GRAND PRIX - Blu-ray review

Despite its melodramatic glimpses into the drivers' private lives, the racing sequences more than make up for the deficiencies.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

At the risk of sounding repetitious and ultimately redundant, I'll say it again: The better looking the original print, the better looking the Blu-ray transfer is going to be. Warner Bros. restored MGM's 1966 Cinerama extravaganza "Grand Prix" from original 65 mm Super Panavision elements, and in high definition the result is some of the best-looking video for a live-action picture you'll find on any Blu-ray disc anywhere.

Even more to the point, "Grand Prix" is the best film ever made about car racing. Too bad it isn't the best movie ever made about people. Anyway, nobody--not Paul Newman, not Steve McQueen, not Tom Cruise--looked better behind the wheel of a car than "Grand Prix" star James Garner.

In this part-time race-car movie, part-time soap opera, Garner gets plenty of chances behind the wheel. If only the movie had left him there and de-emphasized the various personal romances, this nearly three-hour epic might have come in at a more comfortable two hours and provided a lot more thrills for the buck.

A few years ago, Warner Bros. not only fully restored it but decked it out with a goodly assortment of new documentary material, which we get here. But probably the best thing about owning the movie on disc is that after you've seen it once or twice, you can skip the scenes you don't like the next time you watch it. "Grand Prix" is about Formula One racing, and that's where the action lies.

The film takes us into the public and personal lives of four fictional drivers vying for the world championship during an FIA Formula One World Championship racing season. The principals are Pete Aron (James Garner), an American driving for BRM, a man who hasn't won a Grand Prix event since he left Ferrari three years earlier; Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand), a Frenchman, twice World Champion, now number one at Ferrari but beginning to question his chosen life; Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford), Pete's teammate at BRM, a wealthy Englishman trying to live up to the reputation of his older brother, a world champion driver killed in a racing accident; and Nino Barlini (Antonio Sabato), Sarti's teammate at Ferrari, a young, devil-may-care Sicilian, former motorcycle racer, and full-time lover.

Behind the races we meet Louise Frederickson (Eva Maria Saint), an American journalist following the racing season for a fashion magazine, a woman who becomes involved with the married Sarti. We also meet Pat Stoddard (Jessica Walter), Scott Stoddard's wife, who enjoys the high life and hates her husband's risking his life racing. When a car wreck involving her husband's racing car and Pete's car puts her husband out of action, she takes the opportunity to leave him and take up with Pete. And there are Izo Yamura (Toshiro Mifune), a rich Japanese industrialist with ambitions to field a racing team good enough to win the world championship; and Lise "I don't smoke; I don't drink" (Francoise Hardy), Nino's newest girlfriend. For reasons unknown, Pete practically disappears from the movie's second half, at least up until the final race of the season, making even more room for the sudsy goings on of the other players.

Fortunately, if you can make it through all the ditzy relationships and romances, there are the racing sequences to enjoy, and they are most often dazzling. Director John Frankenheimer, who gave us such films as "Birdman of Alcatraz," "The Manchurian Candidate," "Seven Days in May," and "Ronin," was a man who knew his action and suspense, if not his romance. He uses a good number of multiple split screens right from the opening titles, a convention that became quite popular in the late 1960's and 70's but has thankfully fallen out of favor in the last few decades. The director uses everything at this disposal to provide the visceral excitement of the racing events, from the aforementioned multiple screens to overheads and close-ups, plus plenty of corner camera setups and point-of-view shots. In fact, it is the first-person cockpit shots that are most riveting.

The movie takes us all over Europe, with location shooting in Monaco, France, England, Belgium, etc., the photography beautiful in its scope and vision. The filmmakers shoot the French Grand Prix particularly well, quite poetically, and they do up the Belgium Grand Prix mostly in the rain, making for some breathtaking shots. Accompanying the action, we hear Maurice Jarre's sometimes lyrical, sometimes evocative, always stimulating musical score, much of it reminiscent of his work in "Doctor Zhivago," with touches of "Lawrence of Arabia" thrown in. I mean, you know this is an epic not only by its length but by its overture and its entr'acte music.

Racing veterans Phil Hill, Joakim Bonnier, and Richie Ginther acted as advisors on the film, with Carroll Shelby as technical consultant. Additionally, the director got real-life Formula One drivers Graham Hill, Lorenzo Bandini, Bob Bondurant, Jack Brabham, Jimmy Clark, and a host of others to participate in many of the scenes, lending a further note of authenticity to the proceedings. Graham Hill, incidentally, was almost too good to be true, looking like a young David Niven.

