Friday, May 27, 2016

Flashback Friday: Five movies to set your motor running (plus one for the road)

Sunday is probably the premiere day of the year for auto racing fans. No, scratch that - it is the premiere day, Christmas, New Year's and your birthday all rolled up into one. It starts Sunday morning with the world's most glamorous and prestigious race, the Grand Prix of Monaco (6:30 am CT, NBC), run through the streets of Monte Carlo before all kinds of royalty and celebrity. It continues with America's most famous race, the Indianapolis 500 (10:00 am CT, ABC), somewhat tarnished to be sure, but newly on the upswing as it approaches its 100th running. And for a nightcap there's NASCAR's longest race, the Coca-Cola 600 (4:00 pm, FOX), which starts in the late afternoon and ends under the lights.

With all that, it seemed like a good idea to take a look at Hollywood's treatment of the sport. Not surprisingly, there are movie conventions that find their way into almost every racing film. There are also reminders of why so many people become addicted to cars driven fast and lives lived even faster. Herewith, five films to check out if you need a warm-up for Sunday.

LeMans (1971)
Steve McQueen, lots of cars

In the late 60s, the famed 24-hour endurance race became a focal point for American racing. The Ford Motor Company put on an all-out blitz to break the European stranglehold on the race and become the first American manufacturer to win. The biggest names in American racing, drivers such as A.J. Foyt and Dan Gurney, raced at LeMans, and Wide World of Sports presented live via satellite coverage of the beginning and end of the race.

It was in this climate that Steve McQueen’s LeMans appeared. McQueen played Michael Delaney, an American driver returning to the race that almost claimed his life in a fiery crash that did kill a fellow driver and friend. McQueen’s need to come to terms with the past, as well as the inevitable romantic entanglements of the present, provided the backdrop for this often moody story that does a pretty good job of describing the thoughts of a man whose profession forces him to confront death on a regular basis.

There was almost more action behind the scenes than on the screen. McQueen was already an avid race car driver, and LeMans was his dream project – so much so that he put his own money and prestige behind it as producer. He fought the director, John Sturgis, for control of the project – Sturgis wanted to focus on the love story, while McQueen wanted the race itself to be the star. The movie’s budget skyrocketed, much of the original action footage proved unusable, and one of McQueen’s financial partners threatened to shut down filming altogether. Eventually, McQueen was forced to give up his salary, percentage of profits, and future royalties in order to complete the film. Not surprisingly, the enterprise resulted in financial bankruptcy for McQueen.

Notwithstanding the problems, LeMans contains wonderful footage of the famed race. At a time when most people had seen LeMans only in newsreel footage or on television, the big screen provided a magnificent panorama of the sights, sounds and colors of one of the world’s greatest races.

Interesting note: there is no dialogue for the first half-hour. The engines say it all.

Bobby Deerfield (1977)
Al Pacino, Marthe Keller

As was the case with LeMans, Bobby Deerfield deals with an auto racer struggling to deal with a deadly crash. Like Steve McQueen’s Delaney, Al Pacino’s Deerfield must overcome the psychological impact of death; and like Delaney, Deerfield is drawn into a relationship with a woman dealing with her own demons. Think of it as Love Story with really fast cars.

That’s not really a fair assessment, however; although Bobby Deerfield disappointed many race fans who were expecting a movie in the mold of LeMans and were turned off by the movie’s incursion into soap opera, it eventually won praise as an incisive, underplayed character study. Pacino himself considered Deerfield to be one of his best performances from that era. While the race footage (from the 1976 Formula One season, featuring Mario Andretti, among others) isn’t perhaps up to the standards of LeMans or Grand Prix, it still packs a punch on the big screen.

While Bobby Deerfield may have failed to capture the drama on the track in the same way as LeMans had, it was a decidedly more peaceful filmmaking experience. There were no power struggles on the set, no creditors threatening to pull the plug, no tensions between the star and the director. Pacino and Keller created a credible chemistry on-screen, a chemistry they took off-screen as well.

The Big Wheel (1949)
Mickey Rooney, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

OK, so The Big Wheel isn’t going to win any prizes. The story is a typically clich├ęd sports melodrama, the story of Billy Coy (Rooney), the son of a race car driver who is killed in a fiery crash at the Indianapolis 500. (Do you notice a theme running through these movies? Racing movies are definitely not for the faint of heart.) Coy is determined to win the race that claimed his father’s life, and nothing is going to stop him – including a fire that engulfs his car in the climatic final scene.

Oh, and along the way there’s romance, conflict, and angst as well. “Restless! Reckless!” proclaims the DVD cover, and that’s about all you have to know. Rebel Without a Cause with really fast cars on a track that goes around and around.

This was one of Mickey Rooney’s first “adult” roles after his success with Andy Hardy, and while the plot isn’t anything to write home about and the special effects are pretty hokey (come on, that really isn’t Rooney behind the wheel of a burning car, is it?), this is still a movie to be included in the list. For one thing, it takes place at the Brickyard, and the racing footage goes a long way to capturing the look and feel of the Indianapolis 500 as it was back in the day, when the race was literally an all-day affair, a Memorial Day celebration that was equal parts sports spectacle and county fair. This is Indy as it really was – the wooden grandstands festooned with flags and bunting, the cars that were often little more than coffins on wheels, the skill and courage required by driver and mechanic alike to reach the finish line in one piece.

Anyone watching this movie who is only familiar with modern-day racing will be stunned – and educated – by how far the sport as come. It is more sophisticated, less primitive, not nearly as dangerous; but there’s also something more antiseptic about it, and that isn’t necessarily a good thing. Combine it with 1939's Indianapolis Speedway with Pat O'Brien and John Payne, and you'll get a pretty good sense of the rich history of the Indianapolis 500.

