The closest Steve McQueen came to realizing his dream of making the quintessential car-racing film is Le Mans, a well-oiled, clean-burning machine that only pales in comparison to acknowledged classics like Vanishing Point and Two-Lane Blacktop. While it’s tempting to call Le Mans, which was produced by Solar Productions (McQueen’s production company), a vanity project, nothing could be farther from the truth. McQueen’s persona melts into the background of the film. Furthermore, Le Mans has very little dialogue and is almost entirely focused on its lead protagonist’s need to move and remain focused in a subjectively defined world that’s all about fighting back distraction with precise spur-of-the-moment decisions.
While the film follows Michael Delaney, McQueen’s obsessed racer, over the course of one 24-hour-long race, specifically the 38th Annual Grand Prix, his story isn’t about whether or not he wins the race, but about the emotions stirred up by the Grand Prix. Le Mans is a character study more than an action film or a melodrama about the Grand Prix. Its main character disappears from the spotlight for long stretches; much of the film’s 108-minute runtime is spent organically developing Michael’s frame of mind. Information on the race is only related through PA announcements that are totally subordinate to abstracted images of pit crews readying cars, throngs of people getting into place, and drivers bustling about their vehicles.
The stakes in Le Mans are similarly largely implied. Winning for winning’s sake is a top priority for Michael, but that singular goal is threatened by the reemergence of ghosts from his recent past. As a result, the struggle to maintain his no-nonsense cool becomes paramount. Michael makes a point of not doing or feeling more than he needs to: He responds to the drivers around him, but doesn’t get upset when things get out of control.
Michael’s nuts-and-bolts mentality toward racing suggests that the act of competitive driving is literally vital to him. He tells Lisa (Elga Andersen), an old flame he periodically bumps into at the Grand Prix, that everyone who enters the race knows the risks they’re taking—that it’s a “life-or-death” opportunity. During one of the only substantial conversations in the film, Michael explains to Lisa, his biggest source of potential distraction at the Grand Prix, what we the viewer have been experiencing throughout the film up until that point: his need to be in control. He begins, “Racing is important to men who do it well. When you’re racing, it’s…” Then McQueen’s eyes begin to wander just as the drone of revving engines flairs up. “It’s life,” he continues. “Anything that happens before or after, it’s just waiting.”
Director Lee H. Katzin meticulously assembles Le Mans around that telling line of dialogue. It’s the linchpin of the film and the only extraneous bit of information hanging off of the film’s otherwise lean narrative frame. For instance, looking and doing are conflated throughout the film. Michael’s traumas are reignited not through discussions, but through absent stares. In the film’s opening scene, he gazes at a guardrail and the very act of his looking plunges us without warning into an almost-wordless flashback wherein he gets into a life-changing car accident.
Similarly, the look of absolute attention on McQueen’s face when he’s behind the wheel is only further accentuated by the fact that his eyes are the only facial feature that we can see. A cloth handkerchief covers his face, automatically making him the impenetrable enigma that so many of his other films tried and sometimes succeeded in making him out to be. McQueen’s eyes survey everything, assessing and assigning importance to things that even we can’t see after a point. These behind-the-wheel scenes are a fantastic reminder of just how good of a reactive performer McQueen was; they’re also the highlights of one of his best films.
This new DVD release of Le Mans is automatically superior to the previous one from 2003 as it preserves the film's original 16:9 aspect ratio. The picture quality is strong, practically spotless, but the 5.1 surround soundtrack isn't as striking; the sound effects seem to have been mixed at a higher level than the film's dialogue and Michel Legrand's innocuous score.
Apart from a theatrical trailer, the only special feature on this new DVD release of the film is "Filming at Speed: The Making of the Movie Le Mans," a sleepy featurette narrated by Chad McQueen, Steve's son. But aside from some interesting anecdotes about Steve McQueen's passion for racing, this skimpy production history of the film is pretty inessential.
Le Mans needs to be rediscovered so that it can be hopefully embraced as one of star Steve McQueen's finest hours.