Astonishing Alpine location photography and a young Robert Redford in one of his earliest starring roles are just two of the visual splendors of Downhill Racer, the visceral debut feature by Michael Ritchie. In a beautifully understated performance, Redford is David Chappellet, a ruthlessly ambitious skier competing for Olympic gold with an underdog American team in Europe, and Gene Hackman provides tough support as the coach who tries to temper the upstart’s narcissistic drive for glory. With a subtle screenplay by the acclaimed novelist James Salter, Downhill Racer is a vivid character portrait, buoyed by breathtakingly fast and furious imagery that places the viewer directly in the mind of the competitor.
There have been a ton of sports-themed movies over the years, covering all types of sports from football all the way to wrestling with everything in between. Each of these sports have even covered all genres, including comedy, horror, and drama, even earning some major film awards each year. However, with the sport of downhill skiing, there haven't been a ton of dramatic films. In fact, when most us think about skiing movies, we immediately think to the 1980s where an avalanche of comedies about the sport were released.
That's not the case with 1969's 'Downhill Racer' by first time director Michael Ritchie and starring a young Robert Redford and Gene Hackman. 'Downhill Racer' is a character portrait about the lives or one particular life of a professional athlete and all of the success, failures, and struggles that come with wanting to win and be the best in your field. Not all of it is glamour and fame either as we see with David Chappellet (Robert Redford), who is an American downhill skier, wanting to compete in the Olympic games.
Chappellet has talent, which ultimately sends him to Switzerland to join the US Ski team under the coaching of Eugene Claire (Gene Hackman). Soon enough, we see how Coach Claire and the other team members see Chappellet, which is not necessarily in a good light. Chappellet is not a team player by any means. He's cocky, arrogant, self-centered, hot-tempered, and only looking out for himself. His only goal is to win the gold someday, no matter who he steps on in his path to do so. When it comes to his love life, things tend to be the same until he meets a nice woman named Carole (Camilla Sparv), with whom he develops a romantic relationship, only for it to backfire when things don't go his way.
As Chappellet is sent from competition to competition over the world, his wins and accomplishments only inflate his ego and narcissism, burning almost every bridge in his path to get the gold. This is a situation all too familiar these days in every sport. Make not mistake about it, Chappellet is not a good guy, even though he appears to be the best at his sport. So many athletes today are held in high regard, due to their successes, world records, and high end endorsements. As long as these athletes keep getting the Gold and winning, it seems that most of the world turns a blind eye to their real lives of violence, greed, and lies. It's only when they seem to fail or not win the one important game where we lose interest and bring the worst out.
This can be said for Chappellet as well during the course of this movie. He does one thing very well, which is win, which is why his teammates and coach turn a blind eye and keep quiet about his other habits and off-putting personality. Oddly enough, Michael Ritchie didn't quite stick to the drama or sports-drama genre in his later career, but went towards the comedic side with both 'Fletch' films and 'The Bad News Bears', but this first directorial effort from him, surely imprinted his name in Hollywood as being one not to forget.
In fact, it was by chance that Ritchie came aboard this project, as Roman Polanski was set to direct this film, but it didn't pan out, so the studio gave him a little film known as 'Rosemary's Baby', which Polanksi wanted Redford to star in as well. We all know how that turned out. The entire film was shot on location around the world, with the impressive ski competition scenes being filmed on 16mm with real life stuntmen. They are quite suspenseful and entertaining for something that came out fifty years ago.
'Downhill Racer' tells us that the better you are in your field, the more people will look the other way when it comes to your faults, no matter how severe they are, and Redford does an excellent job here, showing Chappellet's aggressive and narcissistic behavior. This is one sport's movie that you won't forget anytime soon.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Downhill Racer' comes with a 50GB Blu-ray Disc from the Criterion Collection and is Region A locked in their standard clear hard plastic case with spine #494. There is a fully illustrated fold-out booklet with cast and crew information, details about the new transfer, as well as an excellent essay from film critic Todd McCarthy. There are no trailers at start-up here.
'Downhill Racer' comes with a new 1080p HD transfer presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio from Criterion. According to the booklet inside the case, this new HD transfer was created from a 35mm fine-grain master positive print where thousands of instances of debris, dirt, scratches, warps, and flicker were manually removed. This was all supervised by Maria Palazzola.
This image is an upgrade from the prior DVD release with some improvements on detail and color. The detail is sharp for the most part, specifically in closeups that reveal great facial features and fine textures in the clothing. Most of the wider shots look impressive as well too. In the instance of the skiing footage, the picture looks softer and rougher as these scenes were filmed with a handheld 16mm camera, but to its credit, the image still looks satisfactory considering the source.
Colors are well balanced and saturated at all times as well. The layer of grain is also presented nicely as well, keeping the filmic look to the movie. Black levels are deep and inky and the skin tones are natural. There are no major compression issues to speak about, leaving this video presentation with solid marks.
This release comes with a LPCM 1.0 mono mix and was remastered from the original soundtrack where all pops, cracks, and hiss were manually removed. For a sports movie, I would have hoped for a 5.1 sound option, but this mono mix does a great job with well balanced and layered sound effects and ambient noises. Each noise is sharp and perfectly clear, free of any distortion. The dialogue is always crystal clear and easy to follow as well. I just wish this had the full range of speaker sound to full immerse you on the ski slope. Still, this is a solid audio presentation.
Interview with Robert Redford and James Salter (HD, 34 Mins.) - This interview from 2009 see Redford and Salter discussing the origins of the screenplay and story and all of the changes that were made to the final film. They also talk about working with one another, as well as with directors Michael Ritchie and Roman Polanksi, as well as talking about filming on location all over the world.
Interview with Richard Harris, Walter Coblenz, and Joe Jay Jalbert (HD, 30 Mins.) - The editor, production manager, and technical adviser for the film talk about the visual style of the movie, filming with 16mm cameras, the actual shoot of the film, and how some of the bigger stunts were accomplished.
Michael Ritchie at AFI (HD, 72 Mins.) - This is a collection of eight audio excerpts from 1977 at AFI where Ritchie discusses making the film, his career, his choices, and his favorite directors.
How Fast? (HD, 13 Mins.) - This is more a less a vintage promo reel from 1969 where Redford narrates while some behind the scenes footage is being shown.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 3 Mins.) - Trailer for the film.
Criterion Booklet - Here is a fully illustrated fold-out booklet with cast and crew information, details about the new transfer, as well as an excellent essay from film critic Todd McCarthy.
'Downhill Racer' is an excellent sports movie that is more of a character portrait. It's sad to see that this movie showed how we treat and regard winning athletes despite their violent and ruthless lives. It's all too real today and Robert Redford and Gene Hackman give excellent performances. This is one film not to miss. Criterion knocked it out of the park here with great audio and video presentations and there is a nice set of bonus features, all of which are worth watching. This one comes highly recommended!