Ask most critics about John Frankenheimer's Grand Prix, and they'll tell you that the racing sequences are amazing, and that the rest of the movie is a waste of time. Yes, the driving scenes dazzle, but Frankenheimer also embeds his 1966 Cinerama epic with some interesting commentary about risk-taking professions in general and the Formula One driver in particular. In doing so, he arguably created the template—or at least refined it—for movies about men addicted to danger (the top-grossing Tom Cruise pictures Days of Thunder and Top Gun both leap to mind).
Frankenheimer's priority one is sensation: we begin by staring down the roaring tail pipe of a Formula One car, shortly thereafter described as “a box, a coffin. Gasoline all around you. It is like being inside a bomb.” In an unprecedented and unrepeatable coup, Frankenheimer talked his way into incredible access, emerging with a commitment from the initially reluctant Ferrari company and priceless footage of actual Formula One races, some of it from camera cars driven by actual Formula One racers like Phil Hill (there's also some ace aerial photography). The results are simply astounding, and were even more so in their time, as projected in wraparound 70mm Cinerama. Grand Prix remains a reference demo for home theater buffs due to its hard-charging surround sound and adrenalized visuals further pumped up by visual consultant Saul Bass, who created the titles and memorable split screen design.
In exploring a fictional version of the 1966 F1 season, screenwriter Robert Alan Aurthur takes his cues from a heritage of war films: when not in the heat of "battle," the F1 drivers ponder their next engagement and look for love on leave. Frankenheimer adds something of his signature documentary approach not only by shooting real races and having star James Garner do his own, rather convincing driving, but also by employing interview voice-overs that inform about the sport and, at times, allow the characters to confess their thoughts and feelings about an experience known only to a few. Garner plays the American upstart Pete Aron, Yves Montand the French favorite Jean-Pierre Sarti, Brian Bedford the British stalwart Scott Stoddard, and Antonio Sabàto the Italian exhibitionist Nino Barlini. Though all equally obsessive-compulsive in their "drive" to race, the men range from tortured (Stoddard) to completely unbothered (Barlini). Each in his way has something to prove to himself, if only that he can win.
The film's opening race at the Monaco Grand Prix creates much of the drama for the season to follow, with one driver having to battle his way back from injury and another, Aron, out of a job and nursing wounds to his reputation. Aron finds an opportunity for redemption with Japanese industrialist Izo Yamura (Toshiro Mifune, in his first English-language film). He also contemplates a dalliance with Stoddard's wife Pat (Jessica Walter), who by now considers her marriage only a technicality. That's also the case with Sarti and his wife (Geneviève Page), which creates possibilities between Sarti and American fashion-mag journalist Louise Frederickson (Eva Marie Saint). Unfortunately, the women's roles come off as rote: though Walter and Saint both imbue their characters with humanity, the picture uses them for cheap drama (and gives Louise the eye-rollingly naive line “Why is it so marvelous to go very fast?”).
Frankenheimer's genuine interest in racing (also evident in the car chase scenes in Ronin)—and the mentality of men who accept and perhaps even crave mortal danger—carries the day, with incisiveness and wit. The latter is evident in a montage of head-whipping spectators that prominently includes a shot of a child picking his nose. And amidst the snazzy Maurice Jarre score and potent spectacle, Frankenheimer consistently asks the hard question of how everyone can remain so willfully ignorant to terrible injury and death. The answer is for glory and money, and (spoiler alert) the director daringly concludes the film's first act with tragic death contrasted to ironic use of "The Star Spangled Banner," which trumpets the winning spirit and business interests. As Sarti says, “There is no terrible way to win. There is only winning.”
Warner does a bang-up job with Grand Prix on Blu-ray. Overall, the film looks spectacular, at times giving the impression of a film that was shot five years ago rather than forty-five years ago. The 65mm source elements spell often breathtaking detail, film grain is light and natural, black level is winningly deep, and color and contrast are beautifully calibrated. Some minor print damage crops up (only a few seconds worth over three hours) and there's mild telecine wobble throughout, but most of the few and minor visual anomalies owe to the original photographic processes. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix remains reference-quality awesome, with rumbling motors and precise doppler effects taking full advantage of the entire surround field: dialogue and music are likewise highly effective.
Almost an hour and a half of bonus material provides fascinating background for the film, beginning with the 2006 doc “Pushing the Limit: The Making of Grand Prix” (29:08, SD). Along with some amazing behind-the-scenes glimpses, the featurette includes interviews with director John Frankenheimer (1966 and 1998 archival interview), James Garner (2006 and 1966), director of Bullitt Peter Yates, motor racing historian Simon Taylor, Jessica Walter, Eva Maria Saint, camera operator John M. Stephens, Formula 1 analyst Peter Windsor, Formula 1 driver/James Garner racing advisor Bob Bondurant, camera car operator/Formula 1 driver Phil Hill, Grand Prix driver/Formula 1 driver Sir Jack Brabham, Grand Prix driver/Formula 1 driver Dan Gurney, actress/John Frankenheimer’s wife Evans Frankenheimer, NASCAR: The IMAX Experience director Simon Wincer, and Antonio Sabàto.
“Flat Out: Formula 1 in the Sixties” (17:26, SD) focuses on the real deal, in interviews with Taylor, Brabham, motor racing historian Thomas O’Keefe, Hill, Windsor, Marc Leonard of Grand Prix Classics, The Complete Book of Formula One co-author Mark Hughes, motor racing photojournalist David Friedman, Formula 1 driver Sir Stirling Moss, Bondurant, F1 Racing editor-in-chief Matt Bishop, British Motorsport Marshalls Club president Barrie “Whizzo” Williams, Gurney, and The Complete Book of Formula One co-author Simon Arron.
“The Style and Sound of Speed” (11:40, SD) points out the unique technical and artistic elements of the film's sight and sound, with Saul Bass & Associates chief designer Art Goodman, Saul Bass author Pat Kirkham, Yates, Stephens, Windsor, Taylor, Cinerama Adventure director/producer David Strohmaier, Frankenheimer biographer Charles Champlin, Wincer, composer/Frankenheimer colleague Gary Chang, Frankenheimer (1998), Evans Frankenheimer, assistant director/Frankenheimer colleague James Sbardellati.
“Brands Hatch: Behind the Checkered Flag” (10:36, SD) looks at the historic British track with Motorsport Vision CEO/Formula 1 driver Jonathan Palmer, Motorsport Vision chairman John Britten, Bishop, and Brabham.
Also on hand are the vintage featurette “Grand Prix: Challenge of the Champions” (12:45, SD), which consists of narrated B-roll footage; the “Theatrical Trailer” (4:00, SD) and a “Speed Channel Promo” (:32, SD).
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