Watching “Grand Prix” firmly convinced me of one thing: John Frankenheimer should have spent the majority of his career making movies about cars traveling at blistering speeds.
Sure, he’s made some great political thrillers, but there’s a raw energy and thrill that feels unique to Frankenheimer’s hand that comes across when he films cars in motion. It’s the sole reason to watch “Grand Prix,” and it’s one of the reasons why “Ronin” (which I’ll review next week) still holds up so well today.
“Grand Prix” tells four concurrent stories, each focusing on a racer at a different stage in his career as a Formula One driver. There’s Pete Aron (James Garner), a former champ looking to make a comeback. Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand), a living legend in the final stretch before retirement. Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford) is an up-and-coming racer who is determined to get back behind the wheel after a near-fatal accident on the track. And Nino Barlini (Atonio Sabato) is a young hotshot who believes himself immortal.
Their lives and the drama engulfing them both on and off the track takes up the bulk of the film, but it’s frustrating in how hit-or-miss it is. Sometimes it’s engaging (i.e. Aron’s comeback), but far too often it’s just dull (i.e. almost everything having to do with Sarti’s love affair). Had the film focused on fewer characters or even spent more time on the rivalry between these characters it would have made the time spent away from racing much more interesting.
But whatever. It almost doesn’t matter how inane some of the dramatic stuff is because Frankenheimer’s work in filming the racing sequences is phenomenal. The sound, the editing, the long uncut shots, it all translates to some of the most immersive and exciting footage I’ve ever seen when it comes to cars in film. I can only imagine what this might’ve been like to see in the full “Cinerama” presentation.
So much of this immersion is achieved because of Frankenheimer’s unwavering commitment to realism. He was certain that audiences would know and wouldn’t respond to footage that was simply cars driving around at slow speeds overcranked to look like they were going fast. So he sent all of his actors to driving school, attached cameras to the cars (which were actually Formula Three cars dressed up to look like F1 cars) and recruited actual F1 drivers to both race and even drive the main car that would film additional footage.
The sense of speed is extraordinary, and there’s a certain thrill in knowing that it really was Garner behind the wheel of that coffin on wheels (the film’s description) blazing down the Monaco track at top speed. If nothing else, it’s all definitive proof that no amount of green screens or CGI trickery will ever be a full substitute for the real thing.
It’s a shame that the dramatic side of “Grand Prix” didn’t come together better. There’s certainly fertile ground to dig into with the angles it was going for, but none of it ever really took root, a problem that — even with the film’s nearly three-hour running time — was the result of spreading things too thin.
Still, if you’re a racing enthusiast, it’s worth it to wade (or maybe even fast forward) through the melodrama to get to the true heart of Frankenheimer’s true vision of excitement on the track.
Next week, I’ll wrap up my series on John Frankenheimer with a review of “Ronin.” After that, I’ll spend the month of October going through classic horror movies, including “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” the original “The Creature from the Black Lagoon,” “The Thing From Another World,” the original “The Mummy” and the original “Dracula.”
Every week, Entertainment Editor Stewart Smith brings a new entry in “Catching Up On…” an ongoing series attempting to fill in the gaps of his cinematic education.