Friday, January 27, 2012

Racing Cars ~ Winning (1969)

I had set out to watch three classic race car movies and write about each. First was Grand Prix (1966) which was a delight to watch and even though it was long and the plot was rather weak, the three hours seemed to fly by for me. Le Mans (1971) was a horrible, plotless mess. It was fun to watch because of Steve McQueen and because I could easily pick out all the things I disliked and the documentary on the DVD proved to be what saved the whole film for me. Watching Winning (1969) was both a bore and a chore to watch. But this makes absolutely no sense to me. I love the 1960s, I love Paul Newman, and it's an added bonus that his wife Joanne Woodward co-stars as his love interest and I can legitimately hate Robert Wagner because he's the bad guy in the film. Plus there was racing! Winning should have been #winning in my book. But alas, it was not.

So what went wrong? Well, out of the three racing movies, this one had the most plot. Or at least it tried very hard to have a dramatic plot. Paul Newman stars racer Frank Capua who is racing the Indy 500. He falls for divorcee and single mother Elora (Joanne Woodward). They marry and Frank adopts Elora's teen son Charley (Richard Thomas). Elora and Charley, both head over heels in love and admiration for Frank, follow him from race to race. Elora proves to be trouble when she has an affair with rival racer Lou Erding (Robert Wagner). The plot is very choppy, Charley is annoying, to our dismay Newman drinks champagne out of a used popcorn box (ew), and there are numerous slow dramatic shots of pensive Newman alongside cheesy 1960s music. And I seriously wanted to smack Elora upside the head. I mean serious, you chose to cheat on Paul Newman with Robert Wagner? C'mon! The only thing I enjoyed was looking at Paul Newman throughout the movie. Good grief was that man good looking. Those eyes. THOSE EYES! And those chiseled features. He looked like a Roman god.

I wish I had something thoughtful to say about this film. My advice is that if you are looking for a good racing movie from the 1960s/70s era, then skip Le Mans (1971), skip Winning (1969) and watch Grand Prix (1966) instead. 

If you are interested in the early days of race car driving, I highly recommend two silent films. The First Auto (1927), which I've reviewed before, is an excellent film about the early history of cars. The story follows the clash between a father, set in his ways and who doesn't want to give up his horses, and his son who loves the excitement of the new technology. The son, played by Charles Emmett Mack, becomes a race car driving and is involved in a serious accident. Ironically, the actor died in a car accident before filming ended. Legendary race car driver Barney Oldfield makes an appearance in the film. The other film is Speedway (1929) starring William Haines  and Anita Page (I also did a post on this on but not quite a review). I don't remember too many details about the film however it's a fun picture with William Haines as a flamboyant racer who is more interested in chasing Anita Page than he is in taking racing seriously. The racing in both films is real and Speedway was shot on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as was Winning (1969) (and I've been there! woot!).

Have you watched Winning (1969)? If so, what did you think of it? What's your favorite racing movie?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Racing Cars ~ Le Mans (1971)

UPDATE: Stop! Before you leave a comment, read the entire post first. I have some opinions about the film not everyone will agree with but I was as fair as possible. Don't jump to conclusions. Thank you.

Le Mans (1971) is simply a terrible movie. It's more a quasi-documentary Steve McQueen/race car fest than it is an actual film. There is virtually no plot and if you are not a race car enthusiast or perhaps you do not know what Le Mans is you would be confused and bored by the seemingly endless race that lasts the entire film. For those of you who are not familiar with Le Mans, it's a 24 hour endurance race (relay with teams) which takes place every year in the Le Mans region of France. The whole movie centers around Michael Delaney (Steve McQueen) the champion racer who is participating in Le Mans in the shadow of the recent death of another racer Belgetti. Belgetti's widow Lisa (Elga Andersen) hangs around the race for some reason, looking forlorn and lusting after Delaney. It's hard to tell if this is really what is going on. Her husband just died and here she is, holding on to the lifestyle and social circle she's grown accustom to which she no longer has a connection. So is Delaney the replacement that will keep her in the race care lifestyle? Who knows. It's Steve McQueen driving a race car. Cool.

