Le Mans is without a doubt, one of the best auto racing films ever made, mixing a thin storyline with documentary footage, and some spectacular images in magical Panavision.
During the 1950s, drag racing films in the teenpix genre proved fast cars had a special allure for audiences, and after moving from pubescent to (somewhat) more adult ground in the slick 1963 Roger Corman flick The Young Racers, car racing was fused with soap opera suds in MGM's Grand Prix [M] in 1966 - a film in which McQueen was originally courted into starring. Director John Frankenheimer ultimately crafted the best racing film, mixing a tolerable level of melodrama for exceptionally photographed racing sequences where the drivers (which included a star or two) drove at real high speeds. Universal's Winning in 1969 was a late entry, but it has the distinction of inspiring star Paul Newman to take on racing professionally.
Perhaps with two similar-styled films on record, McQueen wanted his own racing film to be more distinct, and the script, which probably contains about 10 pages of spoken dialogue, is really just a thin skeleton around which the film’s editors crafted montages to show the progression of Le Mans’ grueling 24 hour race through sun, rain, and nighttime.
The essential story is about Michael Delaney who returns to Le Mans after a devastating accident that killed a rival driver. While Delaney stoically motors through the winding track in 4 hour shifts, Lisa Belgetti (Elga Andersen), the widow of his rival, hovers in the background. Sometimes they exchange glances and a few words, or they avoid eye contact because the wounds of loss and tragedy are still too real; more importantly, Delaney can’t allow feelings to distract from his singular goal of completing the race and ensuring his team has a crack at first place.
Director Lee H. Katzin was a longtime TV director, so he seems like an odd choice to helm an existentialist drama, and while the film did little to boost his career – Katzin immediately returned to TV, directing myriad banalities – it’s a beautifully crafted film that takes the best elements from prior racing films, and seemed to allow director, star / producer McQueen, and its brilliant editors to impose their own unique ideas.
McQueen may well have been the human star, but Le Mans was the headliner, hence the emphasis on cars moving, screeching, roaring, turning, and winding along the track quilted from country roads and highways. The camera frequently lingers on cars in motion, while the editors tried out some very novel montages, including fluid edits that has the camera almost crashing into vehicles and pulling out from a moving car from a new angle, the opening crash montage using blobs of lights, and two key smash-ups that occur within the film.
The first involves a rival driver as he runs from his burning vehicle: Katzin and his editors ratchet the speeds between angles that break the 180 degree rule, and insert almost elegant slow-motion footage of the driver as he struggles, falters, and tumbles to the ground.
The second is actually delivered twice: Delaney’s brutal wipeout happens in real-time, and as he ponders the event from the ruined car, Katzin replays each of the locations where the car banks guard rails in slow motion – emphasizing the fragility of the car’s streamline body as it rippled and tears away, and the futility of its rear wheels, stuck in high gear, grinding against the pavement. To non-auto fans, the sequence has little impact, but to connoisseurs enamored by the beauty of a machine in motion, its death is affecting, and Katzin milks every nuance of its destruction and death throes.
Le Mans is filled with unusual nuances meant to hint at the mortality of the game, almost (but not quite) treating the drivers as gladiators which, as Delaney says to a befuddled Lisa, is like a bloodsport: if you can still get up and drive after a fall, you do it, because it’s what you live for. The film could easily have been edited without any dialogue due to the string visual details. The opening is about a man returning to the scene of a fall – revealed by the road section where a new guard rail’s been riveted to an older one – and the way he internally processes the memories as he drives the same roads he’ll soon travel in the race, and absorbs the atmosphere of the main racing grounds with fellow gladiators.
By playing it all as docu-drama, there’s little melodrama within Le Mans, and the widow basically serves to remind Delaney of his mortality (and explain to audiences in simple, pseudo-philosophical terms) why racers are compelled to drive faster each time. Lisa isn’t even a love interest, and while the finale vaguely offers a chance at some connection, what really exists between the two main characters is an understanding of the emotions in constant play. Even with sparse interaction, their few scenes together feel natural, especially Delaney’s first genuine rapprochement in the driver’s canteen where we hear their first words, but only see the easing of tension from outside among ordinary diners as the widow smiles a little, and Delaney enjoys a rare moment of socializing between shifts.
Woodstock (1970) may have inspired Katzin and McQueen to incorporate documentary shots of crowds and candid spectator moments – Le Mans was filmed the same year – but there’s also the long prologue that traces the gradual arrival of fans and driver teams, and the preparations prior to the race’s start. A post-sync announcer fills in some factors for cinema audiences, but the mix often covers up a few words to maintain the impression of an authentic documentary. McQueen’s performance is wholly minimalist, but it works for the character and the film because he’s never treated like the star face; the actors either surrounded by crowds, the racing team, or driving close-ups are intercut with rival drivers, and the vehicles.
Paramount’s prior DVD featured a gorgeous transfer and sound mix, and the pair look and sound even better in HD, especially the sound mix (although Michel Legrand’s jazzy score does lack some of the bass present in the original soundtrack album). There’s little score in the film – most appears as bridge material, and adds some emotional context to scenes of Delaney wandering the grounds at night, his moments with Lisa, and the crash flashbacks – and the sound design makes use of various grades of grinding engines to accentuate the progress and intensity of the drivers.
Unlike Warner Home Video’s Grand Prix BR, which featured a huge amount of supplemental material, Paramount’s sort of skimped on new material.
Besides the amusing theatrical trailer, the main extra is a making of featurette produced and aired by Speedvision in 2001, and features interviews with the film’s director, producers, stunt driver, and host by Chad McQueen who’s rather ill at ease, pausing between cue card readings. The core info is pretty fascinating, and shatters the impression of a film with a specific minimalist vision. McQueen had actually bought the rights to film the same material that was eventually used as the basis for Grand Prix, and decided to film documentary footage at the 1969 Le Mans race prior to proper filming with actors a year later. Writers were brought in to hammer out some dialogue for the frustrated actors to say, and Katzin was engaged when some guidance was badly needed for the unfocused, meandering production. (He also suggested that incredible shot of the camera about to strike another car’s bumper and re-emerge from the car’s body.
It was only during the editing stage the film was shaped into its final form, with producers and editors ‘finding’ the film as sequences were assembled around the loosely scripted material. Described as a chaotic production schedule, what emerged was a striking document of the race with an emphasis on sound and images – a rare occasion when a lack of focus and nearly a million feet of film footage yielded an unexpected gem.
Clips of McQueen’s documentary footage from 1969, 1970 production footage, stills, and some anecdotes make the Speedvision featurette compelling, but it’s a pity more detail couldn’t have been wrought out by the featurette’s editors for a longer hour-long edit. A gallery of selected outtakes as well as a commentary, additional featurettes, and an isolated score would’ve made ardent fans giddy, but this will likely be the definitive version unless a third party label takes a poke at a proper 2-disc edition.
Katzin’s handful of feature films include The Phynx (1970), Le Mans (1971), The Salzburg Connection (1972), World Gone Wild (1988), The Break (1995), and Restraining Order (1999), whereas credited writer Harry Kleiner also wrote House of Bamboo (1955), Fantastic Voyage (1966), Steve McQueen’s Bullitt (1968), and Red Heat (1988).
© 2013 Mark R. Hasan