Grand Prix Review

Last year, I wrote about Top Gun that the scenes in the air, with those gorgeous planes, were so ethereally beautiful that it was a shame that the film had to come down to earth with such a tedious, melodramatic bang during the scenes set on the ground. Although it’s a better film in some respects, I feel much the same way about John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix. Off the track, it’s slow and often excruciating with the kind of bad writing and off-the-peg characterisations which you’d expect to see in a below-average TV movie. But whenever it’s on the track, it’s one of the most exciting things you could ever hope to see on screen and, luckily, it’s on the track – and often inside the car – often enough to make the ludicrous three hours running time reasonably painless.

The plot is sparse - a collection of drivers go through a Formula One season along with their backers and romantic partners – and the characters come straight from any B-Movie of the 1940s.
Yves Montand is the wise, wrinkled – not to say saggy - veteran with the Gallic charm, who dispenses faux-profundities at the drop of a hat and signals his eventual exit from the film by constantly stating how tired he is and embarking on a doomed romance with journalist Eve Marie Saint – who seems, on this evidence, to have forgotten how to act and wanders through doing a great-lady turn which would be more suitable for a duchess than a reporter. James Garner is the great driver gone bad and looking for redemption through one last chance. Brian Bedford is the plucky Brit, haunted by his dead brother, who survives a terrible crash and refuses to accept that he’s finished – despite being landed with the manic Jessica Walter as a wife from hell and a repressed mother whose stiff-upper-lip has calcified into an eerie grimace. Not to forget Toshiro Mifune’s Japanese industrialist, struggling manfully with unspeakable English dialogue, and Antonio Sabato as a frightfully macho Italian who is either very, very butch indeed or trying to over-compensate for incipient homosexuality.

The various conflicts and personal crises which these characters go through are so predictable that the film begins to look like one of those straight-faced parodies like Airplane! where the performers act as if they aren’t in on the joke.

Some of these actors are good performers normally. James Garner was always a very entertaining leading man, single-handedly making “The Rockford Files” the best ‘tec-series on 1970s TV, but he seems to have been told that this is a very serious film and fixes a concerned frown on his face which rarely breaks. Garner is not helped by having to compete with Yves Montand – an actor less likely to lose a leading-man charm contest is hard to imagine – but when he can’t make a stronger impression than the terminally wet Brian Bedford then he’s obviously in trouble. I suspect that the main problem is that no-one was very interested in the actors, including the scriptwriter, and that the problems of recreating the races took precedence over the narrative line. In following the whole of a season, the film is much too long and the emphasis on soap-opera becomes annoying and predictable.

Yet these lapses are more forgivable than they should be because John Frankenheimer has such obvious love for the sport and is so patently dedicated to recreating the experience on film. Grand Prix opens with a lengthy recreation of the Monaco Grand Prix which is so astonishingly vivid that you really do feel that you’re in the proverbial driving seat. It then goes on, during the three hours, to provide substantial coverage of two other races – the maniacally dangerous Belgian Grand Prix and the final Italian Grand Prix at Monza. Each race is shot slightly differently. The first offers long stretches from the driver’s point of view, the second is a symphony of speed and rain while the third offers a fascinating overview of the experience with voiceovers from the characters as they describe what they have to do, shortly before all hell breaks loose.

The techniques for filming the races were themselves tremendously dangerous. Frankenheimer spurned the idea of a second unit and ended up supervising everything, with extensive input from camera operator John Stephens and the driver of the ‘camera car’, Phil Hill. Frankenheimer decided that the key to evoking the visceral thrill of the sport was to have a camera giving the driver’s perspective so a 70MM camera was placed on one side of a car with the suspension jacked up on the over to provide the correct balance. The resulting judder was kept in to provide added realism. In addition to this, Frankenheimer uses extensive low altitude helicopter shots, close-ups of the actors and intercut footage from real races. So what you’re seeing is a combination of drama and documentary about the 1966 Formula One season. It’s all phenomenally exciting –I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the screen and I can’t even drive! The crashes are equally spectacular and often horribly beautiful as well as terrifying. Added verisimilitude is provided by the presence of most of the racing stars of the period – Lorenzo Bandini, Graham Hill, Richie Ginther and Jack Brabham – and British viewers with a nostalgic bent will be delighted by the unmistakeable presence of Raymond Baxter.

