***/**** Image A- Sound B Extras B-
starring James Garner, Eva Marie Saint, Yves Montand, Toshiro Mifune
screenplay by Robert Alan Arthur
directed by John Frankenheimer
****/**** Image A Sound A- Extras D
starring Steve McQueen, Siegfried Rauch, Elga Andersen, Ronald Leigh-Hunt
screenplay by Harry Kleiner
directed by Lee H. Katzin
**/**** Image A- Sound C+ Extras A+
starring William Smith, Claudia Jennings, John Saxon, Don Francks
screenplay by Phil Savath, Courtney Smith and David Cronenberg
directed by David Cronenberg
by Walter Chaw Of the major films produced during John Frankenheimer's fulsome period (that stretch between The Young Savages and Seconds that saw him as a giant among giants, tearing off masterpieces major (The Train, The Manchurian Candidate) and minor (The Birdman of Alcatraz, Seven Days in May)), Grand Prix has always stuck out for me as a swing-and-a-miss. There's no disputing either its technical innovation, which saw cameras mounted to Formula One cars for the first time, or Frankenheimer's fire, which seemed to single-handedly will the production to the finish line despite prickly subjects, competition from a Steve McQueen Formula One project in simultaneous development, and insurance companies pulling out when Frankenheimer insisted on his stars doing much of their own driving. But only upon my most recent revisit, occasioned by the picture's Blu-ray release, did it become clear to me the relationship that Grand Prix has with the same year's Seconds, far and away Frankenheimer's best film: an element of the biomechanical--of Frankenstein, sure, but Icarus1, too, where man metastasizes himself with machines of his own creation to achieve the forbidden, whether it be beauty, or endurance, or speed...or immortality. It's therefore a film that may get at the heart of auto racing's allure for not only its participants but also its true believers. Elements of Harlan Ellison's "Ernest and the Machine God"--this idea that while anything's possible through technology, the debt of that ambition is paid out in blood.
Still, there's something off about Grand Prix in its attempts, no matter how expertly paralleled, to examine the toll of the racing circuit on the women it leaves behind. There's certainly something to be mined here in the image of the naturally procreative female at quiet war with Technology (i.e., the procreative masculine energy at the heart of motor sport), but Frankenheimer does it with such machined efficiency that it loses its effectiveness. The irony of how the film doesn't work, in other words, is in how devoted Frankenheimer is to presenting the human heart as the meat corollary to all those millions of dollars in shining chrome, rubber capillaries coursing with oil and stinking, combusting, infernal gasoline. It's an interesting idea; I don't think it flies. Consider Jessica Walter as Pat, long-suffering wife of veteran British driver Scott (Brian Bedford)--how she leaves him after a debilitating accident Scott blames on Yankee rival Pete (James Garner), and how she falls into Pete's arms to try to soothe her fear for Scott as he mounts a comeback. Not as complex as it seems, Pat's vacillation is set against sports writer Louise's (Eva Marie Saint) sober infatuation with veteran French racer Sarti (Yves Montand) and the puppy love the astoundingly beautiful Lisa (Françoise Hardy) feels for Italian lothario Nino (Antonio Sabato). What begins as reductive thus becomes insulting as each supplementary relationship plays its way into cliché, with Pete and Pat alone given the dignity of ambiguity. It's a calculation, a calliper-precise soup of human relationships rising and falling under duress, and Frankenheimer, if he's making a point, should have made the opposite one.
But there's a scene where Scott, confronting his wayward spouse, says in the heat of it that with his cars, at least you can "strip the skin off to expose the insides"--that in doing this violence, you can diagnose exactly what's wrong. More, he might "wish you could do that with people." It's a line more at home in a David Cronenberg film, you'll agree, but one that strikes at the core of why it is that when anyone talks about Grand Prix, they usually talk about it in terms of the things Frankenheimer rigged and invented, so that its racing scenes would seem organic, intimate, biological. They talk of how he brought on graphic designer Saul Bass to multiply the screen, introduce wipes, play with the editing, locate the pulse. It's a film about human evolution as told through the product of its hands, and the psychology of the four central racecar drivers (Pete, Scott, Nino, Sarti) is reflected in the way they fondle a gear shift and handle a curve at several gravities. No wonder Frankenheimer insisted the actors take on tutors and attend driving schools (with only Bedford crapping out and unable to do his own driving) for months before the start of photography--and what a relief it must have been that Garner proved himself an apt pupil, a, what's the word, "natural."
