Astonishing Alpine location photography and a young Robert Redford in one of his earliest starring roles are just two of the visual splendors of Downhill Racer, the visceral debut feature of Michael Ritchie. In a beautifully understated performance, Redford is David Chappellet, a ruthlessly ambitious skier competing for Olympic gold with an underdog American team in Europe, and Gene Hackman provides tough support as the coach who tries to temper the upstart’s narcissistic drive for glory. With a subtle screenplay by acclaimed novelist James Salter, Downhill Racer is a vivid character portrait buoyed by breathtakingly fast and furious imagery that brings the viewer directly into the mind of the competitor.
Criterion surprisingly upgrades their previous DVD edition of Michael Ritchie’s Downhill Racer to Blu-ray, presenting the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on a dual-layer disc. The high-definition 1080p/24hz presentation comes from a high-def scan of a 35mm fine-grain master positive. It is the exact same master used for their 2009 DVD edition.
The DVD still looks rather brilliant for the format, so I of course had decent expectations, though quelled them a bit after the minor letdown of The Friends of Eddie Coyle (a transfer that looked wonderful on DVD showed its shortcomings on the Blu-ray). That’s not the case I’m glad to say. Though it’s maybe not as sharp as I would have hoped, and the transfer may have some dated elements to it, some long shots looking a little bit soft and fuzzy for example, I still found detail levels decent, particularly on close-ups, and the textures of the winter clothing and the snowy landscapes still come through clearly enough. Colours are rendered beautifully, with reds coming off much better here than on the DVD, blues as well. Black levels are strong and fairly deep, though crushing was a tiny issue in a couple of darker scenes.
Compression on the DVD wasn’t altogether that bad for the format but it has still been eased up here quite a bit, and it has a more filmic look. The opening admittedly gave me worry: the opening sequence is very grainy, quite heavy, and the grain didn’t look completely natural and looked a little blocky and digital. After this, though, where the grain gets finer, it looks much better and blocking patterns didn’t present themselves again. The source materials appear to be in the same condition that they were on DVD, mostly clean, but some damage remains. The opening races (and a couple of shots at the end) present a surprising amount of damage in places, including a lot of dirt and orange spots that rain through. This could be just a product of the weather and surroundings when filming since the action is throwing snow all around, but I’m not sure. Whatever it is it is quite heavy but there probably wasn’t much that could have been done. This impacts the opening more than anywhere else and after the opening the film is in fantastic shape and flaws are incredibly rare, limited to mild fluctuations, slight specs, or tram lines during action sequences. The restoration work is still very impressive.
In all the film has moved nicely over to Blu-ray and I was very pleased with it. It could probably be better, maybe a little sharper, but I still found the transfer pleasing and filmic, and it nicely captures the action in the film. It looked good on DVD and it looks better here.
The film’s English mono track is presented this time in lossless linear PCM. Again it’s a strong track, though I can’t say it offers a big improvement over the DVD. Fidelity is again decent, dialogue is easy to hear, and I didn’t detect any background noise.
Criterion ports over everything from the original DVD, which wasn’t large in quantity but managed to offer a thorough examination of 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 Rosemary’s 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 Rosemary’s Baby, the role that eventually went to John Cassavetes (Polanski actually talks about this to an extent on the special features on Criterion’s edition of Rosemary’s Baby). Redford didn’t 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; it adds 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. It’s an excellent interview, the best feature on the disc, and it’s nice (and actually somewhat surprising) Redford was able to participate.
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 it’s 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 and the ski footage even breaking down one race sequence, recalling where each shot was filmed (the film’s 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. It is unfortunate this is only a “talking heads” piece with very little footage but it’s still a rather good interview segment, further expanding on the Redford/Salter piece. (As a note, a small text note on the career of the participants since Downhill Racer doesn’t actually make it over to this edition.)
A surprising feature are the hour’s 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 it’s 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 there’s only a little about Downhill Racer. It’s a decent, candid session with the director, and a rather nice find by Criterion for this release.
And then finally there’s 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 don’t 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. It’s pure publicity but there’s some good footage in here, particularly some of an early attempt at filming the skiing scenes using a toboggan, which was eventually abandoned. It’s a better making-of PR piece than most and worth viewing.
The features then close with the film’s theatrical trailer.
Unfortunately this edition drops the booklet found in the DVD (which was rather nice) and instead gives us a standard fold-out insert. It again features an essay by Todd McCarthy, which pretty much encompasses all of the key points found throughout the disc supplements, and then expands on Michael Ritchie’s late career.
Nothing new added, and at the higher price-point of $39.95 (the DVD was $29.95, which was the lower-tier price for a DVD at the time) the supplements feel a little more skimpy, but I enjoyed viewing everything on here.
Still a decent edition on the whole. The transfer holds up rather well on the format and Criterion has rounded up some great supplements on the film and Ritchie. Fans of the film will surely want to pick it up.