Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Fast Men, Faster Cars: Grand Prix

Grand Prix (1966, John Frankenheimer)

Director John Frankenheimer is one of those people working within Hollywood one could always trust in producing solid, well made, engaging pieces of entertainment. This talented director was very much along the lines of Robert Wise or today's Steven Soderbegh, in that he could tackle a great many genres and one could practically guarantee the results were to be positive. Earlier in the marathon was published a review for the Steve McQueen picture Le Mans, which impressed for its technical skills, all of which brought the thrill of the race to life for audiences. The downside was everything else (story, characters and all), which fell terribly flat. Frankenheimer's Grand Prix is, interestingly enough, a film McQueen could have starred in, were it not for creative differences.

The story sprawls over the course of a Formula 1 season, the first race depicted being that of Monaco, in southern France. After some whimsical editing and cinematography techniques which show off, first, the director's skills when wanting to aim for visual flair and, depicting the intensity of the races, the viewer is provided with some info about who the principle racers are. Pete Aron (James Garner) is an American, teamed up with Brit Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford). While the latter is currently one of the true great drivers on the circuit, the former, once great, is now deemed to be past his prime. An incident at Monaco born of out Pete's insolence results in Scott's car crashing, leaving the driver in dire physical condition in bed for several weeks. Other drivers and characters the picture follows are Frenchman Ferrari driver Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand), the American journalist who follows and falls in love with him over the course of the season, Louise (Eva Marie Saint), Scott's wife Pat (Jessica Walter) who finds herself attracted to Pete, Izo Yamura (Toshiro Mifune), the newcomer industrialist on the circuit whom Pete joins after losing his job on his former team, and Jean-Pierre's young hotshot Ferrari partner, Nino Barlini (Antiono Sabato).

It may come as a surprise to some that Frankenheimer's film clocks in at a staggering 176 minutes. Not exactly record breaking time for speed. To put it bluntly (and in pun-like terms), Grand Prix is not a sprint, but rather a marathon. The irony of the situation is that the elongated running time helps the story find its groove. The story per say is light enough, essentially boiling down to 'who will win this season's championship?' In truth, it is the multiple character journeys directly attached to said plot about championship competition which deliver the goods in Grand Prix, a film that strikes the balance between compelling drama where the personalities involved are very three dimensional and the action, that being whatever transpires on the racing tracks, is top notch quality. 


The most obvious comparison is Le Mans, but in reality they are two very different pictures with far fewer things in common than one may imagine. Le Mans is very much dedicated to the action, offering scant little in the way of story, and when it does the results are underwhelming. Grand Prix aims to strike for a much more satisfying, well calculated balance between scenes of thrills and the character arcs. What's more, the character arcs themselves are not only compelling in their own right, but tie into the racing season itself. It would have been one thing for the film to deliver the goods during the races and then offer supplemental plot lines for fans of good drama. Frankenheimer and company goes the extra distance and tie it all in together. Pete Aron is looking for a chance to redeem himself, to prove to everyone that he can still not only race, but win as well. His new employer, Yamura, is wishing to prove that he can win, but in a different way since he has never accomplished anything in this domain, having made his name in appliances and electronics. Jean-Pierre is a situation similar yet also vastly different than that of Aron, for the Frenchman is also getting along in years, but unlike his American counterpart, he continues to win on a consistent basis. Just how long can he be a contender for the championship, especially with Nino right behind him? Finally, there is Scott Stoddard, always a contender, a prideful young man, whose injury at the hand of Aron's mistake leaves him severely handicapped. Not only does his wife choose to leave him (temporarily at least), but he can no longer race, or so say the pundits. Scott's feverish passion for the sport means the fire inside is never extinguished, and regardless of what some prefer to believe, he will somehow, someway find himself in a Formula One vehicle at some point later in the season and compete for the top prize. Sadly, albeit maybe unsurprisingly, the three female characters featured in Grand Prix, Louise, Pat and Lisa (Nino's current girlfriend, played by Fran├žoise Hardy) are not awarded the same treatment. First and foremost, Lisa is not given much of a story at all. As for Pat, as beautiful as Jessica Walter was back in the day (a real peach, that's for sure), her screen time is predominantly used up as the emotionally conflicted wife caught between two men, a predicament which is essentially of her own doing. Finally, Louise, the reporter whose current subject is Jean-Pierre, has the most interesting arc given that her sense of freedom and strong independence is challenged by her growing feelings for the professional driver. It makes for dramatic conflict, although conflict emanating from the some of the semi-stereotypical qualities a female lead character.

Nay, it is for certain the men who receive the meatiest parts in the script, but be that as it may, the film is nevertheless quite good in that regard. The story also shies away from delving too much into cliches. It could have been incredibly easy for any one of these characters to be more unlikable than the rest, thus filling the role of the piece's villain. Search as long as they wish, viewers will not find any true antagonists. In fact, if there is any antagonist at all, it would have to be each contestant's insatiable hunger for victory. Each has a second venue waiting for them. Jean-Pierre may graciously retire. He is wealthy and has proven himself a winner more than once in his career. Aron has also experienced a strong career with a fair share of Grand Prix wins to call his own. Broadcasting becomes a possibility for a short period, although once Mr. Yamura calls him up, there is no second guessing what Aron will do. Scott would do best to rest the remainder of the campaign out. It is all played out rather smoothly, rarely feeling contrived at all. The fact that the film is a little longer than most

And what of the action? Not too long ago plenty of praise was showered onto Le Mans for its spectacular camera set-ups, cinematography and editing, and while it may seem implausible, especially since Frankenheimer's picture is 5 years the former's senior, the case can be made that Grand Prix looks and feels even better. The only nitpicks occurs whenever the director chooses to have the image multiply within the picture frame. The decision is questionable from an aesthetic standpoint and from a thematic one. What is its purpose? Who knows... Other than that however, the races look absolutely astonishing, and, if the bonus material on the disc is to believed, represent a reasonably accurate depiction of what F1 was like back in the mid 1960s, a decade during which the safety measures of the sport were improved by leaps and bounds. At the time Grand Prix was made however, the criteria was still surprisingly lax by today's standards, which makes the competitions all that more exciting.

John Frankenheimer's picture is, in all likelihood, the definitive depiction of motor racing within a fictional story. The acting is solid, as is the overall plot, and of course the action is top notch.

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