Director: John Frankenheimer
By Roderick Heath
James Garner’s recent death came to a man of ripe, old age (86) with a rich, full life behind him. But it was still a stinging loss to movie and TV fans of multiple generations. Garner’s specific charm, masculine but tongue-in-cheek, breezy but subtly soulful, had invigorated pop culture for more than 50 years, from his quick breakthrough as a young actor in Sayonara (1957) through to his still-magnetic turn as the elderly version of Ryan Gosling in The Notebook (2004). In between came a lot of work which still defines an ideal of entertainment.
During the 1960s, Garner busted out of his status as a TV star after talking a walk from “Maverick” to become a movie star, and indeed, he probably did more than any other actor of the time to attack the strict status barrier between the two mediums. His work of the period included the clever, kinetic war films The Great Escape (1963) and 36 Hours (1964), the cynical satire The Americanisation of Emily (1964), before he returned to TV for his other great shows, “Nichols” (1971-72) and “The Rockford Files” (1974-1980). In the 1990s, he was still giving poised, flagrantly charismatic turns in the likes of the prototypical HBO telemovie Barbarians at the Gate (1993) and Twilight (1998), Robert Benton’s moody tribute to aging stars like Garner, Paul Newman, and Gene Hackman. Grand Prix, one of MGM’s super-sized productions designed to take advantage of the Cinerama format for narrative film, was one of the few blockbuster-grade productions Garner was called upon to anchor, though as in The Great Escape, he had to share the limelight with big-name international actors—Yves Montand and Toshiro Mifune, as well as would-be new stars Brian Bedford and Antonio Sabato.
Grand Prix was helmed by John Frankenheimer, who had debuted as a feature director nine years earlier after making a name for himself as a TV director. Frankenheimer’s early work was done mostly under the aegis of Burt Lancaster’s production company Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, formed to make substantive dramas that often touched upon social issues. Frankenheimer’s first four films, The Young Stranger (1957), The Young Savages (1961), All Fall Down (1962) and Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), certainly fit that bill as lightly poetic studies in alienated youth, misfits, and criminals, with only The Young Savages quite suggesting the oncoming potency of Frankenheimer’s vivid, Wellesian visual technique, which would flourish in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), his chief claim to cinematic immortality. Frankenheimer’s career remained prolific until his death in 2002 as he fought to remain an industry player, defined best by his run of important, vivid films made between The Manchurian Candidate and 1975’s French Connection II. He spent most of the ’80s making ambitious, but shaky B-movies. Ironically, a late-career return to making TV films revived his reputation and helped him round off his oeuvre with some variable high-profile films, the best of which was Ronin (1998). Grand Prix is a quintessential relic of both Frankenheimer’s early career and 1960s big-budget cinema, as the tyro filmmaker took advantage of the era’s stylistic openness and willingness to let cinematic language be stretched. He worked with Saul Bass, the innovative editor and title designer, and his technical team, incorporating ideas from New Wave filmmaking and TV sports coverage, to give the audience a new kind of epic cinema.
It’s easy to imagine screenwriter Robert Alan Aurthur’s screenplay handled in a completely different fashion, as the kind of spare, intimate drama Frankenheimer had done before. The film might be more appreciated if it had been. Grand Prix’s big, flashy surface seems to demand titanic gestures and heroes, but Aurthur’s downbeat script and Frankenheimer’s cool, dramatic style emphasise instead the fallible humanity of its protagonists who try, Achilles-like, to inscribe their names on history at the possible expense of a long life. As with many of Frankenheimer’s best works, the characters are obsessives seeking expression through action and release but shot through with neuroses that border on the maniacal. Grand Prix tries to walk a line, not always successfully, but with a certain honour, between pop-existential study loaded with fatalistic gravitas, and an Arthur Hailey-esque yarn of competitive alpha people living and loving in glamorous surrounds.
The film’s biggest drag is the chief concession to the latter quality—the beautiful-people romance of Sicilian motorcyclist-turned-Formula 1 driver Nino Barlini and his girlfriend, race timer Lisa. They’re supposed to be the eye candy and comic relief counterweight to the other protagonists, but the performances of Sabato and Françoise Hardy in the roles are stiff enough to be taken for Ikea furniture. Sabato’s weak grasp on English declamation retards his good-humour as the film’s breeziest figure, the poor kid who’s found success and become the type of randy, proletariat, “I’m so fucking good” character which today would inevitably be passed off onto a black actor: his complete lack of neurosis is expressed best when Lisa asks him if he’s worried about racing, and he answers, “I am immortal.”
