Monday, September 7, 2015

Frankenheimer pops the clutch, and tells the world to eat his dust


The last great stand of our beloved Old Hollywood, Grand Prix is offered up with tantalizing premonitions of the NewIt is everything you could ask it to be: a romantic, stylishly entertaining picaresque that darts across Europe, delivering literal high-octane thrills, such as only real Formula One footage shot from the cars themselves could provide.  And it is far more than you'd have any right to expect it to be: an investigation into the spirit of the sportsman, epic and elegiac all at once, forever searching for a meaning within itself—meaning that was never there to be found, beyond the roar of engines, the crash of metal, and the excitement of pure velocity.

Directed by John Frankenheimer
Written by Robert Alan Arthur, William Hanley, and John Frankenheimer
With Yves Montand (Jean-Pierre Sarti), James Garner (Pete Aron), Brian Bedford (Scott Stoddard), Antonio Sabato (Nino Barlini), Eva Marie Saint (Louise Frederickson), Jessica Walter (Pat Stoddard), Francoise Hardy (Lisa), Adolfo Celi (Agostini Manetta), Jack Watson (Jeff Jordan), and Toshiro Mifune (Izo Yamura)

Spoiler alert: moderate

These days, the case for the greatness of director John Frankenheimer rests largely upon two films, his prototype paranoid thrillers, The Manchurian Candidate and Seconds.  They're fine motion pictures both—and neither is his best.  (Neither, it turns out, is even his next best.)  Certainly, neither is perfect.  Candidate could be, if not for a final act that depends so heavily upon the negligence of its protagonist that even he has to recognize, in dialogue, how incredibly dumb he's been; Seconds' gorgeous nightmarescape is an intricate web of implausibilities that, sometimes, is almost as enervating as it is intriguing.  (And The Swimmer is the superior late-60s allegory about sad old rich men, after all.)  Our subject for today may not, in fact, be Frankenheimer's greatest film—but I have never been of the opinion that a man can have but one masterpiece.  And the flaws that do inhere to Grand Prix are so minute as to be practically invisible.

We can move from a bold assertion to a narrower one: within its genre, Prix is peerless.  Admittedly, dedicated racetrack films are a small genre—one that has produced fewer classics than you can count on one hand, but nevertheless a genre I happen to love.  Prix's only real rival in the field is the Wachowskis' hybrid of experimental cinema and a cartoon; and that's an unfair competition if I ever saw one, so there's little need to compare it directly to Speed Racer, anyway.

From there, we arrive at a truly sweeping claim: assuming we can disown Stanley Kubrick for the purposes of our reckless superlative, Prix is likely the single best American movie of its decade.

If not exactly the consensus pick.

Prix was well-received enough upon its release, but the general notion has always been that it's one hour of great whizbang flash, and two hours of tolerable boilerplate melodramatics.  Consensus is both right and terribly wrong: those two hours of soap opera are, indeed, soap opera; and they're absolutely vital to the film's point.  By the time the credits rol;, they'll have slyly and totally subverted the mythmaking enterprise that Prix, initially, appears to be.  Yet it can be enjoyed on this level, to be sure: this melodrama always remains fittingly epic.  It is the story of a truly monumental racing season: it is told with monumental scope, populated by monumental types.  We turn our gaze now upon four Formula One drivers, joining them as they live, race, and—sometimes—die.

