After a more than a decade in Hollywood 33-year-old Robert Redford broke through as a major star in 1969’s smash hit Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But he had two other key roles that year. One was in Tell Them Willie Boy is Here, a Western whose social consciousness is embedded in his multi-hyphenate career. The other, Downhill Racer, defines a facet of his screen personality, and has received the Criterion Collection treatment on standard DVD.
Outside of Butch Cassidy and The Sting, Redford has always been one of the most introspective stars—not for him the more declarative, chest-beating style of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, or other actors of his remarkable generation. He’s inwards, not outwards. Cautious—and, in the eyes of some critics, vague, or timid. (Brad Pitt, the star of Redford’s A River Runs Through It and co-star in Spy Game, was once called “the new Robert Redford,” but it’s as difficult to imagine Redford appearing in True Romance, Twelve Monkeys, and Inglourious Basterds as it is thinking of Pitt for The Way We Were, The Great Gatsby, or Out of Africa.) But these qualities are all pluses for the character of skier David Chappellet, who takes his place on the U.S. Ski Team, but is far from a team player.
Truth is, the close-to-unlikable Chappellet is a bit of a prick, whose dedication to his ego rivals his commitment to his sport. As the team heads to Europe he’s thoughtless to his teammates, and the women who drift through his life (principally Camilla Sparv, who in real life was a former wife of Paramount Pictures chief Robert Evans, and in this film is a challenge to any athlete’s “self-denial”). The head coach, well-played as always by Gene Hackman, is irritated by his attitude, as he tries to keep the team together and rattles his tin cup looking for funding. Plot is minimal in a script written by novelist James Salter—the only hint we get at what drives, and also deforms, the restless, self-defensive Chappellet is a tense visit with his father (non-professional Walter Stroud), a flinty Coloradoan who grouses that he doesn’t get the point of winning without compensation.
Redford picked TV director Michael Ritchie to make his feature debut with Downhill Racer, a labor of love whose production struggles, he says in a supplementary interview, inspired him to found the Sundance Institute. Ritchie favored an off-the-cuff, almost documentary approach to the movie, which withholds the standard comforts of story and third-act redemption in favor of savory found moments—Redford improvises a memorable scene of relationship meltdown with Sparv, and I laughed out loud when a TV sports program alighted on a skier who looked like Redford and misidentified him as Chappellet, temporarily confusing Chappellet (and me). This freewheeling approach bugged the film’s European crew (who found the notion of an American downhill champ unbelievable, given Europe’s dominance in the Olympic event) but covers a lot of ground more briskly than a more orthodox movie could, and Ritchie and Redford refined it for their great collaboration on 1972’s The Candidate.
Buried in its original release, Downhill Racer doesn’t hold together as tightly as The Candidate (this is the first time I’ve watched the movie all the way through) but the new disc makes a strong case for it. The only thing better than DP Brian Probyn’s exciting filming of the races would be that same camerawork in Imax, and the anamorphic widescreen image captures it perfectly. (Between this and the underrated Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 1969 was a great year for ski movies.)
Redford, a good storyteller, and Salter discuss how the film came together in the main featurette. Redford discusses the original director, Roman Polanski, how the movie’s uncertain ending contrasts with the happy one he insisted on for The Natural, a downbeat book, and putting the production together while auditioning for a Dino De Laurentiis remake of Roman Holiday—a musical remake, which surely would have changed the course of cinema had it been made. Editor Richard Harris, production manager Walter Coblenz, and former downhill skier Joe Jay Jalbert (who was paid $500 for each stunt fall) reminisce about the nuts and bolts of the film in separate video interviews. A fine booklet essay by Variety’s chief critic, Todd McCarthy, adds further context.
Ritchie went on to direct The Candidate; a terrific movie about competition, Smile (1975); and his biggest sports-themed hit, The Bad News Bears (1976). He died in 2001, but contributes via audio excerpts from a AFI panel taped in 1977. After that his career went, well, downhill, with 1985’s Fletch and the more characteristic HBO movie The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom (1993) the only real standouts. The new disc revisits several careers on the upswing.
On the Criterion website, hear Redford discuss Downhill Racer’s icy test screening in Santa Barbara.
For more movie reviews and essays, visit Between Productions.
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