Breaking Away Review
In a small town in Indiana, it's the summer after high school graduation. Dave (Dennis Christopher) lives for cycling and dreams of competing against the Italian cyclists who are the best in the world. He even pretends to be Italian, calling himself Enrico and the family cat Fellini to the exasperation of his parents (Paul Dooley and Barbara Barrie) and pretending to be an exchange student as he pursues Katherine (Robyn Douglass). The local college looks down upon Dave and his friends as “cutters” (because their fathers quarried the stone the college is built from). This comes to a head when Dave and his friends enter the town's annual bike race...
Breaking Away begins with the credit “A Peter Yates Film”. Yates certainly produced and directed, but the star of the show is the writer, Steve Tesich, who won the film's only Oscar from five nominations. It's easy to see why. This was Yugoslav-born Tesich's first theatrical credit after work on television, and it's a joy: warm, witty, rich in character and with a real sense of time and place. It's a pity that Tesich's career didn't flourish as much as it should have done. He returned to the cycling theme in the undersung American Flyers in 1985, which along with Eleni the same year was his last credit. He died of a heart attack in 1996, aged fifty-three.
Yates's hand can however be seen in the cycling sequences, which remind you that this is the man who directed one of the classic car-chase sequences in Bullitt. Modern-day action directors should take note: he doesn't go in for fast cutting to whip up non-existent excitement. Often he films in medium or long shot. It's a similar technique to the proper way to film a production number in a musical: the scene takes its energy from the movement within it, not artificially from camera movement and editing. The climactic cycle race will have you on the edge of your seat. It also helps that we can see that the actors – or at least their stunt doubles – are really doing the cycling. Then again, it more than helps that we have characters we have come to root for, and have such talented young actors playing them.
Dennis Christopher is the lead, but of the four youngsters, he's the one who hasn't really followed this film up. Daniel Stern and Dennis Quaid have had solid careers, as has a very young Jackie Earle Haley as the short kid of the group, Moocher. However, Paul Dooley, as Dave's bewildered father, steals the film and it's right that Yates gives him the final freeze-frame. Oddly enough, none of the above were nominated for Oscars. The sole acting nominee was Barbara Barrie, who lost Best Supporting Actress to Meryl Streep in Kramer vs. Kramer, which beat Breaking Away to Best Picture and Best Director. While there's nothing wrong with Barrie's performance, in retrospect its nomination seems a little misplaced. Halloween and Rock 'n' Roll High School fans should note P.J. Soles (credited under her full name of Pamela Jayne Soles) in a small role.
Breaking Away was a sleeper hit and spawned a short-lived TV series. It's a real winner, and one of the best films about young men's coming of age to have come out of Hollywood.
Breaking Away was released on DVD in Region 1 by Fox (who made the film originally) as long ago as 2002. Maybe it's an American thing – for whatever reason it's taken eight years to cross the Atlantic and arrive on disc, and when it does it's not Fox distributing it but Second Sight. An A certificate in British cinemas and its direct equivalent the PG when passed for video release, it's not a 12. This is for reasons of potentially dangerous behaviour (that's presumably the quarry jumping) and some derogatory terms.
The DVD transfer is in the correct ratio of 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced. We're probably now used to, and expect, transfers sourced from hi-def transfers so it's easy to be hard on this one when it doesn't appear to be. The result is a little soft, especially in longer shots, but colours seem accurate – I didn't see this film in a cinema but this DVD does look like late 70s colour films often do look like. While not quite state of the art, this transfer is quite acceptable.
Breaking Away was released in mono, at a time when Dolby Stereo mixes were just beginning to take hold. It's mono on this DVD, as it should be, and dialogue, music and sound effects are well balanced. English subtitles for the hard of hearing are available.
The only extra is a rather battered trailer, presented in 4:3 and running 2:58.