark. All of a sudden, the movie ratchets the tension up unbearably for a few excruciating seconds.
 
1969 was a big year for Robert Redford with his showcase role here and his superstar-making turn as the Sundance Kid in that little Fox movie he also made. In Downhill Racer, there are some excellent moments with his character facing off with his father and his final meeting with Carole. He certainly holds the screen effortlessly proving that superstardom was within his reach. Gene Hackman, himself on an upward trajectory toward the apex of stardom, does very well with a somewhat underwritten role as the coach who must be trainer, cheerleader, fund raiser, and more for the team he obviously loves. Camilla Sparv has a carefree manner that does well with her devil-may-care character of Carole. Jim McMullan as the American ski star whose place Redford usurps and Karl Michael Vogler as the German favorite for the gold medal get an effective moment or two to establish their characters.
 
 
Video Quality
3.5/5
 
The film’s 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio is replicated here in a transfer that is anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions. While there is some spotting and a few minor scratches, the major problem here is with inconsistent sharpness (the action footage was shot with 16mm cameras, but even some of the other footage is occasionally soft). Color can be well balanced and true, and flesh tones are usually quite accurate and lifelike. The film has been divided into 13 chapters.
 
 
Audio Quality
3/5
 
The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio track is a fairly pedestrian effort. There is some light hiss that is notable in several of the film’s much quieter scenes, and while dialogue is easily discernable and ambient effects never get in the way of the dialogue being heard, the overall sound is rather limited in fidelity. (The film was made on a very small budget.)
 
 
Special Features
3.5/5
 
A counterpoint interview between star Robert Redford and screenwriter James Salter mainly deals with the difficulties in persuading Paramount to mount the project at all and then the changes that took place from final draft of the script to the finished product which both men feel was not given a real chance at success by the releasing studio. This 2009 interview lasts 33 ¾ minutes and is in anamorphic widescreen.
 
Another counterpoint interview with production manager Walter Coblenz, editor Richard Harris, and technical adviser/Redford ski double Joe Jay Jalbert finds the three men each remembering the challenges of working on the project in winter weather but with the great assurances of a supportive team. This set of interviews runs 29 ¾ minutes in anamorphic widescreen.
 
Michael Ritchie’s 1977 appearance at an American Film Institute seminar about his work is captured in a 61-minute audio interview as he traces his career back to being a gofer for television networks in 1960, getting his first directing jobs in TV documentaries and then moving on to series television and then feature films.
 
The film’s theatrical trailer runs 2 ½ minutes in anamorphic widescreen.
 
“How Fast?” is a vintage 1969 featurette with Robert Redford narrating a 12 ½-minute piece on skiing in general and Downhill Racer in particular. Various clips from the movie are shown, but there are no interviews with any of the cast or crew. It’s presented in 4:3.
 
The enclosed 19-page booklet features a cast and crew list, some vivid color stills from the film, and an interesting essay on Michael Ritchie’s first feature film by critic Todd McCarthy.
 
 
In Conclusion
3.5/5 (not an average)
 
Downhill Racer seems more terse and a bit dramatically underdeveloped, and yet the racing scenes and the examination of a budding star on the rise (both the character in the film and the actor playing him) still ring true and make the film one very much worth seeing.
 
 
 
Matt Hough
Charlotte, NC
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