This film has very little dialogue. So little that the first 37 minutes of the film contain no dialogue spoken by any of the characters. All you hear is the occasional announcer. The remaining 69 minutes has some dialogue but not much.  So why watch this film? For the setting, the fancy shots of real race care driving and for Steve McQueen. McQueen loved sports and he loved racing. After his famous chase scenes in Bullitt (1968) and The Great Escape (1963), it seems inevitable that McQueen would do a movie completely devoted to race car driving.

The 1970s was the most varied and the most sparse decade in Steve McQueen's film career. Le Mans was produced by Solar Productions, McQueen's production company run by himself and business partner/friend Robert Relyea. By 1970, McQueen had become one of the world's most recognizable talents and a hot commodity for film studios. He also become one of the most difficult actors to work with. Le Mans really should have been Day of Champion (1966), produced by Warner Bros., starring Steve McQueen but it wasn't meant to be. Instead Grand Prix (1966)  starring James Garner was made and Day of the Champion was put on the back burner. Relyea eventually made a deal with CBS's Cinema Center Films to do 3 pictures with Solar Productions. It was a deal I'm sure CBS came to regret.

According to Steve McQueen biographer Marc Eliot, a $5 million dollar insurance policy was taken out on McQueen's behalf were something to happen to him during the filming of Le Mans. Although Solar Production and McQueen were virtually broke, McQueen, banking on his fame, managed to get a good deal out of making Le Mans. Initially that is. However, there were many problems. The director John Sturges, was sick of McQueen's antics on set and the constantly changing script (whatever there was of one) that he abandoned the picture. Le Mans was hemorrhaging money. Pretty much all of Sturges' scenes had to be tossed, CBS' Cinema Center pulled out, McQueen's salary was cut, people were fired and the filming just plain stopped. CBS's Cinema Center took it back on after a few weeks with a new director on board. Lee H. Katzin took over but was restricted heavily by McQueen's demands. Katzin stuck with the production to the bitter end, bless him. By the end of filming, the editors had a mess of a movie to piece together, McQueen ended his business and personal relationship with Relyea forever and McQueen's marriage with Neile was on life support. The film was a critical disaster, didn't make enough to cover it's costs and it quickly disappeared from theaters.

I do hope this movie is released on BluRay, because although it's a terrible film I really do think it should be restored. It's aesthetically and historically important given the footage of real racing and Steve McQueen's iconic status in the history of film. The quality of the DVD is as bad as the plot of the movie. If you are a courageous soul and do brave watching this film on DVD, you will be rewarding by a very nice Speed Channel documentary about Le Mans (1971) hosted by McQueen's son Chad McQueen. I'd say it's better than the actual film. (Update: Le Mans is available on Blu-Ray).

Monday, January 23, 2012

Racing Cars ~ Grand Prix (1966)

There is no film quite like Grand Prix (1966). It is the quintessential racing movie and while it's not the best film out there we are very lucky to have it. Grand Prix was made during a golden era of race car driving, when Formula 1 was glamorous, safety in driving wasn't all that important, race car drivers were rock stars and racing teams were owned by individuals or car companies not corporations looking for another advertising opportunity.

Grand Prix (1966) was directed by John Frankenheimer and stars James Garner as Pete Aron. The cast also includes Eva Marie Saint, Antonio Sabato, Yves Montand, Brian Bedford, Toshiro Mifune and Jessica Walter. Originally, the studio wanted Steve McQueen for the principal role of Pete Aron and Frankenheimer wanted an unknown. McQueen had signed up for the role, however, he did not see eye-to-eye with producer Ed Lewis and during their meeting together McQueen decided to bail out on the movie. James Garner, who expressed a lot of interest in the role, got to play Pete Aron in the end, not knowing that his rival (McQueen saw him more as a rival than vice versa) had wanted to play the part. McQueen would have been amazing in this film, considering he was the quintessential sporting bad boy of the 1960s. Alas, it wasn't meant to be. James Garner proved he could drive the race cars well and I believe he did a decent job as Pete Aron.

