Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Review #1,328: 'Grand Prix' (1966)

The early 1960s saw the beginning of a rivalry between two competing films set amongst the world of Formula One. Lee H. Katzin's Day of the Champion, starring Steve McQueen, was to focus on a particularly gruelling 24-hour race, France's Le Mans, while John Frankenheimer would shoot Grand Prix, a luxurious ensemble piece boasting a handful of the industry's biggest names, on 70mm Cinerama, in what would be one of the final films to showcase the technique before it became defunct. It was a race to hit the cinema screens first, with both movies experiencing issues during production. Day of the Champion would later be re-titled Le Mans, and wouldn't see a release until 1971, a whopping five years late. Grand Prix emerged as the winner, winning multiple Academy Awards in the technical department and boasting racing scenes that haven't been matched since.

While Le Mans' focus was solely on the racing, Grand Prix has larger ambitions. On top of a number of extended racing scenes, the story also gets bogged down by various melodramatic sub-plots involving a few of the drivers and their romantic engagements. Our main heroes are Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand), a French multiple champion reaching the end of a decorated career; Pete Aron (James Garner), an American looking to salvage his career after he signs up with Yamura Motors; Nino Barlini (Antonio Sabato), an arrogant but promising rookie who plays second fiddle to Sarti; and Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford), a British driver looking to get back behind the wheel following a horrific crash. Away from the track, their personal lives resemble a soap opera. Aron grows close to Pat (Jessica Walter), Stoddard's estranged wife, while the married Sarti embarks on an affair with American journalist Louise Frederickson (Eva Marie Saint).

This is the sort of lavish, star-studded production that was so common in the 1960s, offering a new familiar face in what feels like every scene. There's also an international flavour to the impressive cast, with the likes of Adolfo Celi, Toshiro Mifune and Claude Dauphin popping up, to name but a few. The hysterical dramatics drag the running time to just shy of three hours - complete with intermission - and Grand Prix ultimately succeeds on the strength of its racing scenes alone. Strapping a camera on top, on the side, and seemingly everywhere but underneath the vehicle, Frankenheimer thrusts you straight to the head of the action. Also employing split-screens, this is one of the most dazzlingly stylish films of its day. Despite not being a Formula One fan in the slightest, I found the time spend on the track exhilarating. The growls of the engines combined with the angles of the camera place you front and centre, almost as if you were right there behind the wheel. As a pure thrill ride, it's one of the very best, it's just a shame that we have to sit through 90 minutes of melodramatics in between.

Directed by: John Frankenheimer
Starring: Yves Montand, James Garner, Eva Marie Saint, Brian Bedford, Jessica Walter, ToshirĂ´ Mifune, Antonio Sabato, Adolfo Celi
Country: USA

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

Grand Prix (1966) on IMDb

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