Thursday, December 10, 2009

#494: Downhill Racer

(Michael Ritchie, 1969)

To be honest, I had never heard of this movie before. Apparently, I'm not alone, as the movie is even overlooked in director Ritchie's career. Ritchie is much better known for The Bad News Bears, Fletch, and even the movie he made three years after this with star Robert Redford, The Candidate. (That movie remains depressingly insightful and relevant when it comes to the need to compromise yourself in order to be a successful politician, and come to think of it it would be a great addition to the Criterion catalog.) To make matters even worse for the film, Redford made a little movie called Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid the same year, so even in 1969 people didn't pay much attention to this little film.

That's a shame, because it's a damn good movie. I hate snow, which is kind of well known, so I don't care much for skiing. But by the end of the film, I was making plans to watch the downhill skiing in the Winter Olympics. I don't like doing plot summaries, so I'll just say the basic idea is that Redford is an up-and-coming ski star and Gene Hackman is his coach. It's very late-60s, lots of zooming, very little music, and a deliberate pace.

[Take the jump for spoilers.]
The ending actually reminded me a lot of the ending in The Candidate, both in its abruptness and its commentary on success and the trouble that comes with it. I didn't really like Redford in the film, but I was 100% rooting for him going down the hill, and my heart nearly came out of my chest. I loved the moment when the other skier appears to be beating his score and everyone pauses, unsure of who to worship. Athletes work their whole lives for one moment, and a brush of wind, a bump in the road, a twisted ankle can make the difference between a "hero" and a "loser." I think in that final moment, when Redford and Hackman look at each other, they know that, and they accept it.

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