March 2015 – Downhill Racer (1969, Michael Ritchie)

Bit late with my March post but I finally saw Downhill Racer, the excellent feature debut of Michael Ritchie (1938-2001) and he followed it up with two equally impressive movies, the prescient political drama The Candidate (70) and the offbeat gangster versus rednecks thriller Prime Cut (72). I’d seen the latter two of those films but never Downhill Racer which is quite hard to come by in the UK so I had to import the Criterion release from the States which is no bad thing given how well they treat their releases. Ritchie has long become one of the forgotten men of American cinema which is a shame because his first three films seemed to promise more than the eclectic output which followed his early success. Like an athlete Ritchie did his best work as a young man.

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Sports dramas Bad News Bears (76) &  Semi Tough (77) are entertaining enough but not quite in the same league. It’s hard not to like a film as utterly deranged as The Island (80) with its tale of a long lost tribe of pirates abducting Michael Caine but it seriously damaged Ritchie’s reputation. I’m an 80s’ kid so I’ll always feel fondly towards The Golden Child (86) and the Fletch movies. Boxing movie Diggstown (92) is the closest Ritchie showed to recovering his early brilliance but instead his career petered out in the 90s’with the sentimental sports drama The Scout (94) and the unwatchable Martin Short comedy A Simple Wish (97).

Gene Hackman plays the coach of the struggling US skiing team forced to bring in a replacement (Redford) after one of his stars is badly injured. Despite his misgivings about his attitude. Back in the 60s’ the US team were considered outsiders so Downhill Racer would have felt more like an underdog story back then. It’s understated though with James Salter’s subtle screenplay more interested in the cost of winning than sporting heroics. It’s a fascinating character study of a driven, opaque, unreachable figure. Talented but set apart from other people by his dedication to his sport and his lack of understanding for other people, particularly the sophisticated European beauty (Camilla Sparv) who rejects him.

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I noted with interest Ritchie’s first credit was making a film about Joan of Arc for the BBC’s documentary series Omnibus.  At that time Omnibus was doing ground-breaking work pioneering the drama-documentary notably allowing Ken Russell free reign with his dramatic interpretations of the lives of composers and artists. Ritchie seems to have taken some of these stylistic touches back to the US. Something Robert Redford picked up on as he searched for a director for Downhill Racer after Roman Polanski departed the project for Rosemary’s Baby (68). Redford noticed a tendency towards filming scenes in interesting ways despite the limitations of the otherwise generic material.  Ritchie brings the same naturalistic approach to Downhill Racer with dialogue scenes seeming like filmed conversations rather than the actors delivering lines from James Salter’s excellent screenplay. Point of view shots as the racers hurtle down slopes gives an idea of the adrenaline rush of competing and the danger involved in such a high risk sport.

Really pleased to have finally seen this. And with its focus on a lone figure battling against the elements Downhill Racer it makes a great companion piece with Redford’s recent All is Lost (2013, J.C. Chandor).

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