In theory, Downhill Racer sounds awfully familiar. The film follows skier Dave Chappellet (Robert Redford), a cockily tormented white male in the great tradition of American sports-film heroes, a loner with daddy issues chasing private glory with marked indifference to the effects of his behavior on his fellow members of the U.S. ski team. Dave’s coach, Eugene Claire (Gene Hackman), clashes with him on a regular basis, lecturing him on his egotistical hot-dogging to little avail, as they compete in Europe for a variety of titles, gearing up for the Winter Olympics in a few years. Dave’s teammate and rival, Johnny Creech (Jim McMullen), is revealed to be a more pleasant guy than he is, while the Austrian champion (Heini Schuler) proves the most formidable obstacle for the Americans. Johnny eventually crashes out of the Olympics and Dave wins the gold medal in downhill skiing, climactically besting the Austrian’s time, only to dodge a close call in which a young German buck nearly bests his best before crashing out as well, offering telling affirmation of the impermanency of Dave’s accomplishment.
Which is to say that Downhill Racer tells another story of an athlete who’s lectured for their iconoclasm only to be rewarded for it at a pivotal moment, succinctly embodying American culture’s obsession with “the one” who must triumph above all established consideration, while informing this favorable outcome with fashionable quasi-countercultural dread. The difference resides in how Redford, director Michael Ritchie, and screenwriter James Salter choose to emphasize, or, rather, de-emphasize their beats. Downhill Racer is an experiment to see just how much one can cut out of a narrative while maintaining its essence while simultaneously disposing of much—but not all—sentimentality. It’s to the sports film what Two-Lane Blacktop is to the road movie: a poem of disconnection, acknowledging the sadness and overcompensation that often fuel thrill-seeking, though it nevertheless fetishizes said thrill-seeking.
No scene in Downhill Racer ends where one would conventionally expect it to; the pacing is lean and hard, often deliberately courting disorientation. When Dave returns home to Idaho Springs in the off season, for instance, he and his father (Walter Stroud) exchange a few suggestively charged words, but never have the moment in which Dave’s lonely manliness is rapturously contextualized, let alone resolved. Instead, Dave tells his father that he hopes to be an Olympic champion, the older man hauntingly remarking that “the world’s full of ’em.” The film’s encapsulated by that sentiment, as it’s obsessed by the puniness of victory in the face of isolation.
Episodes pile up, allowing a kind of constipated melancholia to gradually subsume the atmosphere. Dave picks up an old girlfriend in his hometown, they drive around and sleep together, she says something he barely hears, and that’s it. When Dave later discovers that another partner (Camilla Sparv) is sleeping with other men, the dissolution of their relationship is embodied by the sharp blaring of a car horn. Even Dave’s contentious sparring with Eugene, which would comprise the bulk of most sports narratives, is mostly left off screen, filled in with brief, embittered declarations that catch the audience quickly up on events that have clearly been elided. When Eugene finally lets Dave have it, their confrontation lasts all of a few lines. There’s no climax in their argument, the filmmakers nipping it because Dave can’t or won’t face such confrontation.
The skiing scenes offer reprieve from the characters’ emotional stasis. With the exception of a few memorably immersive uses of first-person perspective, Ritchie doesn’t lard the competition sequences with showy formal gymnastics, covering them mostly in alternations of wide shots that abound in the cleansing whiteness of the snow with close ups of faces and bodies to establish the prodigious speeds these skiers reach. The skiing set pieces are often exhilaratingly tactile, rich in beautiful landscapes, which the filmmakers present with lived-in casualness that’s greatly unusual for American renderings of international settings. There’s little of the distancing pageantry that one expects from a competition film, and the intimacy of the races is intensified by the subtle integration of 16mm film stock, as well as by the terrifyingly tossed-off crash simulations. Ritchie doesn’t slow the scenes down to allow the audience the opportunity to savor their detail either, because the fleetingness of these feats is the very point of a film that abounds in moments that pass by too fast.
What do these anecdotes of inchoate dissatisfaction and longing, ironically contrasted with the great sloping beauty of the European mountaintops, add up to? A film following in the tradition of other 1960s-era American productions that borrowed from the French and British new waves in an effort to inject familiar formulas with comparatively modern ennui. There’s also a hint of the influence of authors such as John Updike and John Cheever. At times, Downhill Racer’s studied inconsequentiality is more admirable than involving. The filmmakers’ obsession with mysterious, ultra-masculine story efficiency leads to the occasional papering over of promising material. (Eugene, with his determination to straddle the line between profitability and honor, is a more interesting character than Dave.)
Redford ultimately holds Downhill Racer together with the performance of his career. The actor has served as the pinnacle of hunky liberal decency for so long now that it’s authentically surprising to revisit this film and watch as he so matter-of-factly fashions a hero of prickly, poignant self-absorption. Redford briefly revises his legend a bit, elegantly casting doubt on America’s insidious lone-hero mythology.
The image has a softness that’s inherent to the source material, particularly the tricky mixing of film stocks. This softness is historically accurate, then, as well as aesthetically appealing, partially rooted in a grit that allows the dangerous beauty of the European mountaintops to prominently emerge as a source of tension and majesty. Colors are mooted and somewhat dreamy. The whites aren’t shrill, which is a danger of snowy cinema, and the earthy auburns of the interior scenes are subtly soothing. Is this presentation vastly superior to the restoration that was offered in the 2009 Criterion DVD? Background details are notably sharper in this new release, while foreground textures aren’t as pronouncedly improved. The soundtrack is a bit flat in some of the intimate domestic scenes, but that’s partially born of director Michael Ritchie’s catch-as-catch-can aesthetic. The mixing of the skiing sequences remains extraordinarily detailed and immersive. One can almost hear specific skies as they tread ground. Solid work, but not double-dip worthy, at least for the money-conscious cinephile.
These supplements have been carried over from the Criterion DVD, and they remain an informative and entertaining package. Particularly the interviews with Robert Redford and James Salter that cover the film’s initial genesis and subsequent evolution, including Roman Polanski’s flirtation with the project. Redford elaborates, with characteristic eloquence, on what drew him to the subject matter, which included a desire to question American culture’s obsession with winning. Ritchie’s loose, idiosyncratic, hard-driving directorial methods are also compellingly detailed. The interviews with editor Richard Harris, production designer Walter Coblenz, and former downhill skier Joe Jay Jalbert, who served as a technical adviser, ski double, and cameraman, all logically cover the more technical elements of production, including a dissection of which mountains were specifically used for each set piece. An audio-only AFI interview with Ritchie from 1977 provides an overview of his career from the beginning up until that point, though a more thorough and contemporary analysis of the director’s career is sorely lacking. Promotional materials and an essay by Todd McCarthy round out the package.
Criterion offers a very solid Blu-ray refurbishing of Michael Ritchie and Robert Redford’s striking existentialist skier fable, though those awaiting a significant expansion of the label’s prior 2009 package will be disappointed.