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Grand Prix Print E-mail
Wednesday, 01 November 2006

Image When it was released back in 1966, “Grand Prix” was cutting-edge filmmaking expertise as far as shooting close-in action shots of high-speed Formula 1 racing. Of course, that was 40 years ago. We’ve come a long way, and the special effects of “Grand Prix” pale in comparison to the computer-generated look of “The Fast And The Furious”. The fact that the story lags and lacks, and that the film is almost three hours long, requires patience from the viewer as well. Yet, there’s a certain clarity of character and storyline that manages to keep an audience in front of the movie.

For those not familiar with Grand Prix: Grand Prix (big prize) is a series of races that started in France. In the beginning, around the turn of the 20th century, motorists simply raced from one city to the next. (For a wackier look at the world of early auto racing, look at Blake Edwards’ “The Great Race” and Ken Annakin’s “Those Daring Young Men In Their Jaunty Jalopies.”) The race was spread over two days and ran about 400 miles, taking the racers at that time almost six hours. In addition to taking a lot of skill and being hard on the vehicles, the Grand Prix was also exhausting for the drivers. Later the style of racing became known as Formula One racing, because all of the drivers and the vehicles had to meet certain standards.

By 1966, the Grand Prix was an international event. Tons of national and economic pride was on the line, and everyone was shooting for the checkered flag. As a result, since the cars were open to reduce weight and wind drag, the races were also deadly. But the sport wasn’t just lethal for the competitors; occasionally it was lethal for the fans. Sometimes only a few bales of hay stand between an observer and a speeding racer hurtling along at better than two hundred miles an hour. John Frankenheimer loved the sport and wanted to get it exactly right, and to bring the audience as close to the racing experience as he could. His efforts resulted in Academy Awards for Best Effects, Best Editing, and Best Sound in 1967. At the time, he was breaking down barriers for viewers. At the time, he used all the Panavision 65mm cameras that had been made, and the film was released in the single-projector Cinerama process.

The story in “Grand Prix” is a very basic one. American racecar driver, Pete Aron (James Garner), is stubborn and driven to win. While in Monaco, the last of the races held through the regular streets of the city, he has trouble with his gearbox, but he also has trouble letting his British racing buddy, Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford), pass him by. Aron wants to win. And Stoddard suffers from the same compulsion. During a narrow turn, they collide and go off the road into the sea. Aron escapes more or less unscathed, but Stoddard is badly injured.

Back at the hospital, Pat Stoddard (Jessica Walter) knows that her husband won’t give up racing even after this. She decides to leave him and does. Stoddard is broken emotionally as well. Later, when Aron comes to see him, they have harsh words.

Meanwhile, Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand) celebrates his win and gets to meet Louise Frederickson (Eva Marie Saint), an American journalist who’s there to cover the Grand Prix for women readers who want to understand the sport. Viewers can see early on that Sarti and Louise are going to get romantically involved even though Sarti is married.

In the meantime, part of the focus switches to Nino Barlini (Antonio Sabato), a young rookie driver on the circuit. He’s celebrating at a party when he meets Lisa (Francoise Hardy), a young girl looking to pick up a driver.

Aron tries to get another automobile company for a backer, but no one wants to touch him. Ultimately, he gets a job with a broadcasting studio, but it isn’t long before he meets Izo Yamura (Toshiro Mifune), a wealthy Japanese automobile manufacturer who decides to hire him to drive. Shortly after that, Aron runs into Pat, who’s signed on with Louise’s group. Pat is there modeling, still using her husband’s name even though she won’t see him. Aron confronts her about that. Then more sparks fly until they ultimately end up having an affair.

The story is incredibly simple, and it’s not hard to work out all the twists and turns ahead of time. But there’s something hypnotic about the blood and thunder of the racetracks.

James Garner turns in a rock-solid performance as Pete Aron, exhibiting the same calm, self-assurance that made him a leading man. He’d just left television behind him (“Maverick”) but still had his greatest role ahead of him (“The Rockford Files”). Some of the interesting lore surrounding Garner was that he took to Grand Prix racing like a duck to water.

