Oscar Winner for Best Effects, Sound Effects; Best Film Editing, and Best Sound.
Putting a former live TV director in charge of a multi-camera production about Formula One racing may seem like a nutty idea, but the reality is that John Frankenheimer was the perfect choice. The director was well-experienced with precise multi-camera filming, meeting rigid deadlines, and a need to get as much right on the first take – all mandatory for anyone managing a crew amid the chaos of live TV.
Add a knack for handling multi-generational actors – stars, method, and veteran character actors – and a wonderful visual sense, and you have perhaps the only director who could’ve balanced action, drama, egos, and fulfilling his own passion for fast performance cars.
As the making-of featurette explains, from an early age Frankenheimer loved cars, and there are few racing films that capture the sheer beauty of machines in motion, the fetishistic details of a machine’s entrails, and the power and danger of speed without weighted melodrama; the apex is Le Mans, with its minimalist design (virtually no dialogue), but Grand Prix [GP] delivers the excitement of racing like no other motion picture.
That admittedly sounds like vintage ad pap, and GP has its share of flaws, but each of the film’s racing sequences was designed with a slightly different visual and editorial style, neither of which took away from the experience of being in a vehicle at 120 mph and beyond. To further push the envelope and give audiences a ride like no other racing film, 70mm Super Panavision cameras were rigged to vehicles, and the actors were driving their own cars – essentially racing at high speeds in a manner no studio today would allow due to impossible insurance premiums.
The POV shots cover the car’s bending suspension and bouncing wheels, as well as trees and roads passing along the peripherals; reverse angles of an actor have other cars passing without a cut; and the most ingenious rig has camera zooming out, in, or panning from the driver to a wide POV shot without a single edit. On the big screen (and in custom Cinerama engagements), the impression must have been magnificent, and 45 years later the racing sequences in GP are unrivaled.
When there are cuts, the successive images still add to the effect of being in the moment; when there are long takes, the audience vicariously experiences sharp turns, banks high on corners, and passes slow-pokes.
The sound montages and editing are superb; the sound recordists captured the engines and shifting sounds of every vehicle, and in keeping with the docu-drama feel, few racing sequences are scored with music. Audio ‘interviews’ with the drivers are sometimes overlaid onto montages, and the film was actually shot during the 1966 Grand Prix – capturing the vehicles, and a far less gaudy, commercialized environment that dominates most televised sports.
As one of the racing consultants admits in the featurette, the film captures a fleeting innocence when the Grand Prix and its racers were less media stars because the media wasn’t so much in the face of everyone, and the event was about racing rather than filling every side panel, hood, helmet, sleeve, audience barrier and rooftop with a logo or slogan. There’s also no digital mucking about: the streets look more dangerous because there’s less advertorial signage cluttering the racetracks: it’s just cars weaving in and around ordinary buildings.
The Script, Music, & the Look
The key comparison for contemporary audiences is Sylvester Stallone’s Driven (2001) which its star / co-producer / co-writer wanted so badly to be the definitive, modern racing movie, but ruined it with bad scripting and an editing style that substituted flash and digital sweetening in place of any documentary elements.
GP’s script and story came from Robert Alan Authur, a veteran Emmy-nominated writer from live TV whose film work also included the striking western Warlock (1959), and later the darkly satirical (and Oscar-nominated) All That Jazz (1979).
The structure is no different than Driven – soap opera dramatics of blossoming and disintegrating relationships are scattered between several death-defying races – but the scenes are less reliant on the egos of stars, fast quips, and prankish humour. It’s still evocative of Grand Hotel (1932), in and around racing cars, but the mini-dramas feel more realistic because the characters tend to speak very little, and often seem to be holding back deep-rooted emotional conflicts. It doesn’t make GP Shakespearean, but less dialogue reduces the scent of melodrama significantly.
The basic storylines: Pete Aron (James Garner) causes team member Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford) to crash, and moves in on the latter’s wife Pat (Jessica Walter) during a separation.
Frenchman and world champion Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand) is growing weary of racing and feels this will be his final round, and perhaps he can end the miserable faux marriage to manipulative wife Monique (Genevieve Page) and move an affair with racing journalist Louise Frederickson (Eva Marie Saint) towards something permanent. His fellow team Ferrari mate Nino Barlini (Antonio Sabato) is a free-flowing playboy who absorbs every moment in the spotlight with glee at the expense of long-suffering girlfriend Lisa (Francoise Hardy).