The other three racing drivers Grand Prix depicts, Frenchman Jean-Pierre Sarti (Montand), American Pete Aron (Garner), and Brit Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford), are very different. Sarti, a former champion, is recovering from a string of bad luck and now seems set to sweep all before him racing with Nino for Ferrari. Aron, a former Ferrari driver and a bullish, hard-driving competitor, is teammates with Stoddard for BRM at the outset. Stoddard’s chief competitor is his dead brother Roger, who died three years earlier after a triumphant career. Scott still keeps all his brother’s trophies and memorabilia as “something to shoot for.” Scott’s wife Pat (Jessica Walter) knows the cost of his compulsion; she’s introduced sleeping off a night boozing on Ouzo with some Greek guys the night before the Monaco Grand Prix, the kind of escapade she gets up to as she tries to avoid the spectacle of her husband lying in a cold sweat before a race.
The Monaco race, a set-piece that opens the film, sees Aron well outpaced by Sarti and Stoddard, with his car’s gearbox giving him trouble: the BRM manager Jeff Jordan (Jack Watson) doesn’t believe Aron when he reports the trouble, and Aron continues racing, though at the point of being lapped by Stoddard. Aron insists on racing Scott, to Jordan’s irritation, but when Aron finally gives up and waves Stoddard past, his brakes seize up, causing their vehicles to collide. Stoddard’s car careens into an embankment, badly injuring him, whilst Aron’s car flies into the harbour, from which he emerges uninjured. Aron is sacked by an irate Jordan and blamed by Stoddard, but Sarti, who wins the race, takes it all as part of their rough business and asks Aron if he ever gets tired of racing. Sarti’s tone that makes it clear Sarti himself is rapidly losing interest in the sport, but he’s still driven to push himself to the limit to retain his belief that he is the best.
During the race season, Sarti gravitates towards Louise Frederickson (Eva Marie Saint), a high-profile American magazine journalist who’s been assigned to cover the racing season but, in a manner that resembles Howard Hawks’ communal studies, remains puzzled by its subculture, one that parties after men have been seriously injured or even killed. Sarti himself, who confesses that when there’s a serious accident on the track, he speeds up because everybody else is slowing down, and that “there is no terrible way to win.” Although he sounds like a douchebag, Sarti is actually a calm, collected, serious man who’s separated from his wife Monique Delvaux-Sarti (Geneviève Page), the boss’s daughter he married before starting to race. Sarti and Louise’s gently mature romance is countered by the tormented relations Stoddard and Aron share with Pat, who leaves her husband when he’s lying a mangled wreck in his hospital because she’s knows full well that Scott will keep racing. Going to work for Louise as a model, Pat remains close to the race scene and drifts into an affair with momentarily exiled Aron. Such a rebound romance seems unlikely after Aron sourly blasts her for bullshitting about her marriage for a TV interview, but that proves instead overture to a coupling that has more than a hint of mutual masochism and self-castigation. Aron, forced to sit out the next race, the French Grand Prix, briefly takes a job as an interviewer for American sports TV. He leaps at an offer to race again from Japanese tycoon Izo Yamura (Mifune), whose racing team lacks a potential champion.
Grand Prix is rife with the kind of tarnished angel beloved of ’60s pop culture, as the protagonists’ veneers of professional commitment hide turmoil and dilemma. The film sports many similarities to the same year’s fighter-pilot epic The Blue Max, which likewise focuses on an antihero laden with powerful class envy in control of fantastically liberating technology through which he tries to outgun competitors. But there are also strong reasons to empathise with Sarti, Aron, and Stoddard. Sarti is feeling his age but still driving with fixated determination because the speed and stature of driving allows him to forget the unpleasant facts of his failed marriage to Monique, which still persists because she won’t divorce him and his business interests demand its continuation. Sarti’s focus is shaken, perhaps irreparably, during the Belgian Grand Prix, at a rural race course where driving in rain is a constant hazard: during a shower that drenches the field, one of Sarti’s wheels comes lose and he crashes, killing two children. The kids’ father (Jean Michaud) assaults Sarti as he babbles technical details and plans for future races, trying to remain detached, whilst Eve hugs him in desperate anguish. A sense of entrapment begins to form around Sarti, whose subsequent weak racing performances result in the Ferrari boss, Agostini Manetta (Adolfo Celi), a smooth creep who dismissed Aron’s attempts to rejoin the team, now pressuring him for better results with tactics like withholding his replacement car until the last minute. Aron declares himself an “old-fashioned boy at heart,” so Pat takes care to assure him she’s getting a divorce before seducing him. Aron finds himself constantly demonised thanks to a series of events beyond his control, though he also repeatedly miscalculates, like still trying to race Stoddard when his car’s playing up.
