Criterion presents Michael Ritchieís Downhill Racer in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on this dual-layer disc. The image has been enhanced for widescreen televisions.
Again Criterion surprises me. The image on here looks rather spectacular, especially for a film thatís forty years old. The digital transfer itself is about flawless, presenting a consistently sharp image with a stunning amount of detail. Colours are bright and vivid, beautifully saturated. The white snow is bright but not overly so, never blooming or blinding.
The print is in surprising shape as well, though has a few issues that can probably be blamed on shooting conditions. A majority of the film is clean of debris or marks, but some of the skiing sequences, where snow is being thrown around, present some problems. Large yellow/orange spots appear on occasion and debris can suddenly rain through and then disappear. Itís fairly heavy at the beginning but less common through the remainder of the film. Itís not a big deal and most of the film is clean, but that only makes the occasional flaw stand out more.
Despite this issue itís a beautiful transfer and it would have looked stellar on Blu-ray. Hopefully Criterion will be able to release it on the format sometime in the future. 9/10
All DVD screen captures are presented in their original size from the source disc. Images have been compressed slightly to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.
This is a lower tier Criterion release, only containing a few supplements, but all taken together they create an exceptionally thorough examination at the film.
Up first is a great 34-minute interview with Robert Redford and writer James Salter. This interview covers the making of the film from its early inception to the years of trying to get it made to its eventual release. There are quite a few surprises to be found in here, with mention that Roman Polanski was first considered a possible director, who was working with Paramount on Rosemaryís Baby at the time. He was interested in the film and Paramount was even willing to finally push the film through for Redford if he played the husband in Rosemaryís Baby (the role that eventually went to John Cassavetes.) Redford didnít like this and eventually all of that fell apart. After some more convincing from Redford, Paramount finally gave in, gave him a budget, and Redford found the perfect director in Michael Ritchie, who had only previously done work for television. Both Salter and Redford talk about the script, the eventual changes (there was quite a bit of improvisation) and the ending, which was changed from the script, though I have to admit I think the new ending (which Redford admits is more commercial) probably works better than what Salter envisioned thanks to how itís handled, actually adding a little more onto the character Redford plays than the original ending probably would have (even Salter gives a hint he agrees the new ending is probably better.) Redford then reflects on his disappointment at how Paramount just dumped the film. Itís an excellent interview, the best feature on the disc, and itís nice Redford was able to participate in this DVD release.
The second interview is more technical, a 29-minute interview with editor Richard Harris, production manager Walter Coblenz, and former downhill skier Joe Jay Jalbert. Harris talks about what he focused on when editing the film together, trying to flesh the characters out as best he could, even recalling a story where he was able to fool the powers that be who requested a tighter edit of one scene, and Coblenz offers a bit on the shoot, but itís Jalbert who has most of the running time, and also offers the more interesting facts about the production. He gets into the details about the stunt work, the ski footage (even breaking down one race sequence, recalling where each shot was filmed Ė the filmís race sequences were edited together from footage taken from multiple locations) and then his promotion to camera man, where he would help in filming some of the POV shots. Itís unfortunate this is only a ďtalking headsĒ piece with very little footage but itís still a rather good interview segment, further expanding on the Redford/Salter piece. Thereís also a sub section found here under Info, which gives a short note on the careers of the participants after Downhill Racer.
A surprising feature are the hourís worth of audio excerpts from a Q&A session with Michael Ritchie at AFI. In these recordings from 1977 he talks about his early career on television and then his move to film. He talks about how almost all of his films deal with competition, though he insists itís a coincidence. He talks about films he wanted to get off the ground but never did, including what sounded like a promising film about the murder of the three civil rights activists in 1964, which he said he wanted to make in a similar fashion to Costa-Gavras. He also talks about certain aspects of his films (including the original ending of the Bad News Bears,) his favourite directors (mentioning Ken Loach and Peter Watkins,) and then some of his favourite films (The Third Man and Privilege to name a couple.) Surprisingly thereís only a little about Downhill Racer. Itís a decent, candid session with the director, and a rather nice find by Criterion for this release.
Next are a couple of PR pieces. First is the theatrical trailer, which is typical of the period. And then finally thereís a 12-minute featurette called How Fast?. Redford mentions in his interview on this disc that he had to make a short 14-minute film made up of skiing footage to help convince the heads at Paramount to make the film. I suspect some of that footage is found here but I donít believe this is the piece he was referring to. With narration by Redford it begins with ski footage and then goes to behind-the-scenes footage from the shoot along with clips from the film. Itís pure publicity but thereís some good footage in here, particularly some of an early attempt at filming the skiing scenes using a toboggan, which was eventually abandoned. Itís a better making-of PR piece than most and worth viewing.
The release then concludes with a booklet featuring an essay by Todd McCarthy, which pretty much encompasses all of the key points found throughout the disc supplements, and then expands on Michael Ritchieís late career.
No commentary but I was quite satisfied with the supplements here. I was actually surprised by the film, not exactly what I was expecting, and I enjoyed it, but after going through the supplements I found an even better appreciation for it. A very thorough collection of supplements, far better than anything Iím sure Paramount would have bothered with. 8/10