Winning (1969)
Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Robert Wagner

Winning is a throwback to another era, that of the all-around racer. Before the age of specialization, of corporate sponsorship of entire racing series, race car drivers were content to compete in anything that had four wheels. In Winning, Frank Capua (Newman) and his chief rival, Luther Erding (Wagner) battle in sports cars, stock cars and open-wheeled cars, with a climactic finish at the Indy 500.

There are no fiery crashes in Winning, although there is a spectacular pileup at the start of the 500 (the exciting race footage comes from the 1966 contest, which featured a 17-car melee on the first lap). The accident, in which there were no serious injuries, serves to shrink the field, making the one-on-one battle between Capua and Erding that much more intimate. Think Ben Hur, with really fast chariots and no horses.

There is a love story, of course – in this case a triangle involving the two drivers and Elora (Woodward), Capua’s wife, who finds Capua becoming more distant as he struggles to overcome a career slump. There’s also tension between Capua and his sponsor, who turns to Erding when Capua seems washed up. These hackneyed conventions are made more tolerable by the surprisingly affecting relationship between Capua and his stepson (played by Richard Thomas), who finds in Frank the father he never had, and works hard to bring Elora and Frank back together. In the end, it works.

This movie owes everything to Paul Newman. It was originally conceived as a television movie, but the participation of Newman and Woodward elevated it to the big screen. It elevated it in other ways as well; Newman has always been the kind of actor who could take a B concept movie and somehow make it more than the sum of its parts (see the otherwise routine Harper detective movies, for example). Newman, like McQueen and other racing buffs, had little time for the romantic elements of the plot; it was the fast driving that turned him on. Always a fan of racing, it was here that he learned to drive competitive cars, and his love of the sport translated into a second career as a professional racer.

Interesting note: Dave Grusin, who did the music for Bobby Deerfield, scored Winning as well.

Grand Prix (1966)
James Garner, Yves Montand, Toshiro Mifune

The Tiffany of racing movies, Grand Prix has it all. Director John Frankenheimer spent the season on the Formula One circuit, and his innovative camera mountings on the cars presaged the in-car cameras that dominate televised racing today. Frankenheimer combined this with a multishot approach to editing that often turned the screen into a montage of multiple angles and storylines running simultaneously. The result was a visual masterpiece of breathtaking racing action in a widescreen setting, which won the film three Academy Awards for effects.

For Formula One fans, Grand Prix sounds an often nostalgic note, vividly capturing many of the old European circuits that used to run along treelined public roads, with spectators standing perilously close to the track. Many of these are no longer used in Formula One, replaced by modern, more compact circuits designed to keep both the fans and the drivers safer. Safe they may be, but they’re often also flat, dull, and without much in the way of character. In Cars at Speed, his magnificent book on the Grand Prix circuit, Robert Daley mentions that auto racing’s early appeal often laid in the fact that spectators could envision themselves on the same roads as the racers, an illusion shattered with the man-made circuits of today.

While the racing action dominates Grand Prix, there is a story as well, that of four drivers battling for the Formula One championship: Garner, the American banished from Lotus for reckless driving, seeking redemption with Mifune’s new Japanese team (Garner, like McQueen and Newman, would take up racing as a serious sideline) ; Montand, the aging Ferrari champion looking for one final title while struggling with an altered perception of his sport; Brian Bedford, Garner’s former teammate, dealing with the twin specters of a near-fatal accident and the legacy of his late brother, also a world champion; and Antonio Sabato as the young Italian driver who lives only for the moment, understanding that life on the edge is what makes the whole thing worthwhile. There are, naturally, romantic triangles and fiery crashes – but without them, where would a racing film be?

Even in the somewhat soapish subplot, Grand Prix manages to sound the right notes, allowing the characters the opportunity to talk about how they cope with a job that requires you to put your life on the line every moment. The common theme is that of fatalism: you choose what you do for a living, you find a way to rationalize what happens, you live with whatever consequences may develop. You’re conscious of the risk, but if you think about it too much (as Montand’s character does in the second half of the film), you become paralyzed by it and lose the edge that keeps you alive. Phil Hill, the former world champion who appears in a bit part in Grand Prix, once said that a race driver expects to die behind the wheel. But he had thought about it so much, it no longer had any meaning for him: “I don’t believe in the law of averages. A driver makes his own averages.”

Bonus: Since I wrote this piece back in 2008, there emerged a movie that surely would have earned a spot on this list: Senna, the remarkable 2010 documentary on the life and death of the great Ayrton Senna, directed by Asif Kapadia.

The movie uses no voiceover narration, preferring instead to allow the participants themselves, along with announcers in various race footage, to tell the story of the young man from Brazil who rises through the ranks to become world Formula One champion. And Senna's story is not an easy one: his fierce rivalry with teammate and nemesis Alain Prost, his battles with F1 officials, and his role as a icon to his Brazilian countrymen - the one person in a poor and corrupt country in which they can take pride.

Kapadia succeeds in creating a deepening sense of foreboding; of course, the threat of death is never far removed from the world of motor sports, and as we approach the fateful 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, we see Senna, in an unreliable and difficult-to-control McLaren, being told by his close friend Sid Watkins, the F1 medical director, that the two of them should just chuck it and go fishing. I can't, Senna tells him, although there is no reason why he can't: multiple world championships, more money than he could possibly need, and already a status as one of, if not the, greatest grand prix champions of all time. Wisely, the film doesn't dwell on Senna's fatal accident, coming one day after the death in practice of fellow driver Roland Ratzenberger and two days after Rubens Barrichello had barely escaped being killed in practice. The crash is shown only once, but it is enough. It is, as The Sun's critic Alex Zane says, "fascinating and profoundly moving."

Originally posted May 22, 2008

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