Blendered into the mix are Aron’s boss Izo Yamura (Toshiro Mifune), trying to prove the worth of Japanese engineering with his hand-crafted cars; Agostini Manetta (Adolfo Celi), who heads team Ferrari and awaits Sarti’s fall from grace to add some new blood into the team; and Wallace Bennett (Donald O’Brien), the Brit team leader who fired Aron and stuck with Stoddard as the busted racer nursed himself back from crutches to the driver's seat of his Formula One machine.
To support the Grand Hotel segments is Maurice Jarre’s score, which works surprisingly well considering the composer’s odd harmonies are transposed to romantic and light pop-jazz theme arrangements. The source marches are fine (Jarre’s style always seemed to suit military marches), and the score is given more prominence in a dynamic racing sequence that employs complex split-screen montages which buffer the docu-realism of the surrounding racing sequences.
A key talent involved with the film was Saul Bass, who had previously designed the title sequence for Frankenheimer’s abstract sci-fi classic Seconds (1966), as well as montaged the shower murder and titles for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).
Bass’ contributions went much further in GP, extending to the split-screen montages (arguably directly influential towards Norman Jewison’s The Thomas Crown Affair), and the visual design of the film, which is quite extraordinary: long lenses to compress the distance between cars and audiences, and more particularly, soft or unfocused backgrounds for driver close-ups which resemble slick sixties commercial photography; James Garner’s driving close-ups could easily have been designed to sell men’s cologne, cigarettes, or ‘the sense’ of being in control of the latest Ford Mustang coupe.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray replicates the content of the 2006 DVD and (now obsolete) HD-DVD editions, and should please racing and car fans with big 1080p setups. In an ideal world, the film should exist as a 70mm print for cinematheque rental, but for home venues, a projection system ought to turn anyone’s wall into a Grand Prix portal. The image is crisp, the 5.1 surround mix beautifully sends engine roars across the room, and Jarre’s sparse score sounds smooth and clean in uncompressed 5.1. (Pity it’s not available in an isolated 5.1 music mix, but there is an expanded CD.)
The featurettes manage to cover most of the production minutia, and director Frankenheimer, who died in 2002, is back from the grave via some archival interviews, vintage production featurette extracts, and rare on set interviews.
The most amusing interview bits have Frankenheimer reflecting on his alleged abrasiveness, which co-star Walter elaborates in the making-of featurette. James Garner (nearly 80 when interviewed) is also on hand, and recalls an argument with a greedy Monte Carlo fisherman; we subsequently see the actual exchange from the same archival news source. There’s also some discussion of Steve McQueen originally being sought for the role eventually played by Garner, and McQueen’s later effort to make his own racing film, Le Mans.
Gary Chang, who scored many of the director’s later films, also provides some comments on Frankenheimer, as well as Jarre’s score in the separate featurette, “The Style and Sound of Speed.” The drivers and racing historians also return for the remaining featurettes, discussing the Brands Hatch racetrack where one of the film’s racing sequences was shot, and for a nostalgic tribute to the late drivers who reflected the no-nonsense cars which contained no safety features. (Indeed, modern audiences ought to be shocked by the clear visibility and deceptive elegance of the cars which have no roll cages, safety bars, or seatbelts.)
The contributions of Saul Bass are modestly detailed, although it’s a shame WHV’s special features production team weren’t able to get any archival interviews with Bass, such as the Q&A Elwy Yost conducted in the eighties for TVOntario. (The interview, incidentally, is available for streaming via TVO’s website, beginning :58 seconds into the show, and ending at 8:47.)
Also included is the vintage 1966 MGM promo “Grand Prix: Challenge of Champions,” with plenty of behind-the-scenes footage, overhyped narration, and some glimpses of Monaco’s Princess Grace with her family.
Frankenheimer’s next film was the more immobile, period drama The Fixer (1968), but he returned to fast-moving cars and Monaco for his second-last theatrical film, Ronin (1998). Screenwriter Authur wrote the For Love of Ivy (1968) for Sidney Poitier, and directed the actor in the Odd Man Out remake The Lost Man (1969) before stepping away from films until All That Jazz (1979).
Cinematographer Lionel Lindon strangely went back into TV, with just a handful of feature films left before his death in 1971, whereas Jarre, who had previously scored Frankenheimer’s The Train (1964), also score the director’s next film, The Fixer. Bass, perhaps emboldened by the experience of directing material for the racing montages, made the Oscar-winning short Why Man Creates (1968), and his lone feature-length film, Phase IV (1974).
Other racing films include The Crowd Roars (1932), Winning (1969), Le Mans (1971), Days of Thunder (1990), and Driven (2001).
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan