Grand PrixReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/10/07 18:50:13
(Worth A Look)
"Grand Prix" is one part fast cars and two parts soap opera. That's not a bad recipe for a movie, although one highly dependent on the quality of the ingredients and preparation. Good thing, then, that John Frankenheimer is the chef, and he's mixing in a fine cast from around the world.The movie starts in Monaco, where we're briefly introduced to many of the players: American Pete Aron (James Garner) and Brit Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford) drive for Jordan-BRM; Frenchman Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand) and Italian Nino Barlini (Antonio Sabato) for Ferrari. Scott's wife Pat (Jessica Walter) is there, as is Louise Frederickson (Eva Marie Saint), a photographer from an American fashion magazine, and Lisa (Françoise Hardy), a groupie who soon attaches herself to Nino. During the race, the Jordan-BRM team is involved in a spectacular wreck, hospitalizing Scott and getting Aron kicked off the team. He tries broadcasting for a bit, but when Japanese auto manufacturer Izo Yamura (Toshiro Mifune) offers him a a place on his team, Pete jumps at the chance. Soon Scott is back on the circuit, racing like he's fueled by bitterness and rage.
The film is just short of three hours long, and even if there weren't an intermission in the middle, it would logically divide into two halves anyway. The first half, though bookended by a pair of exceptional racing sequences, spends most of its time off the track. It's not quite an hour and a half of exposition, but the characters spend a fair chunk of it giving their life stories and making observations about each other. It's here we learn about Scott's dead brother, who was also a driver and held up as a standard that Scott can never quite meet. It's here we see romance bloom between Louise and Sarti, even though Sarti is married (the fire there is long extinguished). It's here that Pat moves away from her wounded husband and toward Pete. People picking this movie up for racing action are almost certain to get a little fidgety before by the break; for a movie that has speed as one of its draws, it moves at a deliberate pace.
The post-intermission segment, though, is fast-moving, and not just because it's got several racing scenes almost back-to-back. Now that the charactes are established, we get to see how their personalities affects their racing: Nino's cockiness, Scott's anger, Sarti's ability to compartmentalize. Aside from being thrilling action sequences, they're expressions of who the characters are. That's more than a bit impressive, since the audience would likely have been quite satisfied with them just being well-shot.
And, wow, are they well-shot. The race through Monaco's streets that opens the film is a tour de force, shot from every angle imaginable with long shots following the cars in and out of tunnels, cars running at full speed (Frankenheimer believed the audience would recognize sped-up film), and a crash that drops the audience's collective jaw, especially with the clarity afforded by the 65mm photography. It's also an object lesson in why Formula 1 fans aren't terribly impressed with NASCAR, as we're constantly aware of how little there is between the racers and the road in this circuit (especially in 1966, when driver deaths were not unusual), and that these are real roads, with turns and buildings and sometimes tight squeezes. Each one is unique, not just for the participants, but in how Frankenheimer shoots and stages them: We go from Monaco's glamor to a rainy mess in Kent to a tragedy in the French countryside.
Things go well even when we're outside of the cars thanks in part to the entertaining international cast. Nobody is stretching terribly hard, and many are playing representations or caricatures of their countries as much as individuals. James Garner is a little more clipped than usual, playing Aron as a man most at home behind the wheel, taking the rest of his life as it comes. He's not as demanding or selfish as fellow American Jessica Walter's Pat Stoddard, and neither quite represents the U.S. as well as Eva Marie Saint's Louise. Saint creates one of my favorite career girls of the era, one who recognizes what she's sacrificed to advance and falls in love without it revealing her as really just needing the right man in her life. Yves Montand is perfectly Gallic as the man she falls for, a fine man whose sophistication goes hand in hand with a certain amount of disconnection. Antonio Sabato's Nino is as boisterous as Montand's Sarti is suave. Brian Bedford often looks like he's almost crushed under the weight of family tradition, a stiff upper lip hiding hurt and resentment. Toshiro Mifune - I'm not certain whether the recent DVD and HD releases use his original English dialogue or the overdub that was used after the film's original premiere - is ascendent Japan, forcing itself onto the world stage while fascinating us.Forty years later, "Grand Prix" still works as spectacle - Frankenheimer could shoot automotive action like few others. The soap drags a little, especially in the first half, but not to the point where it becomes a negative, and the racing is well worth it.
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