Published Dec 01, 2015When Michael Ritchie's feature directorial debut, Downhill Racer, hit American theatres in late 1969, it didn't fare very well. Critics received the film well, as did sports enthusiasts, who raved about the kinetic energy and authenticity of the skiing component, but audiences were more inclined to check out the other Robert Redford movie playing on the big screen, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which had been released just a couple of weeks prior. It also didn't help that 1969 was a particularly strong year for prestige releases about anti-authoritarian antiheroes, with films like Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider vying for a similar demographic to greater success.
The bigger issue, as noted by Redford in the extended 2009 interview segment included with the Criterion Blu-ray release, was the level of studio investment.
In an effort to disentangle the project from heavy studio involvement, Redford, who was the driving force behind the film after Polanski moved on to shoot Rosemary's Baby instead, shifted production to Europe, noting the need for authenticity in world stage skiing competitions. While there, he and director Michael Ritchie — a television director Redford had crossed paths with several times prior to finding success with Barefoot in the Park and a couple of Natalie Wood comedies — developed the style and tone for Downhill Racer, employing minimalism and a documentary format to give the impression of capturing raw moments rather than overtly manufacturing them.
Artistically, Redford succeeded in his aim. He was drawn to Downhill Racer primarily for its unflattering depiction of a narcissistic champion athlete. David Chappellet, a stoic farm boy from Colorado with few intimate social ties, gets the chance to ski with the U.S. ski team when one of the lead athletes is seriously injured on the slopes. And, as depicted here, he views this opportunity selfishly, uninterested in the success of the team or the words of his coach (Gene Hackman); he wants to win, and his behaviour — complaining about the starting order and ignoring the needs of those around him — is as much a reflection of poor character as it is the mindset of the sort of determination and dedication championed by a culture that prioritizes individual success.
Mirroring his single-minded pursuit of being crowned a champion is Chappellet's relationship with women. When he travels home to Colorado while on break, he casually fucks an old girlfriend, completely tuning out her feelings and observations about the experience, even ignoring her when she tries to give him an update on her life. There is a minor irony in the latter half of the film, when his relationship with Swiss socialite Carole (Camilla Sparv) shows him receiving a similar sort of treatment, but here, his actions, which consistently speak louder than the words he can never quite articulate, demonstrate a genuine lack of interest in the needs of others. This is particularly evident during the infamous horn scene in the car when he cuts her off mid-sentence.
But, ignoring cinematic convention of the time, which would find romantic involvement interfering with Chappellet's ability to perform on the slopes, our protagonist's focus on an end goal never wavers. This trajectory, which likely would have worked more effectively with the original ending of the film, gradually builds to a greater observation about the fleeting nature of such successes and the observation that there's always someone with equal if not greater determination hot on your heels.
In part, this anti-American template was problematic for the studio. Having an anti-establishment protagonist wasn't exactly breaking ground in the late '60s, but the general idea and the lack of narrative convention merely exacerbated the already tumultuous relationship between the studio and this project, which meant that very little effort went into marketing the film. The cutting edge cinematography — Downhill Racer was the first film to feature skiing from the point of view of a skier — and visceral manner in which the sport was captured should have been easily exploitable regardless of the somewhat snarky and irreverent tone, but the damage had been done long before the production actually started.
Here, as captured by the restored high definition transfer, there are several stylistic techniques that would later go on to be commonplace in sports films. The juxtaposition of action with sportscaster context and audience reaction is now a standard way to capture the action of sports, but at the time, this was somewhat avant-garde. The Criterion release cleans up the aesthetic and sound (largely revealing an abundance of antiquated aspects of professional skiing), but still can't make up for some of the damaged footage of the slopes.
Despite these minor visual flaws, this Blu-ray is the strongest, most comprehensive (there's also a rare archive promotional feature and some audio excerpts from a 1977 American Film Institute seminar with Michael Ritchie) version of the film to date.