Downhill Racer: Winning is Everything


Caught up with Criterion’s characteristically excellent release of  ‘Downhill Racer‘, another film that reveals Michael Ritchie as an under-appreciated director (Honeslty, imdb-chatters, have you really nothing to say about the guy who made ‘The Candidate’, ‘Fletch’, and the deeply serious thriller ‘Prime Cut’?), Robert Redford as a far more nuanced actor than his reputation permits, and sports movies as the genre that may reveal most about the US American male archetype.

It’s a fascinating movie, inflected with a bit of Godard here, some Arthur Penn there, discordant cutting, unconventional sound, and a central character who can’t really be seen as attractive, despite being played by beautiful Bob.  ‘How far must a man go to get from where he’s at?’ asks the portentous voiceover on the trailer (one of those great 60s Paramount previews that bears the weight of assumption that you won’t go to see the feature length version of the film unless you know absolutely everything that’s going to happen in it first).  The answer seems to be wherever there’s snow, lycra, and hill gradients steep enough to propel a man faster than he should really be going.

‘Downhill Racer’s a smart little movie, among whose pleasures are the splendid, so often wonderfully slimy character actor Dabney Coleman with a full head of hair, reminders of why I wish Gene Hackman were still making movies, a little compromise between Eastern and Western United States by making the anti-hero from Colorado, and the most unmannerly use of a car horn in cinema.

A recent article in the mainstream/conservative Christian magazine CT clearly articulates how the national obsession with sports-for-money has infected life to the extent of dividing families, bloating credit card debt, and even encouraging violence; ‘Downhill Racer’ imagined this future forty years ago, suggesting that not only is winning actually everything, but anything else will only leave you empty, de-masculinised, the meaning sucked out of your life.  It fits the time in which it was made perfectly – the sugarcoated movies of the earlier part of the decade were beginning to give way to the cynicism of the 70s; it’s a perfect companion piece to Ritchie and Jeremy Larner‘s ‘The Candidate’, a film which Dan Quayle cited as an inspiration for his political career (to which Larner responded: ‘Mr Quayle, this was not a how-to movie, it was a watch-out movie.  And you are what we should be watching out for.’)  ‘Downhill Racer’ and ‘The Candidate’ [spoilers ahoy] both end in exactly the same way: with the temporary gloss of victory giving way to the dawning recognition that someone who is only satisfied with winning must live in perpetual competition.  It’s a film about the perfection of a body at the expense of the entrenchment of a soul.

*Photos courtesy The Criterion Collection

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