The first is Jean-Pierre Sarti: the Frenchman, former world champion, elder statesman of the Ferrari team.  He is a legend, but now wearies of the race.  Little by little he's beginning to realize that he has already met the woman who can rescue him from it, journalist Louise Frederickson.  Next, we have Pete Aron: the American, the driver who always had potential but never quite bore it out.  He finds himself fired from the BRM team after a crack-up destroys two of their cars—and nearly destroys his teammate.  But Pete returns with a new patron, the mysterious Japanese automotive magnate, Izo Yamura, who puts no price on victory.  Then there is Scott Stoddard, the Englishman, whose dead brother was also a former world champ.  Scott was the one who paid for Pete's crash.  His body was broken, but his mind was free—free, that is, to fixate upon how he's failed to live up to his slain brother's legacy.  Scott's obsession soon brings him back to the race—much to the torment of his long-suffering wife, Pat.  She now finds dubious solace in Pete's arms; but not because she hates her husband, nor because she loves her new man.  It's simply because she can bear to watch Pete commit himself to this elaborate form of suicide.  And, finally, there is Nino Barlini, the Italian, Ferrari's rising star, the youngest of the racers.  He's the id to Scott's ego, to Jean-Pierre's superego, to Pete's superhuman zen emptiness.  He wallows in the pleasures the life of a Formula One driver has to offer—those pleasures that, in their own ways, our other three principals can enjoy no more.

Maybe it is a little bit schematic, after all; but there's an iconic beauty to these characters, this scenario, and the performances which bring both to life.  Prix's 180 minute runtime gives the story room and deepens the characters, whether it intends to or not.  Such has always been the signal strength of the epic form, and rarely has it been deployed more capably than in the treatment of the human element in Prix.

Yet I'm infamously wary of long-form TV.  Thanks a lot, Battlestar Galactica.

Lightly-drawn as its cast may be, Prix's players do exactly what they need to do; and at least one achieves genuine depth.  Jessica Walter—though known to my generation solely for her later-career turn as Arrested Development's comic drunk—is adept at earning our sympathies here.  Offering the film's worthiest performance, she overcomes Pat Stoddard's seeming hypocrisy, not to mention her role as the bad wife who can't understand why men do what they do.  Her infidelity, at first appearing to lack motivation, ultimately winds up being the single most comprehensible action to occur in Prix's examination of the racecar driver's death-seeking psychology.  It's so easy to pity poor Pat; her hatred for the world her husband lives in takes on tragic dimensions when we suddenly realize she doesn't really know a single human being who actually exists outside of it.

Eva Marie Saint plays Louise, the only other woman with a noticeable personality.  Louise gets her moments of pathos—albeit only as an extension of Jean-Pierre.  Despite this limitation (and despite the even harder limits of Saint's ability to act), she punctuates Prix's most brutal moments with its most primal and affecting emotions.  Conversely, there's Francoise Hardy, apparently some manner of quickly-burning French starlet.  She offers nothing at all, except fractured English and abject shallowness; but in this she surely follows her own screen partner, Antonio Sabato.  His turn as the fun-loving Nino Barlini, after all, exists entirely as the counterpoint to the worn-out exhaustion of his elders.  As the prickly, brittle Scott Stoddard, Brian Bedford offers a man so damaged inside and out that you can easily believe that racing is all he has left.  As Pete Aron, James Garner presents a stolid figure, whose personality often seems submerged.  In this, he serves quite well as the anchor for the chaos surrounding him.

Even minor characters benefit from the faces cast to fill them.  Just seeing the great Toshiro Mifune show up as the benefactor of the Japanese racing team is fun in itself; but his Yamura is just plain weird, a man who waxes philosophic on what he considers the two great American preoccupations, closets and bathrooms, supposing it says something about our national character.  And for you fans of Bond flicks and Italian B-cinema, we have Adolfo Celi as chieftan of the Ferrari team; he has the unpleasant and unexpected duty of putting honor ahead of victory.

Above all, however, the true star of Prix must be Yves Montand, as Jean-Pierre.  Don't believe that poster or the billing order for a second; naturally, they'd have you believe that the American is the hero of this film.  But it's Jean-Pierre's conflict—between the life he's always known and the life he actually desires—that defines Prix's stakes; and beneath the placid surface of Montand's chain-smoking ethnic stereotype, it constantly roils away.  So, as it is Jean-Pierre who receives Prix's strongest arc, it follows that it is Jean-Pierre whom the film most severely punishes: hence Jean-Pierre is the weeping subject of one of Prix's most forceful scenes, the heaviest ammunition against the idea that this Formula One picture is too formulaic itself.  Most racing movies just wouldn't have the guts to kill two children who foolishly wandered out onto the track, just to give their hero his moment of clarity.  Grand Prix is not most racing movies.

