Downhill Racer (Michael Ritchie, 1969)

Robert Redford in Downhill Racer

Robert Redford asks himself, “Am I really more beautiful today than I was yesterday?” That is the eternal question. 

File under: films I have watched to merely gaze longingly at Robert Redford for 90 minutes or more. ‘Cos this film was pretty much a dud otherwise. A major dud.

The back cover of the Criterion DVD boasts: “Astonishing Alpine location photography and a young Robert Redford in one of his earliest starring roles are just two of the visual splendors of Michael Ritchie’s debut feature, Downhill Racer.”

I’m pretty sure those are the film’s only two splendors, visual or otherwise.

Downhill Racer is the story of cocksure and ruthless skier David Chappellet in his pursuit of a gold medal. Chappellet cares little–er, nothing–about his teammates, coach, or anyone else. He cares about himself. And winning. During a brief visit home, his father asks him why he skis. It isn’t bringing him any wealth. “I’ll be famous. I’ll be a champion,” Chappellet answers. His unimpressed father gruffly retorts, “World’s full of ’em.”

Redford’s character is unabashedly unlikable. He uses other people and when other people use him, he remains as callous as ever. There is no character growth. Downhill Racer is unsentimental and gritty, sparse and candid.

Downhill Racer

The film features handheld footage from the view of the skiers, a remarkable landmark in its time. 

The film adopts a documentary style, with minimal use of, well, everything. There is no swelling soundtrack to set the mood. One has to pay close attention to follow the threadbare plot. The characters say little–most of all Redford–and when they do begin to converse, the scene abruptly ends. As film critic Todd McCarthy writes in the DVD’s accompanying booklet: “Had Hemingway ever written about competitive skiing, this would have been the right style with which to handle the adaptation.”

Perhaps this minimalist, documentary approach makes the film an artistic gem to some, but it made for a frustrating, disappointing, and everso less entertaining than the three minutes and thirteen seconds the Beatles spent skiing in Help! viewing for me sadly. I probably won’t ever watch it again. Unless, y’know, I’m in the mood for a visual splendor named Robert Redford.

Robert Redford in Downhill Racer

Such a great actor. And such a pretty face. Le sigh.

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