Since Frankenheimer refused to shoot any of the sequences in slow motion and speed the film up because he thought the audiences would be able to tell, all of the stars were supposed to drive. Garner excelled and Sabato did all right, but Montand had to be towed behind another car. Bedford refused to drive after a near-accident and a stunt driver had to take over, which was why Bedford’s face is always covered when he’s driving.

Jessica Walter comes across as a Jackie Kennedy clone. Her clothes and her attitude were very much a reflection of the times. Women’s lib was distinctly in focus at this time, and Walter sort of carries the torch.

Eva Marie Saint’s character, Louise Frederickson, does something of the same thing. Instead of the Walter’s independent natur, though, Saint’s character shows more of a penchant for professionalism, a Helen Gurley Brown approach which plays really well on the screen.

Francoise Hardy is more the emerging hippy chick/free spirit. She’s in Monaco to pick up a driver for a physical relationship. However, Sabato’s character delivers on that for a while, then doesn’t understand why Lisa gets upset when he takes other women to bed. When we last see Lisa, she’s already hooked up with another guy, using almost exactly the same lines of dialogue to accomplish her goal.

Toshiro Mifune does a good job of portraying a Japanese industrialist, but the role doesn’t call for much. (He’s evidently dubbed.) Still, it’s pleasant watching him and Garner working together, discussing World War II and how it might come between them. But that’s just a sidebar to the story and doesn’t impact the overall story in any way.

Brian Bedford delivers a very stiff-upper lip role, but the viewer can see how hurt he is physically as he gets hooked on drugs to stave off the pain. Even when he confronts Pat and lets her know about her affair with Aron, he just comes across too calm. Their later reconciliation is almost by rote, not a real defining point in the story at all.

The storyline that really gives the heartstrings a tug is the relationship between Sarti and Louise. Montand and Saint’s chemistry works well on the screen and feels real. They don’t strike a false note together.

However, people didn’t go to see “Grand Prix” back in 1966 for the story. They went for the same reasons that audiences watched the races. For the excitement and spectacle—and they saw it on the huge Cinerama screen. As you’ll notice in the film, no one got to see the whole race. Most of it was away from the spectator. But the cameras put the viewers almost in the seats with the drivers, and definitely follow them around the course. That’s where Frankenheimer left his mark, and why people still talk about the movie 40 years later.

HD DVD Video: The transfer to the HD DVD is almost perfect. In fact, I say almost because even though I never saw a flicker or a fade, I know it can’t be perfect. But it sure does look that way. Frankenheimer used the 65mm lenses to their utmost back in the day, and the shots of the races are really good. I can only guess what his audiences must have thought about the film back in the day. I’m too jaded by computer generated stuff to be much impressed, but I’m also old enough to remember when a lot of movies were shot on sets. One thing that is a little annoying is all the artistic shots, the stacking of scenes, multiple images, and split screens. We see this so much in movies today we expect it to be smooth, to be part of a transition, and not overly call attention to itself. That’s not the case in “Grand Prix”. It’s almost like the director is waving the special effect in your face from time to time, as at the beginning.

HD DVD Audio: Although the sound has been separated out and worked up, it doesn’t really have as much impact as it should. The racecar engines slam through the center and side speakers, but don’t really do that much to the subwoofer. The roar is loud, but I also got the sense it was somehow muted. There’s no sound track either, which gave the film something of a bland feel.

The HD DVD really shines in the special features program. There are new interviews with James Garner, background on the Grand Prix, on Frankenheimer, a making-of documentary that was put together after the fact, and a historical piece on the Grand Prix as well. One of the best things about this HD DVD is the opportunity to sit down and reminisce with all the people that were there during the filming.

As a further note about how dangerous the sport was, Frankenheimer employed 32 drivers on the film. Within a couple years, 21 of them were dead, killed in racing mishaps.

Even in its day, “Grand Prix” didn’t set any box office records, nor did it garner any praise for the storytelling. But when it came to exploratory filmmaking regarding action and intense racing scenes, Frankenheimer set the bar for a long time to come.

Racing enthusiasts will love this film all over again, and fans of Garner will enjoy him in the role of Pete Aron, but at three hours, this isn’t going to be an HD DVD people pick up for family viewing night, or for a quick evening’s entertainment. But if you’re looking for this kind of entertainment, a really nice collection of special features, and want to see history in the making all over again, “Grand Prix” delivers in spades.

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