Tuesday, May 8, 2012


(December 1966, U.S.)

I haven't seen a whole lot of auto racing films. I shamefully admit that I rented DAYS OF THUNDER (1990) a year after its release, I watched LE MANS (1971) on Turner Classic Movies and...does Disney's CARS (2006) count? Well, even if it does, all of them are easily forgettable when compared to the sheer excitement of John Frankenheimer's epic spectacle of GRAND PRIX. This is unique racing cinematography at its absolute best, to the point where any of the personal soap-opera type stories behind four of it's main Formula One racers are almost pointless. Your eyes, ears and senses are never removed from the real-life racing footage and filming that takes place in exotic locales like Monaco and Belgian.

But to be fair, let me give you a brief summary of our four ficticious racing heroes in this film - Jean-Pierre Sarti (played by Yves Montand), a Frenchman, previously twice world champion, nearing the end of his colorful career and a tragic casualty by the film's end. Pete Aron (played by James Garner), an American, who is on the comeback trail after a losing streak. Scott Stoddard (played by Brian Bedford), an Englishman, recuperating from a horrible racing crash and trying to hold onto his crumbling marriage. And finally, Nino Barlini (played by Antonio Sabàto), an Italian, a promising rookie and also a former world motorcycle champion with a rather uncontrollable big mouth, to boot. Sub-plots revolve around the women who try to live with and love them despite their dangerous lifestyles. You see what I mean, don't you? Not particularly exciting stories behind the racing itself. You watch GRAND PRIX strictly because it's about racing, and the racing is the real thing that employs, among other filming techniques, some of the earliest experimentation with in-car cameras. I should also point out that the racing accidents we witness look horrifingly real, to the point where you gasp in exclamation when a race car hits a wall, plunges over a cliff or explodes in flames. Even with what I consider to be a moderate knowledge of filmmaking tricks, I still find myself wondering, "How the hell did they do that??" when I see some of the events that are filmed in GRAND PRIX.

I've mentioned this before, but as a director, John Frankenheimer has always been hit and miss with me. There have been as many duds, in my opinion, as there have been triumphs. This great racing epic of his displays his unique abilities with the camera in ways that leave one in awe. These racing camera tricks would again be repeated decades later in Frankenheimer's RONIN (1998). Yes, computer generated technology and 3D imagery may be all the bullshit rage for the 21st Century, but it's real life cinematography and photography that still gets me every time. And if I can still be "got" by any film, then something is definitely right with the world.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Scott Stoddard: "You know one of the most beautiful things about a car? If it isn't working properly, you can strip the skin off, expose the insides, find out exactly where the trouble is, take out the faulty part and replace it with a new one. If only we could do that with people!"

Wouldn't that be nice?

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