Criterion Review: Downhill Racer Swiftly Pleases

Is it possible that the great American sports film is not about football, baseball, or boxing, but instead about downhill ski racing? Likely not, but Downhill Racer (1969) makes a strong case for the possibility, filled to the brim with heart-pounding slides down snow-covered ravines, the quiet contemplation of an athlete competing against himself, and a realistic scorn for coming in second. The film is about winning and losing, not playing the game. And Downhill Racer is determined to win absolutely on his own merits.

David Chappellet (Robert Redford) is a world-class skier with an attitude to match. After another skier breaks his leg in a nasty fall, Coach Claire (Gene Hackman) gives Chappellet a shot at training with the U.S. Ski Team for the Olympics, but Chappellet must first prove that his skills match his fiery ego. This womanizing loner is good at what he does, he even believes he is the best. But will it be enough to win the Olympics?

There's more to the film than that, of course, including a weary visit to his small-town home in Colorado, where we are given brief insight into what has made Chappellet the man he is today. In his dealings with women and men alike, Chappellet is entirely without tact, and Redford plays the role with casual arrogance. Here is a man with machinelike tendencies, awkward in his relationships with others, cocky and self-sure on the slopes. Gene Hackman fills his role perfectly as a coach who attempts to direct and hone Chappellet's natural abilities while frustrated at his lack of team spirit. Although he finds himself part of a team, Chappellet aggressively seeks to set himself apart in all things. And it's hard to deny that he has a point, in a way. Though the racers train together, travel together, and hang out together, they ultimately must prove themselves alone on the slopes. These racers are entirely alone as they attempt to not only escape the icy turns with their bodies intact, but also to shave precious milliseconds off of their fine-tuned times. This supreme self-involvement comes across shallow and haunted, but really, what could be more American than the good-looking athlete destined for glory?

The highs of Downhill Racer come from the stunning European ski slopes, the swooping racers, and the thrill of devastating life-altering injury. There is some truly original camera work, from the first person perspective, as racers hurtle down the hills at breakneck speeds. This is a film of firsts, the first feature film directed by Michael Ritchie, who would go on to work with Robert Redford again, and the first feature with Redford acting as unofficial producer. Made in 1969 on a positively shoe-string budget of approximately two or three million dollars, Downhill Racer reads more early '70s in design, while maintaining a sensibility that is entrenched in the late '60s. The film has a casual documentary style, filled with close-ups and candid moments. Several shots are positively astonishing when you consider that they are in no way manipulated or digitally altered, simply a man on skis flying down a hill with a 40-pound film camera in his hands.

Though perhaps it may perplex some that the Criterion Collection has chosen to preserve this film, they have done it justice. The packaging is sleek, cold, and simple with the vibrant yet minimal colors of the film splashed here and there. The images are crisp and the high-definition transfer was made from a beautiful print. As far as content goes, this release delivers the goods and more. Embarrassingly, Todd McCarthy begins his essay with misattributing a line from the film to Robert Redford's character when in fact it was not Redford but an assistant coach who makes the astute observation, "Well, it's not exactly a team sport is it?" Criterion is usually so precise that it's hard to imagine such a blunder getting through the early stages of planning, but it did. Other than this misstep, the essay is chock full of accurate information and keen insight into Redford's portrayal of Chappellet. Poached directly from the Criterion website, the disc includes: "New video interviews with Robert Redford, screenwriter James Salter, film editor Richard Harris, production manager Walter Coblenz, and former downhill skier Joe Jay Jalbert, who served as a technical adviser, ski double, and cameraman." The interviews are phenomenal, as one is let in to the behind-the-scenes glory of Joe Jay Jalbert's handheld camera work, the editing process, and the complications involving the project from start to finish. Also included are excerpts from a 1977 seminar with Michael Richie, as well as a short promotional featurette narrated by Redford, How Fast, which basically gives an overview of the entire film.

Downhill Racer must have been a sight to see on the big screen, the cold almost seeping through the screen as we watch racer after racer prepare silently in the ski lift to the peak, the waiting, the relentless race against the clock, and the solitary journey into infamy as the crowd swallows each racer at the finish line.

Downhill Racer is available November 17, 2009, from The Criterion Collection.