At the Movies

Considering my alpine lust lately, one of my old favorites, Downhill Racer, seemed a fitting choice this week. This cult classic from 1969 stars Robert Redford in one of his earliest roles.  Don’t let the title mislead you. This is definitely a film about skiing, racing and competition but it is not a fast action-packed sports movie. This is a contemplative edgy film more in the tradition of French new wave with that semi-journalistic style and hand-held camera work reminiscent of Godard.  And this is why it is included in the prestigious Criterion Collection, famous for their impressive assemblage of art house and creative classics (as an aside, this DVD cover is not up to their usual high standards – go here to see the vastly superior alternate versions designer Eric Skillman presented for consideration). And partially due its inclusion, critics and audiences are rediscovering this film.

“Four decades later, Downhill Racer seems better than ever, not merely the best film ever made about skiing (an encomium that’s almost an insult) but that rarest of triumphs—a pointedly unsentimental sports movie,” said John Powers in Vogue just last year. Chris Nashawaty of Entertainment Weekly also praised this as “the best movie ever made about skiing” (not that there is a ton of competition), but adds, “This alpine masterpiece is one of Redford’s greatest movies.” High praise indeed. And you will see why when you (hopefully) watch it. Beautiful photography, spare understated performances and a timeless message all make this a film worth watching. Redford’s portrayal of the aloof, egotistical and ruthless David Chappellet represents the perfect 60’s antihero, begging comparison to contemporary characters such as Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider and Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde. Director Michael Ritchie, who went on with Redford to make The Candidate, and author James Salter, who wrote the screenplay, collaborated with Redford to make the kind of creative film that Hollywood didn’t know what to do with. Against Redford’s wishes, it was marketed purely as a sports film by the studio, which is why it was a box office failure and why ultimately, after this film, Redford founded Sundance. Nowadays, with a stronger interest in independent arty films, this could have been delivered by a studio such as Miramax and handled properly to much greater acclaim.

The first of what Redford intended to be a trilogy on the price of success in America (the second being The Candidate), Downhill Racer has a fascinating back story. Based on the 1963 novel by Oakley Hall, The Downhill Racers, it was originally optioned by Paramount whose first go around failed. When Robert Evans took over the studio, he used it as an added attraction to lure in Roman Polanski, an avid skier, to make Rosemary’s Baby. Redford, who was already on board to star in the horror film, had taken a keen interest in the ski picture, and secretly enticed Salter to write the screenplay. In the meantime, due to his involvement with Rosemary’s Baby, Polanski was pulled off the project and Redford was sued by the studio from walking away from Blue, another movie he was contracted for. The film fell by the wayside but Redford was determined. It became his baby and he convinced the studio to let him produce it cheaply by filming in Europe at such spectacular alpine locations as Wengen, Switzerland; Megève, France; and Kitzbuhel and St. Anton, Austria. Redford handpicked Ritchie as the director and with bare bones expenses the film ultimately came in under budget at $1.8 million.

The film also stars Gene Hackman, delivering his usual excellent performance as the Olympic ski coach, the gorgeous Camilla Sparv, Robert Evans’s ex-wife, as Redford’s glamorous love interest and Dabney Coleman as the assistant coach.

Here is the rather terse trailer for the Criterion version, but it will give you a feel for the stunning scenery and cinematography. If you’re enticed, then I highly recommend you give this underrated 60s classic a whirl.

49 thoughts on “At the Movies

  1. Speaking of Netflix…here is another one for my queue! Thanks…I l.o.v.e. Robert Redford, and have been trying to catch up on some of the 60s classics. That shot of him with white shades looks so of the moment. Amazing.

  2. Hi Jennifer – Ah another night owl! This is really a sleeper – very European in feel – a searing character study. Let me know what you think.

    • I totally agree with the European feeling. I am going to do a double bill when I get out of the snowbound mess at Philly airport…The “Candidate” and “Down Hill Racer”. I just saw “King’s Speech” and it is going to clean up at Oscar time….!

      • Hi Jane – Oh hope you get out – it’s snowing pretty hard here. That double bill would be fabulous – although you may feel a tad cynical afterwards! Can’t believe I haven’t seen King’s Speech yet – it’s definitely my kind of film – and I guess everyone else’s as well!!

