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Still the champion
on 27 November 2007
Forty years on, Grand Prix is still the best motor racing film ever made. The cars may be faster now, filming techniques improved and special effects more advanced, yet the film still has a truly epic scale and a feeling of veracity down to the last gear change that would be impossible to duplicate today. It feels real because much of it is real, the actors (with the exception of Brian Bedford) doing much of the driving themselves, with the production even entering cars in real races to seamlessly match footage. The real danger is only underlined by the fact that so many of the professional drivers in the film died racing themselves (ten in the decade following the filming alone). The crashes are there, along with the knowledge that that's what many in the crowd come for, but more than that, each race has a different character: more than just a different look, they're almost tone poems at times, one race from the driver's seat, another from a spectator's, another almost inside a character's head. Yet throughout, unlike later films, you always have a clear idea of what is going on and what point the race scenes are trying to make. The sequences have clearly been thought through and designed both emotionally as well as visually, with the great use of long lenses to establish scale and speed as cars drift in and out of focus giving the film a feel at once realistic and almost dreamlike (an impression further heightened in Saul Bass' almost balletic split-screen sequence). It's still a remarkably good looking film, too, not least because it was made at a time when the cars still looked like bullets rather than vacuum cleaners.
The plot itself may be simply a globe-trotting star-studded soap opera at heart - the roadshow equivalent of a doorstop bestseller - but it's a more than serviceable framework to hang the racing scenes on: after a spectacular crash in the Monte Carlo Grand Prix that cripples team mate Brian Bedford, James Garner's Formula One tries to work his way back on the circuit by racing for Toshiro Mifune's fledgling team while having an affair with Bedford's wife Jessica Walter. But while top-billed Garner may be the nominal and not particularly sympathetic lead, it's Yves Montand's ageing champion gradually realizing the absurdity of what he does but unable to quit who makes the greatest impression: so much so that when Garner disappears for much of the last third of the movie you barely miss him. Yet the cars remain the real stars, thanks to John Frankenheimer's constantly imaginative direction and his obvious enthusiasm for the material without ever losing himself in the minutiae as Steve McQueen did with Le Mans.
The film used every 65mm SuperPanavision camera then in existence, and thankfully the widescreen DVD transfer is a considerable improvement over the TV prints. Although it hasn't restored Mifune's voice, which was reportedly in the version shown at the film's premiere but subsequently replaced by Paul Frees on all prints (Adolfo Celi is also very obviously dubbed, possibly by Maximilian Schell), it does boast a good array of featurettes covering the making of the film and the Overture and Entr'acte from Maurice Jarre's excellent score have been retained.