Review by Gordon Justesen
Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Camilla Sparv
Director: Michael Ritchie
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Features: See Review
Length: 102 Minutes
Release Date: December 1, 2015
“You ski fast…but you’re reckless.”
Just about every sport in existence had been covered in film by 1969…except that of competitive skiing. And since 1969’s Downhill Racer, no other film has covered it better. In terms of authenticity towards the sport, you aren’t going to do any better than the staggering work captured in this otherwise formulaic sports drama.
Noted for being the directorial debut of Michael Ritchie (The Candidate, Fletch), the film plays out in near documentary fashion. That, of course, lends a lot to the authentic feel throughout the film. And the individual ski sequences are accomplished in such a knockout way that they define words, indicating that this approach was ahead of its time in 1969.
The film opens with the injury of a member of the US ski team. This leads the team coach, Eugene Claire (Gene Hackman), to call out for those eager to be a replacement. He finds such a candidate in David Chappellet (Robert Redford), a talented but mostly unknown skier from Idaho Springs.
He does prove to be quite the arrogant type, thus resulting in distancing himself from the rest of the team. He’s also a major loose cannon, which doesn’t sit too well with the coach. But in spite of his flaws, David is the sort who’s destined to win the gold for America.
The sheer visceral filmmaking on display in Downhill Racer is quite simply what makes it an enthralling experience. Of course, the film would lose points if not for the dynamic presence of actors such as Redford and Hackman, but the even they are overshadowed by the remarkable cinematography of the snow covered mountain landscapes and the execution of the skiing sequences. They are done in such a way that you just sit and wonder how the hell the guy holding the camera wasn’t killed in the process.
Downhill Racer is an accomplishment of technical skill over substance. Again, it is formulaic in the story department, but it’s clear that the film’s first priority is to put the viewer in the feet and mind set of the competitor risking life and limb to speed down a mountain to bring home the gold. And on that basis, the film is a sheer masterwork.
Despite some noticeable print damage in early scenes, this Blu-ray presentation is an otherwise home run from Criterion. The production values really shine on the 1080p, especially the white of the snow covered European landscapes. The technical skill displayed in the ski racing scenes is captured absolutely wonderfully as well. Even several nighttime sequences are presented in tremendous form!
The mono mix serves this late 60s release quite well. Again, the ski sequences take center stage here as you get an idea of the precise speed of the sport through this well handled sound mix. Dialogue delivery is handled terrifically well, in addition.
All the extras from Criterion’s 2009 DVD release have been included for this Blu-ray release. We get video interviews with Robert Redford, screenwriter James Salter, film editor Richard Harris, production manager Walter Coblenz, and former downhill skier Joe Jay Jalbert. There’s also audio excerpts from a 1977 American Film Institute seminar with director Michael Ritchie, as well as “How Fast?”, a rare and most interesting 12-minute promotional featurette . Lastly, there’s a Theatrical Trailer and an insert booklet featuring an essay by critic Todd McCarthy.
Downhill Racer, for my money, remains the best film about the sport of skiing to date. Even if the story between the ski sequences isn’t as enthralling, what is captured here regarding the sport itself still has the ability to make one’s jaw drop.