Aron wins the Belgian race after Sarti’s crash, providing an immediate payoff for his pact with Yamura. But the real curveball in the championship is Stoddard’s determined leap back into racing: still bleeding from some of his wounds and keeping pain under control with strong drugs, Scott, running cold and fuelled by losses old and new, competes in the Dutch Grand Prix. He breaks records and quickly becomes a force to reckon with as he captures the New York Grand Prix. The moment he turns back up at the race scene, still on crutches, to confront his wife, leads to a marvellously uncomfortable scene where Aron politely excuses himself whilst Scott states his determination to win Pat back whilst maintaining his cool, self-deprecating sense of humour, and delivering the perhaps inevitable lament that humans can’t be stripped down and easily repaired like a race car can. Aurthur’s script often feels like reportage from the frontlines of mid-’60s gender relations, the uneasy ménage of Pat, Pete, and Scott testing new definitions and zones of tolerance in relationships, whilst Sarti is ironically trapped in an unhappy marriage whilst trying to romance feminist Louise. When Louise finally tells him, “I love you, Jean-Pierre,” he replies, “As I you—we have to discuss the consequences of those terrible words.”
Such touches indicate the surprisingly adult tenor of much of Grand Prix that is strengthened by the cast, including Montand, who blends wry, yet sad-sack grace and terse Gallic focus. The grown-up attitude of the film does, however, curiously work against the project’s nominal appeal, as Sarti’s toey romance with Louise never quite combusts and is certainly never as interesting as the weird triangle of Pete, Scott, and Pat, which is in turn too angst-ridden to be sexy, whilst Nino and Lisa might as well be Ken and Barbie dolls. Bedford is good as Scott, tossing off his barbed, blackly humorous self-deprecation and sarcasm and putting across the character’s odd mixture of dry cool and morbid obsession, but he also lacks charisma and warmth, one reason perhaps his film career didn’t amount to much after this. Walter’s role as Pat, superficially shallow and certainly life-hungry, but actually rather tormented, plays as both antithesis and anticipation of her famous part as the psycho stalker in Play Misty for Me (1970), a psychic grease trap for flawed macho men. She is, in many ways, the heart of the film. Garner is cast against type, playing the kind of cool, seemingly detached, but actually deeply fixated customer patented by Steve McQueen, who indeed had been the first choice for the role; McQueen signed up for a rival production instead.
Garner’s best scenes come opposite Mifune, who isn’t given that much to do really and whose impact is doubly hampered by a clumsy and wooden dub job by Paul Frees. But Mifune’s poise and thoughtfulness still come across, as the American hotshot and Japanese magnate find accord, even friendship, even as Yamura admits that he shot down 17 American planes during his stint as a WWII fighter pilot. Aron tells Yamura he likes him because he comes to the point, and Yamura confirms that’s why he chose Aron as his champion, because he races in the same fashion. Their accord is strained momentarily as Aron admits he makes more mistakes than the triumphant Scott, as Yamura subjects him to hours studying footage of his various stuff-ups. But the theme is ultimately a positive portrait of postwar reconciliation that fits in not just the film’s internationalist viewpoint, but also the romantic pairings, for everything in the film is viewed at some point in a cycle of integration and disintegration, fitting for a tale which revolves around systemic variations and the quest for infallible interactions of fickle parts. Frankenheimer constantly binds his four protagonists together in the filmmaking, visually and aurally counterpointing their actions and their perspectives before and during races, and more ominously, noting each man’s blood group medallion before the last race. Such motifs suggest Frankenheimer playing games with autonomy and identity in a much less direct manner than he did in The Manchurian Candidate and Seconds (1966), but still finding ways to express it as the racers adventure in extreme zones where they are only as good as their machines: they become something other than human in such zones.
Grand Prix is most famous for its technical achievements over and above its human side, and whilst as I’ve noted that’s not entirely justified, what is certain is that Frankenheimer’s work with Bass, supervising editor Frederic Steinkamp, and DP Lionel Lindon succeeded in creating a new kind of sports film. Whilst the film’s portrait of the sportsman as existential adventurer in search of perfection in the game but suffering in human interactions surely stands in the shadow of The Hustler (1961), its own immediate influence both stylistically and thematically is intrinsic in films like Downhill Racer (1969), Winning (1969), and Le Mans (1971), and stretching through to Chariots of Fire (1981) and Any Given Sunday (1999), before the more familiar style initiated by Rocky (1976) made the recent sports film a dance towards inevitable triumph.
