Le Mans (Blu-ray)
Directed by Lee H. Katzin
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 1080p VC-1 codec Running Time: 108 minutes
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 English; 1.0 English, French, Spanish, others
Subtitles: SDH, French, German, others
Region: no designation
MSRP: $ 24.99
Release Date: May 24, 2011
Review Date: May 10, 2011
In the 1960s, three American film actors were notable participants in high speed racing: James Garner, Paul Newman, and Steve McQueen. As it happens, each of them got to star in a movie about racing: Grand Prix (detailing an entire season on the Grand Prix circuit) for Garner, Winning (taking place at the Indianapolis 500) for Newman, and Le Mans for McQueen. McQueen’s entry came last and is in many ways the best and certainly the most unique. The plot of the film has been cut to a bare minimum (gone are the lengthy melodramatic plots for the stars and co-stars in the other two films) in order to focus on the film’s raison d’etre: the twenty-four hours of Le Mans. Everything and everyone apart from that grueling race are considered excess baggage.
The 38th running of Le Mans has attracted its usual international field, but as usual the teams representing Porsche and Ferrari are considered the favorites. The lead Porsche team is led by Michael Delaney (Steve McQueen), returning to Le Mans a year after an especially bad accident during the race. The wife (Elga Andersen) of a driver killed in the same accident is also in attendance and seems especially drawn to Michael. His chief competition comes from Ferrari’s Erich Stahler (Siegfried Rauch). But races, just like life, never go quite as one might plan, and several developments during the race seem to put Michael’s car out of serious contention.
Though the film plays quite smoothly and is quite unusually constructed, there was constant turmoil behind the scenes of its making including the sacking of director John Sturges during production and his replacement by Lee H. Katzin who receives sole screen credit. Gone are all of the romantic and bombastic complications from previous racing films, the spare dialogue and limited characterizations all a result of no script being written prior to filming the race. Harry Kleiner receives screen credit as the scriptwriter, but the story could fit in a thimble, and the race’s results were pieced together from available footage (over a million feet of film) shot during the actual race and the scenes staged and shot afterwards with the actors. Whether it’s Sturges or Katzin who’s responsible for the superb, astonishing multi-tiered views of the race, it’s unclear, but watching Le Mans is akin to getting every possible best seat for the race: in the stands, in the car, both behind and in front of the car, above from a bird’s eye view, and below car level almost on the pavement. The points of view are constantly switched to maximize the race’s torturous and taxing ordeal. Sound is also used quite creatively in either amplifying the roar or silencing it to hear the adrenaline-fueled heartbeats of the drivers. Slow motion, replays of events from multiple viewpoints, and other camera tricks help make the perils of the sport painfully obvious.
On the story front, however, even the little blips of character we get are somewhat distracting. We don’t know exactly what the nature of the relationship between Michael and Lisa is, and their lack of real chemistry anyway makes it something of a moot point, but its very presence makes us either want to know more or wish it had been discarded altogether. Information about the relationships between the two-man teams participating in the race could have been strengthened (we know nothing about the head of the rival Porsche team headed by Christopher Waite’s Larry Wilson) though there does seem to be team spirit present and respect between the rival drivers though, again, nothing overt is revealed, just a nod of a head or a quiet word spoken in the pit areas to give us any information about these zealous, death-defying athletes. Consequently, performances don’t amount to much in terms of dramatic impact. McQueen did much of his own driving and looks completely in control behind the wheel. David Townsend as the owner of the Porsche racing group has a half dozen lines but seems committed to his teams and his desire for their victory.
The film has been presented in its Panavision aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and is offered in a 1080p transfer using the VC-1 codec. Some of the actual race footage isn’t quite as sharp and detailed as the material shot after the fact, but on the whole, the transfer looks excellent with a clear, clean, highly saturated color scheme. In fact, reds seem a bit too intense and sometimes bloom just a bit leading also to an occasionally rosy flesh tone. Overall, however, the flesh tones appear accurate and appealing. Details are exemplary: you can see every freckle, line, and wrinkle on McQueen’s face in close-up, and similar details in the fabrics of their racing suits and face protectors are equally well delineated. The film has been divided into 12 chapters.
The film offers English audio mixes in DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 and 7.1. I spent most of the viewing time with the 7.1 mix which has been expertly crafted to maximize pans across and through the soundstage as the cars zoom around the course. There is a starling lack of bass in much of the mix, however, with it only becoming prominent during a couple of fiery crashes and even then seemingly a bit less than a more modern soundtrack would offer. Michel Legrand’s music score seems more front-centered than one might expect, but it’s nevertheless effective when it occurs.
“Filming at Speed: The Making of the Movie Le Mans” was obviously a half-hour special filmed for a cable channel hosted by Steve McQueen’s son Chad many years after the making of the movie. Guest commentators include the director Lee H. Katzin along with the film’s producer, production coordinator, and a stunt driver all recalling their experiences on the film. Presented in 480i, this runs 23 ¾ minutes.
The film’s theatrical trailer, in somewhat faded color and looking nothing at all like the beautiful feature presentation on the disc, runs 3 ¾ minutes in 1080p.
3.5/5 (not an average)
Winning and Grand Prix laid on the melodramatic plotting a bit too ham-fistedly. Le Mans takes the opposite approach sacrificing involvement with the human side of the race in favor of presenting a more docudrama look at the arduous sport of high speed racing. All three films have their own merits, but Le Mans is clearly the odd man out of this threesome. Racing fans will likely enjoy its eccentric approach, and the Blu-ray is just about all one could wish in terms of video and audio.