Apart from the driving sequences, it should be said that the whole film is dressed to kill, an example of the last days of MGM in its pomp, complete with hairstyles by Sydney Guilaroff. It looks incredibly lavish, largely thanks to two elements; the lush cinematography by Lionel Lindon; and the montages by Saul Bass.

Bass was heavily involved in the film from start to finish and some of his montages are simply dazzling, although I’m not convinced that the use of split screen is much more the stylistic indulgence for most of the time. Equally luxuriant is Maurice Jarre’s score, although to these ears it sounds like a combination of his work on Doctor Zhivago and The Train. All in all, it’s one of those films best described as an ‘event’, the kind they don’t really make any more, where the combination of good and bad parts was simply what you expected – you sat through the boring romances and simpering dialogue for the sake of the exciting bits and, when they come, the exciting bits are so good that they justify the entire movie.

The Disc

Currently embattled by criticism over The Searchers and The Naked Spur, Warners have come up trumps on Grand Prix with a spectacularly good visual transfer and a decent 5.1 soundtrack.

The film is presented in its original aspect ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. In order to maintain a high bit-rate, it is divided over two discs with the break coming during the intermission at the one and three-quarter hour mark. There’s not much to say about this visual presentation except to pile up the superlatives. Colours are natural and vibrant while the level of detail is eye-popping. The film has been painstakingly restored to the highest standards and the results are glorious. I’d say this is a reference quality transfer.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is not quite as much of a knockout but still robust. The rear surrounds are not used extensively, which is a surprise, and most of the action is spread out among the front. Maurice Jarre’s brass-heavy score is given plenty of room to breathe through all the channels however and the dialogue is generally very clear.

The special features are, apart from the theatrical trailer, contained on the second disc. Somewhat surprisingly, there is no commentary track and this is a shame in two respects. Firstly, John Frankenheimer was one of the best commentators in the business and his death in 2002 robbed us of his immense knowledge and experience. It’s a shame he wasn’t able to record a commentary for this before he died. Secondly, the film is crying out for a technical commentary from racing experts and some of the drivers, actors and crew.

Still, what we get is pretty satisfying all the same. There are four new featurettes and a vintage documentary from 1966, along with the aforementioned trailer. The new pieces are generally very good. “Pushing the Limit” runs thirty minutes and is a solid look at the making of the film with some excellent archive interview material from Frankenheimer. There’s a lot of input from Formula One experts which is useful for giving the film some kind of context and there’s more of this in “Flat Out: Formula One in the Sixties” which is about the sport at the time. To an outsider, this seems like an insanely dangerous period when safety rules were minimal and commercial sponsorship had not yet taken over. “Brands Hatch: Chasing the Chequered Flag” is a sober and compelling explanation in which Jonathan Palmer explains how a Formula One driver would go about tackling the course. “The Style and Sound of Speed” is a slightly sketchy but interesting piece on Saul Bass’s work on the film. Finally, “Challenge of the Champions” is an archive featurette from the time of the film’s release which has a nostalgic air about it and some priceless footage of Frankenheimer and Garner, neither of whom look what you’d call laid back.

In a nice touch, the film is presented in its full Roadshow form with full Overture and Entr’acte music. The film is subtitled but not, unfortunately, the extra features.

Grand Prix is much too long and so full of padding that you could lose an hour without any consequence to the narrative. But it’s a phenomenal technical achievement by an immensely daring director and when it’s good, it’s wonderful. Warner Brothers’ DVD is an excellent package and presents the film to its very best advantage.

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