Downhill Racer Criterion Collection Blu-ray review
The skier stands at the top of the hill, skis strapped to his feet and goggles on his face. From a certain angle, there seems to be no bottom. But he knows there is, and he wants to get there in the fastest time possible.
David Chappellet (Robert Redford, who starred in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID and TELL THEM WILLIE BOY IS HERE that same year) is an expert in his sport, fully aware of his skill. He is part of the U.S. ski team, although he’s not much for being on a team. Instead, he is singular, keener on helping his own status than those around him. Others around him might see him as arrogant, but Chappellet knows he’s earned the right to turn down a race if he’s seeded too low.
Chappellet sees no issue with one day soon competing in the Olympics for the U.S. team, headed by coach Eugene Claire (Gene Hackman, who broke out two years prior with his turn in Arthur Penn’s BONNIE & CLYDE), who is looking for the right replacement after a star athlete was injured.
Some might imagine how the story will play out, since there are so many sports movies that try to show the heroics of the men and women on the field, ice, etc. These movies tend to be littered with clichés and ham-fisted pep talks. There is none of that in DOWNHILL RACER (although some might call out the ending), and instead the film focuses on character and what drives a competitor to be the way they are. (This isn’t to shortchange the action sequences, which are some of the best of its kind, with gorgeous Swiss, Austrian and French locales, captured by cinematographer Brian Probyn, and at times filmed with the camera strapped to the skier’s helmet.)
One of the more compelling elements of DOWNHILL RACER is the relationship between athlete and coach, the likes of which seem so rarely explored, with the coach not merely encouraging, but knowing that lines like “You just weren’t good enough” will go much farther. This development is far more fascinating and necessary than the romance between Chappellet and Carol (Camilla Sparv, who was married to Paramount head Robert Evans years prior), which is perhaps expected but still unwelcome.
DOWNHILL RACER is the debut of director Michael Ritchie (although it was previously discussed to be directed by Roman Polanski), who would go on to helm 1972’s THE CANDIDATE (also headlined by Redford), 1976’s THE BAD NEWS BEARS and 1986’s WILDCATS, among others. Working with a screenplay by novelist James Salter (A Sport and a Pastime), who earned a Writers Guild of America Award nomination (he lost to William Goldman for BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID), Ritchie constructs a story that feels more real than most other sports movies. There is just more at stake here, like one poorly timed race wouldn’t just mean the end of the season for Chappellet, but also his being.
Video: 1.85:1 in 1080p with MPEG-4 AVC codec. “This high-definition transfer was created on a Spirit Datacine from a 35mm fine-grain master positive print. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS and Pixel Farm’s PFClean, while Digital Vision’s Phoenix was used for small dirt, grain, and noise management. The original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35mm magnetic soundtrack. Clicks, thumps, hiss, hum, and crackle were manually removed using Pro Tools HD and iZotope RX 4.”
Details and colors are strong throughout, while the European locales look as gorgeous as they should and the action-oriented sequences are often quite stunning (especially considering they were shot on 16mm).
Audio: English Mono. Dialogue is clean and the skiing sequences have an added element of excitement.
Redford and Salter (33:48): Star Robert Redford and novelist/screenwriter James Salter sit down separately to discuss DOWNHILL RACER’s origins, how Salter came onboard, the production and more.
Coblenz, Harris, and Jalbert (29:51): Production manager Walter Coblenz, editor Richard Harris and technical adviser/ski double/cameraman Joe Jay Jalbert reflect on the making of DOWNHILL RACER, noting its realistic elements, locations and more.
Michael Ritchie at AFI (1:01:29): Collected here are eight audio excerpts from a 1977 seminar held at the American Film Institute. They are: “Writers and directors,” “DOWNHILL RACER,” “TV career,” “Stars and SMILE,” “Commercial instincts,” “Use of reality,” “Other directors” and “Casting.”
How Fast? (12:25): This 1969 promotional piece features on-set footage from the production of DOWNHILL RACER.
Also included with this Criterion Collection release is an essay by critic Todd McCarthy.