Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 30, No. 14. 1967.
Over the past few weeks I seem to have spent an inordinate amount of time telling people to go and see Grand Prix. Reactions to this suggestion have ranged from downright incredulity to the comparatively mild raised eyebrow and "Oh really?"
Reasons for this scepticism are varied. There is the disapproval shown by many academic types to big budget, wide-screen productions ("But that's in Cinerama" etc), and then there is the explicit view that a film about something as plebeian as motor racing could not possibly be interesting.
The belief that Grand Prix is basically a documentary about the sport (if it can be called that) is a misconception. Much of the film does have a documentary flavour, but there is more to it than the expensive gloss of surface realism. It is, above all, John Frankenheimer's vision of Formula One motor racing, a vision that is a logical extension of his continuing interest in the mechanics and inner workings of things, whether these be family relations (All Fall Down), the machinations or politics (Seven Days In May), or the lumbering activities of metallic monsters (The Train).
The conventional critical line on Grand Prix, and one whose refrain has been faithfully sung in most reviews, is that although the racing sequences are fine, the story in general is lousy, the characters little more than cardboard figures, and the dialogue poorly written. This kind of sweeping condemnation rarely stands up to close scrutiny, and the case of Grand Prix is no exception.
In my opinion the narrative and the people who play it out are never less than interesting. Obviously most of the drama is to be found behind the wheel, but the scenes off the track have their attractions, the most notable of which is the SartiFrederickson relationship, a doomed affair that reminded me of Signoret and Werner in Ship Of Fools. Those grand professionals Yves Montand and Eva Marie Saint are excellent as the lovers, and the promising newcomer Brian Bedford provides the only real acting competition. I wish something good could be said about the great Japanese star Toshiro Mifune, appearing in his first English language film. Unfortunately his performance is characterised only by a masterly object-lesson in how to keep a sleek, well-oiled mop of hair in place, and an impression that he is trying to speak through a mouthful of fish-hooks.
It is, of course, on the big circuits that Frankenheimer the director and racing enthusiast comes into his own. The very nature of the engines involved allows him greater scope than was possible in The Train, although the earlier film is in many ways a definitive exercise in the staging and photographing of railway activity. In Grand Prix there are passages of startling brilliance, as Frankenheimer splits the screen into two, three or twenty-four different fragments, observes the racing cars from helicopters and following camera-cars, gives the audience dizzy subjective views of high speed, and — well, has himself a cinematic ball. He exploits the wide screen to its utmost limits, and in so doing provides the first artistic use of Cinerama.
Details as to the technical problems involved in the making of Grand Prix have appeared in a Shell guff sheet handed out at the screenings, so I will merely point out what I consider are the two best scenes in the film. The first big crash is a masterpiece of construction and editing. Here is a case where a big budget is something to be thankful for, The scene must have been costly (and extremely difficult) to set up and shoot but the effect is stunning, even though the episode lasts not more than about eight seconds on the screen.
The bit that really gets me, however, occurs in the second race. Here Frankenheimer's camera wings off on a flight of soulful lyricism, with every effect designed to produce a dream-like vision: multiple superimpositions of racing cars and faces, and speeding cars glimpsed through leaves and flowers. Maurice Jarre's strident music softens appropriately, while Lionel Lindon's colour photography, some of the best seen in recent years, enhances the beauty of Frankenheimer's conception. In a film full of outstanding moments this was the best. Needless to say I recommend Grand Prix to those who haven't seen it. As a footnote I might add that an incidental pleasure if watching Graham Hill trying to get in front of the camera at every possible opportunity.
In my first review this year I mentioned Frankenheimer's Seconds. This film came to New Zealand last year, and advertising for it first appeared at Wellington's Lido many months ago. Since then nothing has been seen of it, although Auckland has had a first run screening. Peter Baker described it as "by far the best film" at last year's Cannes festival and Tom Nairn writing in the New Statesman thought it "one of the most extraordinary films seen in London this year . . . fortunate coincidences in form and content like this make the real history of the cinema when they occur."
Sounds interesting? Try this: "Seconds is by far Frankenheimer's greatest achievement and certainly the most imaginative and important film for a long time where, in this age of too many spy sagas and displays of technical agility, one realises that the cinema is an art, not only one to be appreciated but one of vital importance" — Robin Bean in Films and Filming. Wouldn't you like to see it? Last heard of, Seconds was doing the rounds in Auckland suburbs. I suggest a march on the film distributors in order to knock some sense into their silly heads.
After the freshness and humour of The Russians Are Coming we are back to dreary run-of-the-mill comedies. I did have some hopes for A Guide For The Married Man, with a cast of experienced comedians under the guiding hand of Gene Kelly, the dancerdirector who had a hand in the making of On The Town and Singing In The Rain, the best musical comedy ever made.
His latest effort as director is surprisingly bad for one with such a long acquaintance with film-making. His technique is inept to say the least, the characteristic feature of it being an over-reliance of the zoom as a substitute for imagination. Most of the players are ill at ease in these surroundings, although the brief appearances by Jack Benny, Carl Reiner and Terry-Thomas arc quite amusing. The film is a disappointment and does little to enhance Gene Kelly's reputation.