Criterion | 1969 | 101 mins. | Rated PG
Though Robert Redford had some big screen success with films such as Inside Daisy Clover (1965), This Property Is Condemned (1966) (both with Natalie Wood), and 1967’s big screen version of Barefoot in the Park withttp://www.elasticpop.com/wp-admin/edit.phph Jane Fonda, his breakout year came in 1969 when the 33-year-old co-starred alongside Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Aside from Butch Cassidy, Redford also had two other important roles that year. Tell Them Willie Boy is Here, was the first in a long line of films that would find Redford involved in a project that explored social consciousness. The other, Downhill Racer, received a Criterion release in late 2009.
One of the best sports films ever made, Downhill Racer was a dream project for Redford. An avid skier, he sought to use the success of Barefoot in the Park as a means to convince Paramount to fund the project. Redford handpicked director Michael Ritchie, at that time a rookie film director but well respected for his television work and James Salter to pen the screenplay.
Seeking authenticity, Redford and Salter embedded themselves with the U.S. Olympic Ski Team in Grenoble, France in 1968 and the effort pays off not only in the exciting ski shots but in the details surrounding the film´s fictional Olympic ski team. From the internal bickering to the ski suppliers trying to convince the athletes to advertise their products, the film roots itself in reality.
Redford plays David Chappellet, a young racer from the mid-west who is brought in to replace a member of the U.S. team. Though he’s had some success in the states, he has yet to prove himself on the international scene. Coach Claire (Gene Hackman) takes an instant dislike to the cocky youngster, but he quickly respects him once his potential becomes clear. Like many high level athletes, David’s is a singular vision: to be the best in the world. The only other thing he finds mildly exciting is chasing women. Even that appears seems like it’s just for the sport of sex—he doesn’t really want to know them or be a part of their everyday lives. Needless to say, making friends isn’t at the top of his priority list.
All David wants to do is win an Olympic gold medal. To that end, Downhill Racer keeps its focus on that goal. All other subplots—his father’s indifference, a romance with Swiss ski manufacturer’s assistant, and fractious relationships with teammates—are all dealt with quickly. Only Chappellet and Coach Claire are truly developed as characters; everyone else is an afterthought. Dialogue isn’t particularly important here either; the focus for David and the film is the slopes. Period.
Downhill Racer is a sleek film that keeps its focus on the sport of skiing, and doesn’t toy with distractions. It’s a no frills project in which Redford and Hackman were perfect for their roles. Watch for a young Dabney Coleman as the assistant coach.
The film is presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. This progressive transfer is mediocre by Criterion standards, though we´re talking about a very high standard. There are a few occasions, especially in the opening ski scene, when damage from the source print is visible, and the transfer in general isn´t as crisp as we´ve come to expect from them. But it´s still a strong transfer overall that does justice to some of the exciting, action footage.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.
The DVD includes two new interviews recorded in 2009 for the Criterion Collection: an interview with Redford and screenwriter James Salter (33 min.) in which they discuss the genesis of the project, and a separate interview with production manager Walter Coblenz, Editor Richard Harris, and ski double/cameraman Joe Jay Albert.
The disc also includes an audio lecture Michael Ritchie gave at a seminar at the AFI in 1977.
“How Fast?” is a 12-minute promotional short for the film narrated by Redford. It includes clips from the film along with some facts about “America´s fastest growing sport” of skiing.
A Trailer wraps up the collection.
The liner notes feature an incisive essay by critic/filmmaker Todd McCarthy.
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