Perhaps the movie's greatest achievement is in capturing the feeling of a bygone racing era, the end of an age in racing history where the competition was still a seat-of-your-pants undertaking, where racing machines were nothing more than engines on wheels, and where strict safety rules and million-dollar endorsements were dreams of the future. Today's Formula-One machines are so technologically advanced, they look and behave like intergalactic, science-fi rocket ships compared to the racing cars of 1966.

But there are also the exaggerated emotions and personal matters to contend with, none of which in and of themselves would probably not happen to somebody in real-life but seem to happen to everyone in this picture simultaneously. A horrendous accident nearly cripples Scott, but he determines to make it back to the track and become a world champion; everybody in the film has an affair with somebody else; the characters are generally vacuous stereotypes, Pete chief among them; team managers are ruthless; and winning is everything to every driver, every owner, and every spectator. It begins to feel like piling on.

As with all sports movies, "Grand Prix" comes down to the final contest, in this case the final race of the season to determine the world championship, and the tension mounts. Ah, the joys of movies on disc, to be able to watch the film again by clicking only on the racing sequences. They are more than worth the price of the BD.

The job Warner Bros. did restoring the film from 65 mm elements and transferring it to high-definition HD DVD a few years ago impressed me greatly. The Blu-ray results impress me no less, with WB now using a dual-layer BD50 and an MPEG-4/AVC encode to replace the previous VC-1. What's more, the video engineers have again preserved the film's original 2.20:1 aspect ratio (originally projected, as I've said, on some screens in Cinerama).

Like the HD DVD that preceded it, the Blu-ray picture is exceptionally clean and vividly detailed. Furthermore, the colors remain entirely natural, bright yet never too bright, certainly never dull, and as deep and rich as ever. Moiré effects and artifacts of any kind continue largely as nonissues; indeed, they're almost nonentities. Grain is almost zero, too, except that which is inherent to the original print; motion effects, halos, and pixilation are nearly zero. It is, in short, among the better pictures you'll find on Blu-ray disc. Although the video is never actually startling in its clarity, it is impressive in its sense of realism. As before, there are a few slightly dark faces; otherwise, the picture quality must be pretty close to what I imagine the original film print probably looks like.

Using lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 this time out rather than the Dolby Digital Plus they used on the HD DVD, the audio engineers capture a wide front-channel stereo spread, along with a strong dynamic impact and good overall clarity. Still, the rear channels communicate only a small amount of sound in things like engine noise, tires, crowds, and musical ambience, and voices can sometimes sound harsh and hollow. However, the racing sequences continue to be the highlights of the movie, and it is here that the audio serves them well, if a little forward in the upper midrange.

For the Blu-ray, Warners carry over the extras from the previous editions. These include five featurettes and a theatrical trailer. The first documentary, "Pushing the Limit: The Making of Grand Prix," is twenty-eight minutes long and includes commentary from the filmmakers, stars, and drivers who worked on the film. Interestingly, we learn that director Frankenheimer originally wanted Steve McQueen to play the part of Pete Aron, but it fell through; and the director insisted that his actors learn to drive race cars and that most of them do at least some of their own driving in the movie. The second documentary, "Flat Out: Formula One in the Sixties," is seventeen minutes long and contains the reminiscences of a number of world-champion drivers about their racing experiences in the 1960s. The third documentary, "The Style and Sound of Speed," eleven minutes long, is all about the photography, sound, and editing of the film; and the fourth documentary, "Brands Hatch: Chasing the Checkered Flag," ten minutes long, is a look at the British Grand Prix course today. Then, there's a promo featurette, "Grand Prix: Challenge of the Champions," twelve minutes, made at the time of the film's production.

The extras wrap up with forty-five scene selections; a theatrical trailer; a special promo; English, French, German, Portuguese, and Spanish spoken languages; French, Spanish, Portuguese, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, and Finnish subtitles; and English and German captions for the hearing impaired. As usual with WB's latest Blu-ray discs, they package it in a flimsy Eco-case.

Parting Thoughts:
For anyone who enjoys motor racing, "Grand Prix" remains the best movie ever made about the subject. Despite its histrionic interludes and melodramatic glimpses into the drivers' private lives, the racing sequences more than make up for the deficiencies. In its Blu-ray transfer, it is a terrific motion picture just to look at, and if you don't like the mushy stuff in between the races, you can always use your remote's "Fast Forward" and "Skip" buttons.


Film Value