  3. My children are downhill racers and I am in awe of anyone who engages in this sport of speed and grace and “agility.” This is now on my list to watch.

    • pve – my husband was a racer – went to junior olympics – so even he was willing to watch this. it’s really a find!

  4. I love this film! It is a joy to see it mentioned. When I saw it at uni – obv not in the sixties it made me want to go skiing. I did eventually years later – I must get the dvd to watch is again. I could have a night of this, and 5 Easy Pieces.

    • zhush – if you like redford, you’ll love this – he’s at his young handsome best! and it’s easy to miss – an under the radar film.

    • AO – you don’t have to be a skier to appreciate this! but will be amazed at the beauty and rigor of the sport.

    • buzz – yes the acting was great – love how it had that almost documentary feel. and it turns out it’s perfect for today!

    • Hi Diana – Redford is at his stunning best in this – but don’t expect to like him! Wishing you a great weekend as well.

    • Hi Kate – If you’re a skier you will love this – the skiing footage is incredible – you feel like you are on the mountain. Have a great weekend too!

    • Oh hi Jeanne – too funny – I was just visiting you – love your charming hydrangea illustration. You’ll love this movie – but not a typical Redford – rather artsy – almost a period piece.

    • Hi Jeanette – I don’t think I’ve ever seen Gene Hackman give anything but a stellar performance. And I love that you never see him in the news.

  5. Only faintly remember seeing this long ago…gosh with you in my life I am no longer stumped about what movie to rent…and I do so admire and trust your taste…a must see to get me in the mood to hit the slopes. Have a wonderful weekend!


  6. My age is definitely showing, but am all aflutter seeing both Redford and Hackman in their prime….

    • imperio – I think I’m dating myself as well just by suggesting it!! They’re both fabulous in it!

  7. So excited to learn about this! Robert Redford is one my favorite actors and this sounds like a great movie…adding it to my queue immediately! Have a great weekend!

    xo Kelly

    • Hi Kelly – You and I are frequently on the same page so I think I can safely say you will love this!

  8. Sold! Late 60s setting, Redford and skiing. I’m in! After an unfortunate ski accident a decade ago, I’m relegated to the blue slopes now, but we love to go skiing as a family and I love the whole atmostphere.

    My boys talked me into getting them Raiders of the Lost Ark for tonight, but I’ll put this one in my personal que!

    • PPT – Don’t worry – I’ve never skied above blue – ever! I just love being out there especially first tracks! I love Raiders – great family pick!!

    • Hi Francine – You are most welcome! I think you’ll really enjoy it – the ski sequences are amazing – and it has a rather cool 60s feel to it. My husband was also a racer and I just told him that I recently read in a review of ski resorts that Whistler is frequently considered the top place to ski anywhere! So have a great time!!

  9. So happy to have found your site. This is a brilliant, very insider and thoughtful review. I remember it well and love your comparison to Easy Rider. I live in Venice not far from Dennis Hopper’s residence; an almost street long graffiti mural is dedicated to him. Very resonant, that period.

    • Hi Madeleine – thank you so much for your lovely and much appreciated comment – insightful is the highest praise in my book! There are so many great films from this era, both here and abroad – I love that this is now getting the attention it deserves.

    • Hi Eddie – It is a fabulous winter wonderland here. Enjoying indoor activities while admiring serene scenery.

    • Hi Karena – It would be a great rental. And an an artist you would appreciate the amazing cinematography and tight art direction.

  10. Thank you Q — I was trying to think of a family movie for tonight!! I am baking french bread and making “penicilliin” (chicken and rice soup). “Downhill Racer” will be a clincher for my get-well family dinner!!

    • SM – Sounds like the perfect combination! This will fit right in – especially since I know you’ve been to many of the alpine locations featured in the movie!

  11. How did all these years pass bye me & I have never seen this Redford film? Thank you, I cannot wait to track this down. I loved reading all bout it. This is Redford and Hackman in definitely in their prime.

    Sending you happy New Year wishes ~

    • DTH – It’s definitely an under-the-radar classic. I love that whole new wave 60s era – I’ll be writing more about it this week. It’s very different from his usual films – well, hopefully you’ll see. Must say that I just loved your Chestnuts Roasting… I wasn’t around last year to see the first.

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