I saw this when it was new at the Cinerama Dome at the corner of Sunset and Ivar in Hollywood. To give you an idea of how important movies have been in my life, I was living on the streets in Los Angeles at the time, crashing wherever I could find some floor space with other longhair dope-fiend hippies. I had no job, wasn’t looking for one, so funds were limited. Any money I had came from panhandling … which means that finding the money for admission to that theater was more important to me than food! And I’d probably do it again, if I found myself penniless.
It wasn’t shot in the original Cinerama three-camera format, but then hardly anything was after the first few. It was in Panavision 65, and the shooting required all the Panavision 65 cameras then in existence. The key thing about the Dome was that huge, curved screen, where you could get whiplash from turning your head side to side in the action scenes. This film was revolutionary in that there are no shots of guys sitting in a studio race car with scenes projected behind him, as there had been in all previous racing films. The actual actors did most of their own driving, so you could see their faces. They mounted those honking big cameras on those little Grand Prix cars and aimed them down the road, or back at the faces as they actually drove the cars. (Except for Yves Montand, who spun out into the grass during the training all the stars had to go through, and was so terrified afterwards that they had to tow his car. What a pussy!) James Garner got to be such a good driver that some of the actual drivers they hired felt he could have really competed.
(Actually another “driver,” Brian Bedford, was completely hopeless. Not only was he not racing driver material, he didn’t even know how to drive! Proper Brits and New Yorkers often don’t, you know. When he was supposed to be in the car, they pulled a bandanna up over his face, and real driver Phil Hill did the driving. He also piloted the camera car, which was a Le Mans car, not a Formula One.)
(Sorry, can’t stop mentioning these interesting details. The cars they used except for the footage of real races were not Formula One, either. They were F1 shells with Formula 3 engines in them. As such, they didn’t have the power to burn out at the start … until they poured gasoline—okay, probably petrol—over them to lubricate them, then they smoked plenty.)
Today’s audiences may not appreciate just how radical this movie was. New technology has made scenes like we see here easy to film, though most of the driving is phony. But all previous racing films had been done in the studio, with screens in back of guys sitting in cars. The background never matched the foreground, the driver didn’t bounce or get pulled by centrifugal forces. Distant shots of actual races were inserted, and even they didn’t look very real. But it was all we knew. Now this comes along. And unless you’re seeing a contemporary movie in IMAX 3D, you can’t understand just how immediate the Cinerama screen was. I had seen both of the previous Cinerama features, How the West Was Won and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and though both were spectacular, neither of them had the visual impact this one did. The very first shot here is a moment of blackness, and then we pull back a little to see we’re looking right up the exhaust pipe of a race car, the size of the Holland Tunnel, which starts up with an ear-splitting growl (and the Cinerama sound system was as good as any Dolby sound you can hear today). Race car engines don’t sound like anything else on Earth. It’s a high-pitched scream, almost agonized, as the tach racks up to 10,000 rpms.
Then we get ultra-closeups of the machines. Bolts being tightened, then the screen splits in four, then in sixteen, then in sixty-four, all the same bolt. Gauges jump spastically, eight carburetors open their throats, tires smoke. No one has ever equaled this opening sequence, not even today.
And the races themselves … my god! In my opinion, NASCAR and Indy drivers are hardly drivers at all. Stomp on the gas and turn to the left. How hard is that? In a Grand Prix race, you drive that machine. At Monte Carlo, the opening race here, you average a gear change every three seconds. At Daytona, you average a gear change every ten years. (Kidding, I have no idea how many changes you make, but it’s nothing like real race driving.) My guess is that the only reason oval track racing is so popular in the US is that you can always see the whole track so you never miss a crash, and you can’t in road racing, which is must more popular in Europe.
So the driving scenes are awesome, worth the whole movie … and it’s a good thing, because like every racing film I can think of, the contrast between the action on the track and the story off the track is painful. The movie comes to a thumping halt and we all get whiplash. Gentlemen, start your fucking engines again!
The characters are all pretty much predictable. The wife who can no longer stand the tension and wants hubby to get out. (Why did she marry a racer in the first place? I have no sympathy for her.) The old pro who is losing his nerve. The devil-may-care young playboy. The Wronged Man (James Garner) who is accused of causing a near-fatal wreck through carelessness or greed or something, when he’s really blameless. And of course the Crippled River, who got banged up at Monte Carlo and is determined to race again, despite wracking pain. A foreign millionaire (Toshiro Mifune) is the only character a little bit different. Maybe someday someone will make a movie about racing that has real, interesting characters … but I doubt it. You can’t make a movie that’s just racing (though Speed Racer is close), you need more of a story than who’s ahead in the championship standings, but what story can compete with the dramatic stuff on the track? Even a first-rate screenwriter like Robert Towne couldn’t find enough story to make a turkey like Days of Thunder into a good film.
So the cars are very much the stars here, and they all turn in Oscar-worthy performances. They are living, breathing, howling monsters, and we see them dancing all over the screen in double and triple and octuple exposures, some of it set to music, a few years before Kubrick did it with spaceships. We see their skins and their hones and their beating hearts, see into the tiny cockpits and the sizzling engines. In the last race, at Monza, we see the things trying to cope with the road track, where you need one sort of suspension, and the deep-banked oval, which needs another type of car entirely, and can shake you to death if it doesn’t pull you apart. Let’s see NASCAR run a race like that!