Grand Prix was a way to showcase the different Grand Prix races of Europe and to celebrate Formula 1. But with any movie, there has to be a plot. The story, which anchors the movie and makes it more than just a lot of glamorous shots of races, follows 4 race car drivers. There is the American Pete Aron who is in trouble with his sponsor Ferrari when he crashes into his fellow team racer British Scott Stodard (Brian Bedford), whose life seems to be already in shambles even more so now with a serious injury. Aron finds a new sponsor in Japanese business man Izo Yamura (Toshiro Mifune) and also has sort of a fling with Stodard's estranged wife Pat (Jessica Walter). That affair made absolutely no sense to me, I think they could have just cut it right out. The third driver is the French Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand) who is at the end of his career and although married, falls in love with magazine journalist Louise Frederickson (Eva Marie Saint). The last driver is fun-loving Italian Nino Barlini (Antonio Sabato) who thinks he his immortal, fears nothing and has a lazy fling with a race car groupie. The love affair between Sarti/Montand and Frederickson/Saint was the only one that made sense and had some heart to it. The others seemed forced and a lazy way to add sex into a sports film. However, when you compare this film with Le Mans (1971) which has no plot and Winning (1969) which has a boring plot, Grand Prix's plot looks amazing!

All of the principle drivers, except for Brian Bedford, did their own racing. They were trained at a legendary racing school in England and James Garner proved to be the most talented in the bunch. To provide as much realism as possible, Frankenheimer shot everything on location, used real drivers and had actors do the driving. Stunt doubles and dummies were used for the dangerous crash scenes. The film follows each of the major Grand Prix races in Monte Carlo, France, Belgium, England, Netherlands and Italy. Frankenheimer basically takes us on a trip through Europe! Cameras were mounted on cars for POV and over-the-shoulder shots. There are some shots that are so realistic looking you almost feel like you are in the driver's seat. Race sequences were choreographed by the legendary designer Saul Bass who also did the title sequence and the different montages (splits of the screen with multiple images or the multiplication of a single image across the screen). The title sequence takes place in Monte Carlo and includes shots of the different race cars and drivers getting reading for the first Grand Prix race. Attention to detail is key in this film. Frankenheimer and his crew knew that in order to get cooperation from Formula 1 drivers and companies like Ferrari (their headquarters is featured in the film, it was no small feat to get access to it), they needed to respect the sport, to show it as truthfully as possible and to place close attention to details. In the first race in Monte Carlo at the beginning of the film, every single sound you hear is as accurate as possible. They even did a special recording of two drivers, who were familiar with the Monte Carlo track, in which they did all the gear changes for the race to match what it would sound like. All the races in the film are on the real Grand Prix tracks.

In James Garner's memoir, he devotes a chapter to racing and how preparing for and film Grand Prix developed his love for racing cars. Because he did all his own driving in the film, he was at risk for injury and he had an accident on set.
"Toward the end of the shoot, I did a fire stunt with butane bottles that I ignited with a switch in the cockpit on the final turn. When I crossed the finish line going about 120, I slammed on the brakes and threw another switch to put out the flames. But something went wrong and the car erupted in a giant fireball. I scrambled out of the cockpit as the crew blasted me in the face with fire extinguishers and smothered me in an asbestos blanket. I wasn't hurt, but it shook me up. The producer wasn't happy that I'd done the stunt and neither was Lloyd's of London. They canceled my policy, and for the rest of the picture I drove without insurance."

When I say there is no film quite like Grand Prix, it's because it was lucky we got Grand Prix in the first place considering all the obstacles Frankenheimer had to face in making this 3 hour racing epic! If you enjoy sports films as I do, watch Grand Prix! It's all about the ambience. The glamour, the racing, the sights and sounds. Saul Bass' design, Maurice Jarre's score and Frankenheimer's direction make the film a beauty to behold. Just don't pay attention to the plot and you'll enjoy it!

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