Wednesday, September 5, 2012

'Le Mans' In My Head


I have a request of you:

I want you to find a copy of the movie ‘Le Mans’ and watch it start to finish, without interruptions or phone calls or tweeps or Fecesbook updates or any other distractions that could take you away from the storyline. Pause briefly enough only to hit the bathroom or grab a snackie cake and Yoo-Hoo. Turn off your spacephone. The film is only 94 minutes long, so it will be EASY to do. If you're a racing fan and it’s been a while since you’ve seen it, watch it again using these instructions.

Why? Because ‘Le Mans’, starring Steve McQueen at the height of his film career (check out those sideburns!), is perhaps the best movie about motor racing and racing drivers that I have ever seen. The storyline, so subtle as to be almost imperceptible, will prove to be massively satisfying if you pay close attention. This is not (shudder) ‘Talladega Nights’ or ‘Days of Thunder’ or even ‘Grand Prix’, another very fine albeit formulaic joint about racing, sex and death (the vintage race cars and circuits are SPEKTAKOOLAR in ‘Grand Prix’, starring a truly dashing pre-‘Rockford Files’ James Garner).

But ‘Le Mans’ is a different animal altogether. After a recent viewing, I found it to be even more stirring, exciting, brutal and nuanced than I remembered. I want to share with you why it is on my list of Top 20 All-Time Favorite Movies.

Filmed (mostly) in concert with the running of the 1970 event at the Le Sarthe track in France, ‘Le Mans’ was released in June of 1971 after much angst, studio interference, a mid-filming director change and little (if any) publicity by National General Films. My first exposure to it was as a sullen, despondent 15-year-old, trapped in an unexplainable road trip to visit family members in the remote and desolate town of Snowflake, Arizona sometime in late ’71 or early ‘72. We were visiting my Uncle, Aunt and their two young kids, staying with them in their ‘large’ trailer, so my notoriously smelly feet were a subject of much consternation during the few days we visited. Dad made sure to remind me that I was stinkin’ up the joint… repeatedly, each night.

My recollections of Snowflake are minimal, mostly of small houses, a smaller ‘downtown’, dirt roads and eating a burger that was bigger than the plate it was served on when we went out for dinner one night. The thing that truly stands out, that rivets me to that dusty burg in the middle of a dusty state, was that the new movie ‘Le Mans’ was showing at the tiny theater in town. I knew nothing of the film, but one evening we walked down the dirt street to the tiny old theater, bought some popcorn and cokes and sat down to watch a film that would literally FLOOR ME. I had no idea this would become a lasting love affair with such a small but important film.

The plot is simple: the film follows several drivers and their teams during the classic 24-hour race that starts at 4PM on Saturday and ends at 4PM on Sunday. Except for the PA announcer reviewing the Porsche vs. Ferrari battle, the impending weather and details about how the race will be run, there is literally NO DIALOG for the first 35 minutes. Composer Michel Legrand's glorious soundtrack is vintage ‘70’s, but it still works and perfectly suits the film's style and pacing. Steve McQueen portrays Porsche driver Michael Delaney, returning to the track where he'd crashed heavily the year before. Steve’s mannerisms, his look, his tightly-held emotional collar and classic tight-assed pit walk (copied by every budding race driver ever since, I swear!) all embody the very essence of what we (me) wanted race drivers to be.

About that first 35 minutes… if you aren’t paying close attention, you will absolutely MISS the extremely subtle developments that delineate the plot and storyline and keep resurfacing in-between the amazing road-racing action. I won’t detail anything from the film’s opening because DAMMIT, you gotta earn this one. Even though Steve once famously stated “there’s no phony love story in this film”, there is indeed a really interesting relationship he develops, slotted among several others throughout the story’s arc. Check out this first clip from the film, and wallow in the glorious sound of those sexy, fast, beautifully manic cars (Michael Delaney is driving Blue Gulf Porsche #20):



Now is when the meaty storyline elements begin to surface… slowly, languidly, an excellent counterpoint to the raging cars pounding around the track. As the race progresses, you learn more about Michael Delaney, his Ferrari rival Erich Stahler (Siegfried Rauch), race widow Maria Belgetti (Elga Andersen), the enjoined battle between Ferrari and Porsche, and the war every team is waging against this most daunting of racetracks. After numerous viewings, I finally figured out the flow and tempo that immediately brings the story to life: YOU GOTTA PAY ATTENTION. Like I said before, this ain’t The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.

Sometime during the early morning hours of the second day, a sequence of events lead to a devastating accident, a moment’s distraction and subsequent massive ‘shunt’ that takes out Delaney’s Porsche, leaving it a shattered, steaming heap next to the Armco barrier. He sits in the car, stunned, shivering, recalling each millisecond of time to the moment he crashed… HARD. Every time I watch this part of the movie, I feel the crash, hear the shredding metal, smell the hot fluids spewing all over the car’s interior, taste the bloody lip. Another year, another crash, his car is demolished, his dream of winning Le Mans is snatched away. Every driver’s nightmare, come to me NOW.