The movie, running close to three full hours, documents a season on the Formula One tour split across several races, each filmed in a signature style and reflecting some sea change in one or more of our heroes. The women are counterpoint, the soft, sweet-smelling interludes between the time spent on the asphalt and tarmac of Old Europe's new gladiatorial contests. Grand Prix, for racing enthusiasts, is a time capsule of the period right before safety concerns and massive corporate interest took much of the beauty and freedom from the sport. It's also a repository for, let's face it, what remains the finest practical racing footage ever, some of it shot with shockingly little regard for the safety of cast and crew. Frankenheimer in later interviews was always quick to remind that he would call out on loudspeaker daily that should any of the performers ever feel nervous about what they were doing, it was only a movie and they should draw down--but that doesn't explain a moment captured and incorporated into the film where Pete's car catches fire and Garner-as-Pete exits just as a great burst of fire erupts in his face, throwing him backwards against the edge of the track. This is "careful Haskell, it's real" two years before Medium Cool blurred the lines for good.
Grand Prix is a fascinating failure. It's a product of extreme hubris in the pursuit of a technological godhead that's about the very same things, and what's often pegged as stilted and artificial in its "human" interactions I'd argue are calculated to be that way. If it's a better conversation than a motion picture, it's a great conversation. One worth continuing, as it happens, with Steve McQueen's taciturn, sober Le Mans five years later--the culmination of McQueen's career-long desire to be in a movie as introverted and machine-obsessed as he. To that end, he hired a patsy director (Lee H. Katzin), sank in a considerable few of his own bills, and jetted off to participate in the titular annual 24-hour endurance test. Once run by individuals driving the full day away, safety concerns led to the addition of a second driver, then a third, now a fourth--but, like Grand Prix, Le Mans captures the sport in a moment of transition. It's a full 35 minutes until the first line of dialogue, the rest of which could probably fit on ten pages, double-spaced; the bulk of Le Mans rests on the expressiveness of McQueen at this stage of his stardom, learning since The Magnificent Seven the importance of looking instead of upstaging. He vanishes into the film like Faulkner's Bear2 does into its wilderness, and all around him in place of the verdant summer green of Faulkner's lost summers are McQueen's gathering crowds and thundering engines. A flashback that could be a dream, introduced by a series of impressionistic dots that Paul Thomas Anderson will use in his solipsistic romantic reverie Punch-Drunk Love, the wordless prologue finds McQueen's Michael remembering an accident--remembering, not suffering, not regretting-that claimed the life of one of his peers.
Michael sits at some place in the middle of Le Mans with Lisa (gorgeous Elga Anderson) because there's nowhere else to sit, and he tells her that racing to him is "life" and that everything else that happens is just the waiting before and the waiting after. It's a theme, then, an existential rumination about what it is that constitutes existence; the absolute stillness at the centre of all that smoke and cacophony is as close to peace as some men can attain. Michael talks to Lisa, we gather, because Lisa had a relationship with the man who died in the crash Michael remembers (and perhaps participated in), but we don't know what kind of relationship. We search her finger for telltale rings--we might even rewind the film to do so, because Le Mans is a movie that keeps its secrets very close to its vest and doesn't necessarily invite much investigation. Michael is closed. He sees things, then disappears into his car and drives, and all the while the film becomes obsessed by the joining of male and female automobile parts in the pits: the swapping of bits, the stroking of rods, the cry of pistons as something exactly as mysterious and laden as e.e. cummings's sly ode to auto-philia, "she being brand." It's spectatorship as personal gratification.
I keep bringing up literature and poetry in regards to Le Mans because it feels like memoir to me. It's not inconsequently the only time I've felt a real connection to Steve McQueen, as it's the only time he's felt 'perforated' to me, no longer spitting out lines with weariness (wariness?) and bile, but doing what we suspect he's always wanted to do and just not saying much.3 His entire persona is, after all, a sounding board for his fatigue and contempt.4 Le Mans uses the sounds of automobiles as punctuation and soundtrack to the seasons of Michael's heart, and at the end it suggests that it isn't winning that drives Michael, but notions of chivalry, honour, and friendship, which emerge without precedent in him to deliver others to some promised land while he rides on ahead. Maybe it's a sense of destiny--maybe the platitude about the journey being the goal holds real meaning for someone more at home in a metal cocoon engineered to throw him against the past when he wouldn't go there himself. A little romance there in the things we make that tell us where we came from in their making. A new way of thinking through Back to the Future, if nothing else--the product of the hand the truest expression of the undertows of the heart.