Right from the opening frames, the stylistic boldness of Grand Prix is writ large and in many ways still unsurpassed, as the filmmakers assault the familiar limitations of the frame and big-cinema technique by strip-mining various mediums and approaches. The use of split-screen, an idea in mainstream filmmaking that perhaps hadn’t been seen since Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927), presents subdivisions that rapidly multiply and turn alternatively kaleidoscopic or analytical. Some shots invoke photo-essayistic technique, capturing detail and momentarily frozen or stuttering vignettes where physical time loses meaning and internal time screws in toward moments of decision and anticipation. One clever motif combines TV, documentary, and New Wave film style in journalistic interviews with the four drivers—their reporting on their personal motives, perspectives, and technical challenges in races are heard in the midst of already unfolding races, providing swift, intelligible exposition and characterisation amidst action.
Frankenheimer and Bass also took care to film none of the races in quite the same manner, varying rhythmically and visually. For example, the French Grand Prix sequence is rendered as a dreamy discursion, the cars dancing in blurs of motion, viewed obliquely through spring flowers, mimicking both Louise’s viewpoint, as she falls under the spell of both Sarti and his sport, and that of the crowd of Sunday folk out to watch the glamorous event. The Belgian race depicts the difficulty of powering along in clouds of flying water, made alarmingly clear by alternations of point-of-view shots from the cars shooting along the narrow roads (with real spectators captured sometimes in the act of dashing across in front of the cars) and high helicopter shots. The vertiginous car-mounted shots, some of which were captured by cameras fixed to Phil Hill’s car in real races, must have been dizzying on the Cinerama screen, and certainly communicate great velocity even on TV. Frankenheimer nixed any under-cranking to give the impression of speed, knowing full well audiences could spot that, and so everything was staged at high speed, though most of the cars in the film were actually Formula 3 racers made to look like Formula 1 cars.
In spite of the fancy visual language on display throughout, Grand Prix belongs to an age of cinema where the immediacy of spectacle entailed dazzling the audience with an overwhelming impression of real thrills with attendant risks. Whereas recent works in a similar vein like the Fast and Furious films or Rush (2013) drench the eye in furious cuts and wobbling camerawork to give the impression of speed and danger, Frankenheimer takes care to show his actors’s faces in cars moving at high speeds in elegant panning shots. This is more startling when you learn that among the actors, only Garner was actually an accomplished driver—in fact, he gained high praise from the Formula 1 aces who helped make the film. Amongst that roster of racers who helped make the film are names that still have the ring of legend for aficionados of the sport, including the aforementioned Phil Hill, Graham Hill, Jack Brabham, and Juan Manuel Fangio. The dramatic shape of Grand Prix emphasises that the drivers are, to a certain extent, interchangeable, and each man succeeds, fails, lives, or dies through complex collaborations. Each driver is victimised by bad luck and the tiny faults in their machines: Nino is the only one not to have mechanical trouble, which is why he’s in front in the overall championship by the last race.
The film contends with the notion that morbid delight in the spectacle of death is the great attraction of the sport, a notion Pat voices outright. The film’s bitter cynicism about the voyeuristic urge, especially those professional voyeurs, the press, is old hat these days, but was much less so at the time. Grand Prix interestingly suggests this is merely the dark side to the need of both audience and drivers to explore the grey zone between life and death and thus “know living more intensely,” as Aron describes it to Yamura. Louise herself tries to cheer up Sarti with this very idea, that he puts something in people’s lives they can’t find elsewhere, a truly invigorating spectacle of challenge where the result can never be entirely known. But Louise is forced to confront the dark side of this dialogue in the raw, hyperbolic instant when she holds up hands smeared in her lover’s blood to a gaggle of photographers, screaming “Is this what you want?”
The finale, the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, sees the drivers taking on a challenge long since banished from Formula 1 racing, as they venture onto dangerous banking that sends them careening at terrific speeds, constantly buffeted by slipstreams and the very road surface. Sarti’s number comes up, as seems curiously inevitable after his chilly encounters with both his wife and Manetta and his admission of love with Louise: a piece of tailpipe falling off Scott’s car causes Sarti’s vehicle to lose control and fly off the banking like a rocket, leaving him dangling bloody in a tree like some pagan animal sacrifice whilst his car explodes in a ball of fire. Manetta displays surprising decency by calling in Nino and surrendering the race to Pete and Scott, who then duke it out unaware of their friend’s death. Pete takes the race and the championship, and invites Scott to share the winner’s podium with him, but any sense of triumph is stymied by the realisation of Sarti’s death. The film leaves off with a poetic vignette of Aron long after the carnival has moved on walking alone around the starting grid at the Monza track, imagining the engine roar of the cars and the announcer naming his comrades, some now gone. It’s hard to imagine a film would be made today leaving off on such a wistful bummer of an ending. The reality around the film’s making bears out the truth of it, too: of the 32 drivers who helped to make the film, 10 would die in races within the next 12 years.