What do you do when you despise the person most likely to bring your goals to fruition? We're not talking about the Republican establishment's dilemma with Donald Trump but, rather, the central plot premise faced by the U.S. Olympic ski team coach (portrayed by Gene Hackman) in director Michael Ritchie's acclaimed 1969 film "Downhill Racer". The protagonist of the movie is one Dave Chappellet (Robert Redford), an almost impossibly handsome young man from the rural town of Idaho Springs, Colorado, who has a single-minded obsession of being America's first gold medal winner for downhill skiing in an era when the sport was dominated by Europeans. With his good looks and superficial charm, Chappellet is used to being a big fish in a small pond. He is virtually penniless and, when not practicing on the slopes of European mountains, is forced to eek out an existence by living with his cold, unemotional father (non-professional actor Walter Stroud in a striking performance.) He has no career plans beyond his single-minded obsession with getting on the Olympic team. His lack of intellectual curiosity or abilities to socialize with others don't seem to phase him. Like any narcissist he savors any small victory as a sign of his superiority over the peasants he must occasionally interact with.Chappellet lacks any self-awareness or introspection. He takes a cocky delight in being able to drive down the main street of his one-horse town, pick up a local old flame and get her to have sex in the back seat of a car. He seems oblivious to the fact that the battered vehicle belongs to his father and that he doesn't even have a place of his own to carry out his carnal activities. Chappellet gets the big break he is looking for when a top skier on the Olympic team suffers a grievous injury. The team coach, Claire, calls in Chappellet to replace him. From the start, their relationship is a rocky one. It becomes clear that Chappellet is not a team player. He skis superbly and Claire recognizes him as the team's potential best hope for victory. However, he is also alarmed by his independent streak and his inability to follow protocols. Chappellet is in this for personal glory and his teammates are viewed as unnecessary distractions. True, he can go through the rituals of socializing. He's polite to his roommate and occasionally joins the other guys for beers, butChappellet is clearly a vacuous, self-absorbed figure. The film traces his achievements on the slope and Claire's unsuccessful attempts to turn him into a team player. Chaplette also meets a vivacious business woman in the sports industry, Carole (Camilla Sparv). He's instantly smitten by her exotic good looks and libertarian outlook toward sex. The two begin an affair but it turns sour when Chaplette can't accept the fact that Carole is an emancipated young woman who marches to her own beat. Her unwillingness to dote over him or to treat their relationship as anything but superficial bruises his ego. In Chaplette's world, it is he who treats sex partners like disposable objects, not the other way around. The film concludes with Chaplette and his teammates engaging in the make-or-break competition against top-line European skiers to see who can bring home the gold.
The Best of Frenemies: Redford and Hackman
"Downhill Racer" was a dream project of Robert Redford, who had championed the film, which is based on a screenplay by James Salter. Redford's star had risen appreciably with Paramount following the success of "Barefoot in the Park". The studio wanted to do another film with him and suggested that he play the male lead in the forthcoming screen adaption of "Rosemary's Baby". Redford pushed for "Downhill Racer", a film that the Paramount brass had dismissed as being too non-commercial. (This was before Redford would reach super stardom with the release of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid".) Thus began a game of brinksmanship between Redford and the studio. He managed to get Paramount to supply a small budget ($2 million) and creative control over the project to him and Roman Polanski, who was enthused about directing the film. However, the studio made a counter-move and lured Polanski to direct "Rosemary's Baby". Annoyed, Redford had to find a new director and settled on Michael Ritchie, and up-and-coming talent who was eager to make the transition from television into feature films. He and Redford, along with their tiny crew, used their limited budget to travel to international ski competitions in order to film real life action on the slopes that could later be combined into the final cut of their movie. For all their efforts, "Downhill Racer" was a boxoffice disappointment and would be overshadowed by the release of "Butch Cassidy" later in 1969. Yet its a film that Redford is justifiably proud of. There are many admirable aspects of the production, not the least of which is Redford's compelling performance as a protagonist who is not very likable or sympathetic. He's also not very intelligent, either, a character flaw that doesn't seem to bother him much, as he feels he can get by on his looks. The down side of "Downhill Racer" is that when the central character is a total cad the viewer finds it hard to be concerned with his fate, unless there is a major dramatic payoff as in the case of Andy Griffith in "A Face in the Crowd" or Paul Newman in "Hud", two of the most notorious characters in screen history. Where "Downhill Racer" blows it is in the final sequence during the championship ski run. There was an excellent opportunity to end the movie on a poignant note but the movie punts and leads to an emotionally unsatisfying ending. Nevertheless the exotic scenery and fine performances (especially by Hackman, who is under-seen and under-used) compensate for a story that is as chilling as the locations in which it was filmed.
Criterion has upgraded their previously released DVD special edition to Blu-ray and it looks spectacular. There is a wealth of interesting extras, all ported over from the previous release. These include separate interviews conducted in 2009 with Robert Redford and James Salter. I found them to be most enlightening because I was blaming Salter, as the screenwriter, for being responsible for the film's unsatisfying ending. Lo and behold, Salter expresses the same exasperation. Apparently his original script called for the more dramatic finale that I was envisioning. However, he says that Redford made the change without his permission. It's still apparently a sore spot with him. For his part, Redford is defensive about the decision, saying that he felt the the ending he insisted upon was the correct choice (Note: it wasn't.) It would be interesting to see Redford and Salter lock horns over this in the same interview at some point. In any event, Redford's enthusiasm for the film is evident even if it seems to exceed that of audiences. To reiterate, it's a fine movie with many qualities but Redford has had superior, under-appreciated gems in his career. Other bonus extras on the Blu-ray include interviews with editor Richard Harris (whose work on the film is most impressive), production executive Walter Coblenz and champion skier Joe Jay Jalbert who was hired as a technical consultant and became indispensable on the production, serving as double and cameraman. The footage he captured skiing at high speed with a hand-held camera is all the more amazing because he was a novice at shooting film. There is also a vintage production featurette from 1969 and a very interesting one-hour audio interview of director Michael Ritchie at an American Film Institute Q&A session in 1977. The affable Ritchie was there to promote his latest film "Semi-Tough" but goes into great detail about how he became disillusioned with the constraints of working in the television industry where directors at that time were just hired guns whose creative ideas and instincts were constantly being suppressed. Ritchie tells an extended anecdote about shooting an episode of "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." during which he came up with a suggestion to improve a key scene in the script. He was told to mind his own business by the producer (who he doesn't name). When series' star Robert Vaughn agreed with him, Ritchie shot an alternate version of the scene that was met with enthusiasm by the network. Instead of being congratulated, he was blackballed from the series henceforth. Ritchie would go on to make some very fine films including "The Candidate" (again with Redford), the wacko-but-mesmerizing crime thriller "Prime Cut", "The Bad News Bears" and others. However he never lived up to his full potential and ended up directing many middling films before his untimely death at age 63 in 2001. The AFI audio included here is a rare opportunity to listen to his views on filmmaking while he was at the height of his career. The Blu-ray set also contains the original trailer and a collectible booklet with essay by Todd McCarthy.