A largely forgotten member of the 1970s New Hollywood whirlwind, Michael Ritchie repeatedly used the theme of competition—from the political machinations of The Candidate to the peewee baseball league in The Bad News Bears—to address American culture’s push-pull between idealism and cynicism. The template is already set in Downhill Racer, Ritchie’s 1969 debut about a frigidly avid skier, yet the film’s real auteur may be Robert Redford. As ambitious athlete and dedicated asshole David Chappellet, the actor (who personally picked Ritchie and screenwriter James Salter to adapt Oakley Hall’s novel) uses the character’s aloof arrogance to challenge the complacency of the crowd-pleasing sports genre, as well as his own golden-jock persona. Set on reaching the Winter Olympics in Europe, David transverses the snowy slopes with little consideration for the rest of his team, alienating the coach (Gene Hackman) who still believes in the old-fashioned values of sportsmanship. While contemporary anti-establishment figures like Warren Beatty’s Clyde Barrow or Easy Rider‘s pair of Christ-hippies sought ways out of society, Redford’s emotionless athlete wants nothing but the greatest success within that society—and gets it, to chillingly hollow effect. (It’s no accident that the skiing sequences, as aestheticized as Werner Herzog’s in his mesmerizing short The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner, evoke not the sport’s exhilarating vertigos but the protagonist’s continuous drift toward a spiritual void.) Admirable as it is in its refusal of easy excitement, the film’s insistent ennui can also be a humorless drag; it’s tempting to imagine the sardonic games of one-upmanship original director Roman Polanski might have found in the story. All the same, in scenes such as the anti-hero’s visit to his resentful father (“World’s full of them,” the old man snaps of his son’s desire to become a champion), Downhill Racer stands as lean condemnation of the calculating underdog clichés Rocky would bring make the norm.
Michael Ritchie's brisk, glancing camerawork keeps the film's mostly snowy palette from getting monotonous, and Criterion's crisp transfer does it justice. The mostly muffled audio comes alive in the sporting sequences, where the fierce whooshing of skis and moody Tangerine Dream score takes over.
Video interviews with Robert Redford, writer James Salter, editor Richard Harris, and technical advisor/stunt double/cameraman Joe Jay Jalbert outline the film's origins, themes, cool audience reception, and ensuing resurrection as a cult sleeper. The late Ritchie discusses his career, influences, and methods with modesty and intelligence in audio excerpts from a 1977 American Film Institute seminar. "How Fast?," a 12-minute featurette released to (unsuccessfully) pique audiences' interest, and the theatrical trailer round out the spare but choice extras.
Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing in Ritchie's and Redford's pointed study of competitive obsessions and Phyrric victories.