Canadian auteur David Cronenberg takes a tax-shelter swing at these topics with his drive-in, funny car special Fast Company. But while Grand Prix has that great line about vivisection and Le Mans has a brilliant scene where paramedics set out their instruments carefully in preparation for the inevitable mangling that comes with extended driving at high speeds, Fast Company disappoints as Cronenberg, who should be the guy doing these things (and with Crash, he will--in such grisly, profane detail that there emerges the classic "be careful what you wish for" scenario), declines to delve deeply into the physical relationship of men to their machines, though he does provide a couple of creepy, insectile moments early on as the fibreglass chassis of the cars lift like praying mantises. It's a basic exploitation quickie that fans of Cronenberg will pore over with great curiosity, mining it for nuggets (when tits appear, it's a pity that I could only think of Blondie putting a cigarette out on one of them) in veins that will lead to his later masterpieces (beginning with The Brood--the film, as it happens, he would make immediately following this one). Perhaps it's enough that this is the first picture he had a score composed for, and the one on which he met long-time collaborators Mark Irwin (cinematographer), Carol Spier (production designer), and Ron Sanders (editor).
The plot is hardly worth talking about. Lucky Man Johnson (William Smith, solid) battles the insincerity of his corporate masters (represented by John Saxon), who would have him shill their sub-par motor oil instead of engaging in the good times of drag racing and chasing tail. There's a rival driver (Cedric Smith) who isn't so much evil as merely driving for the other team, and a few scenes of racing that prove to be pretty innovative the first time through, as Cronenberg has the distinction of being the first director to mount a camera inside a funny car. He related that to me in a retrospective interview, along with the telling anecdote that he often heard the drivers refer to their mechanic's bays as operating theatres, which they kept "surgically clean" (and there's a scene where dirty hands are treated with the same horror as if there were covered with blood rather than oil). Unfortunately, the latter doesn't make it into the film. What does, however, is a T-shirt that Cronenberg liked with the invitation to "Suck My Pipes" alongside a picture of an exhaust system--puerile, it's true, but impossible not to linger on when one considers that it's fucking David Cronenberg liking the sentiment.
Peopled with immensely likable B-movie talent, sporting some gratuitous nudity and a kaboodle of drag footage that culminates, unsurprisingly, in a grudge match where our hero now rides for a rival corporation (see also: Pete's defection to a Honda-inspired Japanese group led by a wonderfully virile Toshiro Mifune in Grand Prix), Fast Company ultimately doesn't provide much in the way of thrills or innovation. For an auteur study of one of our most interesting and vital Western filmmakers, however, it's as invaluable as it is a Rosetta Stone for the allure of the sport in the first place--for why it is that we build things to augment our ambitions and how those creatures, as often as they aggrandize us, immolate us. Fast Company isn't a film that stands by itself as well as appreciators of camp and low culture would have you believe, though as a smaller member of a patchwork whole (what Cronenberg likes to refer to as a cell at the mercy of the larger organism), it offers some measure of resonance and illumination.
All three titles arrive on Blu-ray within shouting distance of one another. Grand Prix sports a 2.20:1, 1080p transfer sourced directly from the original Cinerama negatives. Though it starts out a bit bleary and dull, it quickly levels out post-credits into a near-showcase quality experience. This is an organic-looking image, as light on grain and naturally sharp as you would expect something shot in 65mm to be, and the optical debris that occasionally intrudes is by no means overbearing. Less consistently gratifying, the attendant 5.1 DTS-HD 5.1 MA track nevertheless boasts atmospherics with logic and volume, and, probably most crucially for a film like this, the bass rumbles like the proverbial motherfucker. Good times.
"Pushing the Limit: The Making of" (30 mins.) houses the infamous moment where a freezing and furious Garner wags his giant finger in the face of a Monaco shopkeeper holding up a shooting day for a larger payout. We get modern reminiscences (Frankenheimer's stemming from a 2002 interview) intercut with archival B-roll--some of it quite candid, as hinted at above--in what turns out to be an indispensable piece for fans not necessarily of the film, but of Frankenheimer. He's alight with inner fire in the vintage footage, fire that I think goes out with the assassination of his good friend Bobby Kennedy in two years' time. (Frankenheimer drove him to his appointment with death after Kennedy spent the night at his house. Is it any wonder he was never the same?) It's interesting to hear that McQueen was the first choice for Garner's role, and that the Brit couldn't drive at all and had to be doubled (thus explaining why his face is covered; when McQueen's is covered for most of Le Mans, it's more an aesthetic--an aesthete's--choice). Also, Eva Marie Saint seems like the kind of lady you'd like to hang out with for a few decades.
"Flat Out: Formula 1 in the Sixties" (17 mins.) sees the film's driving coach Bob Bondurant and various luminaries of the circuit talking about how Grand Prix appeared at a crossroads in Formula One's history. "The Style and Sound of Speed" (12 mins.) is something of a hagiography of Saul Bass that could have spent more time detailing the theories behind splitting the personalities of each of the races into their own distinct beasts, but is fine for what it is. "Brands Hatch: Behind the Checkered Flag" (11 mins.) is a turn-by-turn detailing of the titular track, while "Grand Prix: Challenge of the Champions" (13 mins.) is a vintage promo reel that focuses on the first race in Monaco. A theatrical trailer rounds out the presentation; these special features are all, alas, in standard-def.
