Downhill Racer: Michael Ritchie's winning streak
Northwest Film Forum is continuing their year-long, 40th anniversary tribute to films made in 1969 with this week’s offering: Downhill Racer. The dead of summer may seem an odd time to screen a ski movie, but is a great time to escape the heat by revisiting a modest classic from a fine director who had a brief, brilliant streak of hits in the late 60s and early 70s: Michael Ritchie.
From his debut in 1969 with Downhill Racer through The Candidate, Smile, and The Bad News Bears, Ritchie managed to carve out an auteurist niche in a crowded field by combining a satirical wit with a documentarian’s eye and ear. His best film, The Candidate, may stand the test of time as the most incisive political film ever made and Smile was the forerunner of the beauty pageant genre that includes Drop Dead Gorgeous and Little Miss Sunshine.
Downhill Racer, which plays for one week at the Film Forum’s Capitol Hill theater, is not in any way a comedy, but is perhaps the finest dramatic ski film ever. Starring Robert Redford as the ultimate egocentric ski racing jerk, and this in the same year when he won the hearts of everyone as the Sundance Kid, the movie is a hard-edged character study and a thrilling depiction of the world of competitive team racing.
When I think of Downhill Racer I can see the gripping POV camera shots of a racer’s skis rocketing down a course at speeds of more than 100mph. I can hear the teeth rattling sounds of the skis skimming the icy surface of the snow. I can feel the breath of the crowds waiting at the finish line and the chatter of the loudspeaker announcing the winner. This is an extremely visceral movie that skips over the expected beats of the usual Hollywood script to achieve a distinctly European sensibility; although, to be fair, most of the American directors working during Ritchie’s era—Altman, Scorsese, Spielberg, Pakula, Coppola, and others—were all experimenting with sound and image in ways both revolutionary and laudatory, applying techniques picked up from French and Italian films and working them into vivid American narratives: the road movie, the crime film, the sports picture. These films were not only commenting on the alienation and cynicism of the Vietnam era, but they were also immensely entertaining.
This tension was present in the casting. As the golden boy David Chappellet, Redford was an appealing presence but a dislikeable anti-hero, a reflection of the win-at-all-costs ethic of American individualism. As his coach, Gene Hackman, one of the busiest and most talented actors of his time, is both respectful of this hot-shot’s talent but convinced of his utter disregard for his teammates. As the love interest, Camilla Sparv exuded an icy control over her emotions that left her unprepared for her pretty boyfriend’s unceremonious split. The ending, typically, was downbeat and open-ended; an appropriate ellipses to a decade, the 60s, that never really caught its breath.