When I saw that Criterion was releasing Downhill Racer I was surprised to say the least. I knew little about the film, but I did know it starred Robert Redford and that it was about skiing. Hollywood stars and sports did not seem in line with Criterion’s general release of foreign flicks, lost classics from the first half of the century, and art-house films. More than anything I was confused. That surprise and shock however slowly evolved into delight watching this minor masterpiece unfold.
Although a sports film, Downhill Racer is really not about sports. Despite the energetic and thrilling scenes of skiing and the obligatory pump-up team speeches, more than anything, director Michael Ritchie has made a character study. Ritchie explores that so often used, but so untrue claim in sports that it doesn’t matter if you win or lose, its how you play the game.
David Chappellet (Robert Redford) is an arrogant American skier who gets lucky enough to make the U.S. Ski Team when another member goes down. Screenwriter James Salter characterizes him in an interview as quite simply being “a prick.” But as with many figures in sports films, the hotshot lead actually has some talent and he Chappellet quickly becomes a member of the Olympic team, but of course that isn’t enough for him. He wants to be seen as one of the best members of the team. He knows he can win.
Downhill Racer becomes just as much about the inner workings of the reticent Chappellet, as it does about skiing. It evolves into a film about desire and above all else insecurity. Through all of the egotism there lies something universal in Redford’s performance. Chappellet exists in a hypocritical world where judgments of value seem to have no stability. When the seemingly cocky athlete returns to his rural hometown to visit his cantankerous father, he is met with disapproval. The father asks his son, “Where’s the money” to which Chappellet responds, “Well, I’ll be famous. I’ll be a champion.” His father coldly replies, “The world’s full of ‘em.”
Like so many outsiders of literature, Chappellet is unfit for the world. Complicating his pursuit of winning is Coach Eugene Claire (in an equally quiet, but masterful performance from Gene Hackman), who has to reconcile that his best player has a cockiness that seems to ruin the purity of the sport.
This may seem to be the making of a formulaic sports drama but Downhill Racer challenges many of the tropes that often bog down the genre. Rather than staging triumphant moments with orchestral music, Ritchie relies on a minimalist score by Kenyon Hopkins that seems as though it were made in the cold lonely mountains on which Chappellet skis.
Redford’s portrayal is perhaps one of the greatest performances of his career, carefully balancing the contradictions of Chappellet. While he desperately seeks some form of love, Chappellet refuses to give any himself. He visits his hometown and quickly meets with an old fling, but then he forgets about her. Touring Europe he gets involved with one woman, but she is his parallel and drops him aside just as he threw aside his hometown sweetheart. It is Redford’s complicated display of quiet arrogance that makes him remotely relatable.
What is perhaps most gratifying is how well Downhill Racer holds up 40 years later. While the film doesn’t eschew convention, little seems cliché. There is a subplot of big business trying to win the individual athlete over, but it’s played with such restraint that it’s not obtrusive. The love story tells more about the fractured personality of Chappellet than it does about intimacy, but that is because this movie is about one person: David Chappellet. Downhill Racer is an apt title because it is about one man: a racer who can only define himself through sport.
Although I have been arguing that Downhill Racer is entirely not a sports film, I’d be remiss not to point out how thrilling the skiing is in the movie. Without a doubt, it is one of the most visceral films involving a sport to be released. With almost perfect rhythm between long shots, close-ups and point of view shots during the races, Ritchie and his editor (Richard Harris) weave together frames creating a tension that parallels that from any thriller. Relying solely on the sound of snow crunching, the whistle of the wind and the skier’s breath, Downhill Racer echoes the bank heist from Riffi.
Downhill Racer is a restrained investigation of an inarticulate man living the absolutist world of sports. There are winners and losers. Thankfully for us, Downhill Racer is a winner.
For such a visceral film it is important that transfer looks good, and as always Criterion delivers a clear picture; the contrast of colors on the pure white snow looks amazing. The extras on the DVD seem to fall more in line with quantity being better than quality. There is a fantastic interview with Robert Redford and James Salter that is hands down the best extra on the disc. It’s interesting to see Redford, who in the film is cold and silent, be so garrulous. Redford seems to be able to make even the most mundane story interesting and the interview is a phenomenal thirty minutes. The essay from Todd McCarthy, which is included, seems to rearticulate what Redford states in the interview. Also included is an interview segment with Walter Coblenz (production manager), Richard Harris (editor) and Joe Jay Jalbert (technical advisor who also appears in the film). These interviews aren’t edited together in any specifically engaging way, and the interviewees themselves are not always the most interesting, but the pieces are nice. Also included is an hour of Michael Ritchie’s 1977 AFI seminar in audio form. Ritchie’s approach to cinema is different and occasionally fascinating, but it would have been nice if the audio could have been matched with production stills or photos. Finally there is also a trailer and a featurette on skiing titled, “How Fast?” which is narrated by Redford. The featurette almost feels like a blueprint to show to distributors in the hopes of releasing the film. It is entertaining but not especially exciting. Downhill Racer is one of the biggest surprises I’ve seen to hit DVDs recently, and Criterion does the film more than justice.
Directed by Michael Ritchie; written by James Slater; based on a novel by Oakley Hall; director of photography, Brian Probyn; edited by Richard A. Harris; produced by Richard Gregson; released by Criterion. Running time: 1 hour 41 minutes.
WITH: Robert Redford (David Chappellet), Gene Hackman (Eugene Claire); Camillla Sparv (Carole Stahl)