Le Mans finds a home on Blu-ray in a beautiful 2.35:1, 1080p video transfer that's impossibly sharp and appealing. You can tell when McQueen hasn't shaved for a few hours, is what I'm saying, and the presentation preserves a muted colour scheme that does an admirable job of conveying an oppressed/obsessed atmosphere throughout. Grain coats it in a fine layer of seventies perfection as this picture takes a sudden valedictory place in the pantheon for me of unheralded films from our magic hour. Like Grand Prix, Le Mans played select venues in an ahead-of-its-time 6-track stereo configuration analogous to today's 5.1 mixes, and the layered 7.1 DTS-HD MA track on board this disc comes on like a hooker at closing time: hot and close. Track announcements are placed in the rears with absolute clarity and sense, while there's acoustic veracity to the endless screeches and warning klaxons. "Filming at Speed: The Making of the Movie Le Mans" (24 mins., SD) has McQueen's surviving family and Katzin discussing the difficulties of putting the project together. I did bristle at Katzin's declaration that Le Mans was "anti-Hollywood" when, in fact, the Hollywood of this era was as adventurous as it ever had been before or ever would be. It's the sort of subversive, backhanded aggrandizement that makes my skin crawl. A HiDef trailer for the film rounds out the platter.
Blue Underground continues to stake its ground as the Criterion of exploitation classics by dropping Fast Company into your pocket in an astonishingly well-preserved 1.85:1, 1080p transfer. Primary colours are sharp and distinct, skin tones are natural, and the grainy but crystalline image betrays only the tiniest hint of edge-enhancement. Enhanced for D-BOX motion code playback, the audio is available in redundant 7.1 DTS-HD MA and Dolby TrueHD options--which, to my ears, sounded exactly the same. The remix delivers a gratifyingly low rumble in the subwoofer yet very little in the way of rear-channel activity. It's solid, but it lacks the you-are-there-ness of Grand Prix and Le Mans. Cronenberg meanwhile contributes a feature-length yakker that's exhaustively analytical in his typical style. He speaks in more detail than I've ever heard or read before about the direct influences of this film on his later work, sounding a lot like he's embracing his status as a bona fide auteur who may be judged with the most fruit once his career is complete. It's a vital contribution, this thing, to further study of his stuff from the tax-shelter period and beyond. To be able to bring Fast Company into this artist's fold with the artist's help is a rare thing.
"'Inside the Actor's Studio': Interviews with Stars William Smith and John Saxon" (11 mins., SD) reminds me of why I didn't buy James Lipton's book Inside 'Inside' when I saw it on a tear-away sale for $1.00. Even though I was there to buy movie books. Even though I collect movie books. It's always good to hear from Smith and Saxon, of course, but there's not a lot of meat on this bone. "Interview with Director of Photography Mark Irwin" (14 mins., SD) offers a nice glimpse into the working relationship between Cronenberg and Irwin, although the curious part of me wanted more dirt about their split. (Irwin hasn't shot anything for Cronenberg since The Fly.) The most awesome thing about the Fast Company Blu-ray? Cronenberg's groundbreaking early shorts Stereo (62 mins.) and Crimes of the Future (62 mins.) are included in their entirety--in handsome albeit standard-definition remasters--for the first time on home video, not counting their appearance on Blue Underground's Limited Edition DVD release of Fast Company. They represent what Cronenberg calls the first movies he'd own as the beginnings of his artistic journey (or so he says in Faber & Faber's Cronenberg on Cronenberg). Wow, right? Originally published: June 14, 2011.
1. Explanation at least in part as to why, in the world of sports memorabilia, auto-racing is the only one where the death of one of its participants enhances the value of his stuff over the long term. return
2. "Then it was gone. It didn't walk into the woods, the undergrowth. It faded, sank back into the wilderness as he had watched a fish, a huge old bass, sink and vanish into the dark depths of its pool without even any movement of its fins." (William Faulkner, "The Bear") return
3. Fascinating to me is an anecdote told by James Garner in the Grand Prix extras about how his neighbour--McQueen, naturally--stopped him one day in '67 to say that he'd finally seen the film and grumbled "that's a fine picture there" before turning away. return
4. He'll follow Le Mans with Peckinpah's Junior Bonner, where he plays a rodeo cowboy beaten up and fast falling into obsolescence. Another likable performance, but one more revealing of Peckinpah's demons than of McQueen's. return