Whereas if you don't like character or story or interesting things happening in your racing movies for forty-five minutes at a Goddamned stretch, please—feel free to go rewatch Le Mans for the hundredth time, you freak.

Frankenheimer was always an expert in making films that, while rarely specifically offensive, could nonetheless never be made today—Black Sunday, with its blithe co-option of tragedy; Seven Days in May, with its anti-military sentiment; Manchurian Candidate, of course, because it wouldn't play in China.  Grand Prix joins those ranks: it's desperately unlikely that the heavy corporate sponsorship that made its production possible could ever be obtained today.  Not with this script, anywaydespite Frankenheimer's obvious passion for racing, there's maybe never been another film more critical of the sport.  Struggling to understand the racing ethos, Prix finds nothing but the fleeting adrenal rush, and it finds it in the midst of carnage.  Its closing shotsamongst the greatest marriages of image, sound and emotion in the mediumtake as its subject Pete Aron.  He walks an empty track, beneath an empty stadium, long after his race has ended.  It hammers home the meaninglessness of the racewhile the imagined sounds of the engines recall the mysterious compulsion he still feels to drive, even as the scent of death mixes with the lingering fumes.  Prix offers no answer beyond those engines' siren call.  Its insight is that it recognizes that nobody can.

It's filmmaking like this which makes Prix Frankeheimer's triumph.  First, we commend his deployment of Maurice Jarre's extraordinary score, especially its core theme—an unforgettable high-flying march, presented alternately with sincerity and irony, reflecting the characters' own insoluble inner conflicts.  Now, let's turn to Frankheimer's team of editors, integrating foreign innovations seamlessly into American-style continuity editing.  On hand to assist Frankenheimer in the creation of certain key montages was the legendary designer Saul Bass.  Together, they reach Thomas Crown levels of multi-dynamic image technique.

(Known to us non-dorks as "splitscreen.")

It's vibrant and beautiful; sometimes it's even suggestive and suspenseful.  But somehow, Frankenheimer's best moment in the editing room might not even directly involve a racecar, but merely the cinematic internalization of Scott Stoddard's fury at his wife's betrayal.  Beginning with bracing jump-cuts of Bedford's own understated reactions—amounting to incredulous squinting—each alternate shot sees the camera shake, almost imperceptibly, with its subject's own deeply-buried rage.  Indeed, Prix's otherwise brilliant construction has only one, ultimately minor, problem: the brutal way Frankenheimer allows scene transitions to pounce upon his audience, occasionally threatening to slightly smother some of the film's most pregnant moments.

More importantly, of course, there remains Prix's irreproachable Super Panavision spectacle: its unbroken illusion of movie stars racing alongside real drivers, seamlessly dropped into the massive reams of Formula One footage taken over the course of the 1966 season.  It scarcely is an illusion, too: the four principals were each subjected to driving bootcamp; three of them passed, and drove their cars around the real F1 tracks across Europe.  (Perhaps needless to say, not while the actual races were underway—although Garner was such a talented, enthusiastic driver that he wound up with a whole second career on his hands.)  Bedford, who couldn't drive to save his life, was doubled instead by F1 icon Jackie Stewart, his identity concealed by a white balaclava; yet it's so appropriate to Scott's retiring personality that it reads easily as an idiosyncrasy of the character, and never a failure of movie magic.  (That said, one driver's death scene does pretty patently involve a dummy.)

What do you want?  It was 1966.

Like its characters, Grand Prix is at its best when it's going two hundred miles an hour; on this count I am forced to agree fully with the consensus.  But when the gears shift toward its human drama, it doesn't lose control.  It is a super-classic that deserves to live forever in our collective memory—not dismissed as just one more bloated Old Hollywood roadshow.

Score:  10/10

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