The new Criterion Blu-ray treatment of 1969’s Downhill Racer proves that this underrated classic was much more than a sports film.
Of all the great American directors of the 1970s who found themselves struggling to find work in the Reagan era following a decade of unprecedented artistic freedom, Michael Ritchie might be the most unfairly forgotten. Throughout those years he was an acutely cynical and satirical commentator on American culture, making a string of films that still sting with insight decades later. Through movies like The Candidate, Smile, The Bad News Bears, and Semi-Tough Ritchie explored America’s unhealthy obsessions with winning and drew harshly bitter laughs through his depictions of shifting sexual politics. Unfortunately the 1980s saw him stuck in studio hackwork like Fletch Lives and The Golden Child, reaching lows that his career and reputation sadly never recovered from. Looking back on his peak movies today, Ritchie emerges a harsh, funny, and delightfully ramshackle cinematic social commentator whose work holds up remarkably well. That stretches all the way back to his unlikely debut Downhill Racer, perhaps the most overlooked of all his efforts. Well, that is of course until Criterion christened it with this beautiful new Blu-ray. They’re good at that.
The film stars Robert Redford as a hotshot young professional skier struggling to make a name for himself. He earns a spot on the team after an injury and regularly feuds with his manager (Gene Hackman, incapable of a bad performance) due to his brash arrogance. Redford is reckless and selfish in everything he does, which works wonders for him on the slopes, yet alienates seemingly everyone around him in life. He’s a self-obsessed loner, prick, and undeniable talent. Hints of a troubled childhood at least provide some suggestion of reasoning for his chilly demeanour, but thankfully neither Redford nor Ritchie are interested in varnishing the character needlessly. They stick with his one-track douchiness to prove a point. No matter how horrible you might be, none of that matters when you win. Success, love, and fans will come. The trouble is that just as the character’s dumb luck got him into a position to reach that success, losing it is just as easy and fleeting.
That’s a pretty cynical thesis to wrap a sports movie around, which is one of the major reasons why Paramount barely released the movie in 1969 or on any home video format for years after. Yet, the movie fits in well with the cynical antihero flavour of the late 60s and early 70s. Though ostensibly a sports movie, it has far more in common with Five Easy Pieces than The Mighty Ducks. Redford is wonderfully cold and withdrawn, never once flashing the movie star charm that came so easily to him to instead honestly portray a compelling brand of self-destructive schmuck. Ritchie shoots the movie in his usual semi-improvised documentary-influenced style. Scenes feels more like snippets of life than dots connecting through classic screenplay structure and the performances are remarkably natural across the board. That makes it easy to get lost in as a character piece before his biting humor and cynical opinion of humanity stacks up into a worldview and insightful slice of commentary. He was always sneaky that way, offering audience movies that felt like light entertainment before growing into pointed statements.
The skiing sequences are also remarkably shot. Cameramen frantically capture the action like a documentary crew, intercut with high speed POV shots that must have been damn near impossible and incredibly dangerous to capture in a pre-GoPro era. The crashes are real and painful, with Ritchie zooming in rather than pulling back. The result is a movie that makes skiing viscerally exciting for even those who couldn’t care less about the sport (like, for example, myself). Wrap that around a complex character study and snide examination of the ethics (or lack there of) in professional sports (and life in general), and you’ve got yourself a fascinating little movie that doesn’t deserve to have been forgotten. It pairs wonderfully with Redford/Ritchie’s far more beloved follow up project The Candidate and could just as easily conclude with that movie’s infamous final line. It’s one of Ritchie’s best and god-willing this won’t be the last of his brilliant 70s movies to get the Criterion treatment (his masterpiece Smile especially deserves the increased attention the Criterion brand would supply).
As expected, the movie stuns on Blu-ray thanks to those Criterion folks. The ski sequences are a thing of beauty thanks to the added detail, clarity, and color that this new HD transfer provides. The frantically cut scenes are even more visceral and thrilling as a result of this gorgeous scrub job. Even the quieter scenes look beautiful, revealing odd little details that Ritchie and his design team loved to cram into the background. Special features are ported over from the old Criterion DVD and are also excellent. There’s a 30 minute featurette combining interviews with Redford and screenwriter James Salter describing their vision for the piece and it’s ultimate dismissal at the time, filled with wonderful stories including Roman Polanski’s brief, yet important involvement with the project.
Next up is another 30-minute featurette with editor Richard Harris, production manager Walter Coblenz, and ski double/cameraman Joe Jay Jalbert describing the experimental and downright insane techniques used to capture all the stunts and chases in an age long before strictly regimented onset safety laws. It’s a wonderful addition, showing what a wild production it truly was despite Redford/Salter’s more intellectually minded memories. Best of all for those who love the undervalued Michael Ritchie is a 72-minute interview with the director recorded at the AFI just as he was about the release the final film in his remarkable 70s run. It’s a wonderful time capsule in which the director runs through his entire career up until that point, discussing all of his struggles, triumphs, and hopes for the future. It shows what a intelligent and capable filmmaker he was, ironically coming right before he had to give up all of those ideals to remain employed in the commerce driven 80s studio system. Finally, the disc wrap up with a trailer and a vintage 13-minute behind-the-scenes doc from the set.
Does it deserve a spot on your Dork Shelf?
Overall, it’s a damn fine package for a scrappy film that deserves the Criterion attention and treatment.