Every once in a while (okay, usually in February and September) I find myself and my colleagues lamenting the fact that movies just aren't as good as they used to be. Looking back at the sheer volume of venerated classics from decades past, such a decree seems pretty indisputable. But the truth is that Hollywood has always churned out tons and tons of movies, and not all of them are good. In fact, most of them aren't. And that's the reason we remember the good ones, and forget the others. Even looking back just a few years, how many people ever think about The Man, starring Eugene Levy and Samuel L. Jackson? Or Ecks Vs. Sever, except maybe as a punchline?
That, however, is not to say that there are plenty of forgotten or overlooked films that aren't genuinely good. Quite the opposite, in fact: the deluge of grindhouse movies released in recent years notwithstanding (and there are a bunch of gems among those too), films like Freebie and the Bean, Grand Prix, The Killer Elite and many more featured big-name stars and high-profile directors, and are mostly ignored because they fit into filmographies and times in film history that featured bigger successes.
In addition to their always-stellar roster of foreign remasters and re-releases, Criterion has quietly dedicated themselves to resuscitating films from major studios with major stars that have otherwise been lost to time. Last month, they reissued the Michael Ritchie film Downhill Racer, which stars Robert Redford, Gene Hackman and Dabney Coleman among others, and this week's "Shelf Life" is determined to discover whether it needs to be seen by contemporary audiences, or it's a movie better left in the time in which it was originally released.
The Facts: Downhill Racer was originally released in February 1969 by Paramount Pictures. Starring Robert Redford as David Chappellet, an Olympic hopeful who joins the US downhill ski team, it became one of the films that cemented the actor as a leading man (along with Barefoot In The Park and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the latter of which was released almost simultaneously in the U.S.). Additionally, it established Michael Ritchie as a thoughtful and talented feature film director (prior to Downhill Racer he worked primarily in television).
The film currently enjoys a 77 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and writer James Salter was nominated for Best Screenplay by the Writer's Guild of America. Additionally, Redford won a BAFTA Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Chappellet.
What Still Works: While the movie certainly features many of the hallmarks that became boilerplate convention for contemporary sports stories, Ritchie's visualization of Salter's screenplay leaves plenty of wide open spaces for Redford's character to contemplate his place not only in his chosen profession, but in contemporary culture. Like the aforementioned Grand Prix and a handful of other "sports" films made in the 1960s and '70s, Downhill Racer examines the existential rather than physical demands of competition, which at that time seemed to be a reflection of American culture's own struggle to come to terms with the dreamer mentality, that idea that women and (especially) men could pursue their passions, which overtook the pragmatism and bootstrap-success idealism of earlier generations.
There's a really interesting, delicate balance that the film strikes between making David a genuinely talented guy with pure passion for what he does, and a prima donna who makes excuses and alienates others with his sense of superiority. Redford plays the role expertly, finding both youthful arrogance and hard-won humility, generating empathy and disdain from the audience in equal and sometimes simultaneous measures. And ultimately, the film conveys this kind of beautifully melancholy idea that even in the throes of victory, there is always someone right behind you, chasing your tail and trying to take away what you feel like you have earned. Contemporary sports movies aim purely for the unfettered victory, but this one seeds its own happy ending with the promise that glory is fleeting.
What Doesn't Work: Not a whole lot, although it's fairly understandable why the film didn't quite earn its place among history's most celebrated sports stories (speaking commercially, anyway). The sport of skiing itself doesn't have the immediate, visceral appeal of stuff like football or baseball, and what the film does well is amplify the sense that these skiers are essentially alone, even if they're on a team, so there's little sense of strong camaraderie or bonding that seems often to be conveyed in contemporary sports films.
Furthermore, the screenwriter and director do little to ingratiate David to the audience, and Redford offers an unflinching portrait of his cavalier arrogance and superiority, even if we can sometimes understand that there might be a reason why he fell or failed that makes him not at fault. And finally, the film's anachronistic directorial style feels authentic to the location and puts viewers right in the skis themselves, but again because the sport is writ so large against these white expanses of snow, the visual construction of the film is more meditative than narrative-oriented, which may turn off audiences more comfortable with contemporary story structures.
What's The Verdict: Downhill Racer is a really terrific movie, and certainly holds up – both as a superlative sports film (which Roger Ebert keenly observed occurs "without really being about sports at all") and a reflection of the time in which it was made. The Criterion DVD thankfully preserves Ritchie's glorious cinematography, making the alpine vistas look better than ever, while Redford's work on screen not only reminds us why he's a star, but why he's considered a great actor, as well.