He’s taken to the trackside medical center, where he encounters Maria Belgetti, who is once-again a spectating victim of how cruel racing can be. As he exits the center, he sees her besieged by the paparazzi and rescues her from their gaping maw, leading her to a taxi that whisks her away. He then heads back to the hot pits to face up to his team owner David Townsend, who sees him from trackside and walks over:

DT: (looks Delaney up and down) “Michael… are you all right?”

MD: “Yeah, I’m fine.”

DT: "Are you sure?"

MD: "I'm OK."

DT: (pauses for a moment, then looks at him squarely) “Then what about the car?”

MD: (pauses, looks pained, then speaks) “It was my fault, David. (pause) I made a mistake. I wrote the car off.”

DT: (a moment of disbelief is seen in his eyes, then resignation. Before he can speak, someone from the pit calls him and he leaves)

Simple dialog, few words, POWERFUL unspoken emotions that are evident if you're closely watching the nuanced performances of Steve McQueen and Ronald Leigh-Hunt. Just like the following clips that show Delaney walking from the pits after this exchange… I wasn’t able to find the whole segment, so play the clips in sequence to watch the full scene:





The film’s entire dénouement, including the hard truth of motor racing, is encapsulated in the trailer scene. Maria Belgetti is scarred from her love of the sport, and yet… she still loves it, still needs it. Delaney’s facial expressions when they enter the trailer are priceless, showing McQueen as a master of the understatement, his eyes and eyebrows and mouth and body speaking without words. She asks some hard questions, and he responds: “Racing's important to men who do it well. When you're racing, it's... it's life. Anything that happens before or after… is just waiting.” Right away he knows his words spear her, because she has a realization about her own life, an epiphany, and you can see it in her eyes, without the need for her to speak. This is really spare, sharp screenwriting, letting the actors emote in a seemingly effortless fashion.

Can you tell that I am enamored with this movie? DAMN, I love a movie that makes me work for the goodie!

As in real-world motor racing, everything changes when the two leading cars experience mechanical woes and are stalled in the pits for lengthy repairs near the end of the race. Ferrari takes the lead and Porsche team owner Townsend decides that the driver in one of his remaining cars isn’t fit enough to challenge, so Delaney is tapped to replace him. As they walk back to the track, Townsend tells Delaney: "Michael, I want you to drive flat out. I want Porsche to win Le Mans." This scene of the final two laps of the race brings me so close to the action, I can smell the oil and rubber and exhaust and feel the driver’s determination (this clip is compressed for some reason but is still AWESOME):



ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?!?! The cars are alive… filthy, frenzied, speeding beasts in mortal combat with each other. The film's interpretation of the ‘red mist’ of racing at 10/10ths is intoxicating, because NOTHING can compare to the power and craziness of competition at this level. All the sweat and blood and toil and trouble to push the leading Ferrari to the finish line is dashed by a flat tire, the disappointment and loss obvious on the faces of the car’s driver and team manager. THIS STUFF REALLY HAPPENS. The look of determination on Delaney’s face as he pushes his own car to battle with Stahler is REAL, his eyes doing all the talking. The Red and Blue cars thrust and parry, slam and bang and slice and slither their way across the track, clawing for traction and speed. I especially love the race-geek camera work, with no freaking CGI or animation to screw things up. The way the cars nose-dive and squirm as they scrub speed to take a hard turn is awesome. A mechanical ballet, where life's contrast knob is set to 11 and disaster is always just one corner away.

I like to tell non-racing fans that among the myriad reasons I love almost all forms of motorsports, one of the most important is the SCIENCE of it all. Physics on display. Combustion, momentum, friction, chemistry, aerodynamics, geometry, gravity, hydraulics, metallurgy, electromagnetics, calculus… racing embodies all of these disciplines. Add the fact that this film, shot in 1970 with what is now considered archaic and antiquated movie-making technology, so perfectly demonstrates both the physical AND emotional realities of high-caliber motor racing, the human and mechanical… it stuns me to this day.

Most of 'Le Mans' was shot during the actual 1970 race, and real drivers drove real cars really fast during race shooting and additional footage, among them Jo Siffert, Brian Redman, Vic Elford, Kurt Ahrens Jr., Herbert Linge and Jonathan Williams. Driver David Piper was involved in a crash during shooting and lost part of his lower leg (the film is dedicated to him in the closing credits). A Porsche 908/2 that McQueen had previously co-driven to a Second-Place finish in the 12 Hours of Sebring was entered into the race to compete, laden with heavy film gear to provide actual footage of the racing action. Although not classified as a finisher for not completing the minimum laps due to stops to change the film reels, it still managed to finish 2nd in the P3.0 class.

Steve McQueen was a real race car driver.

I always come back to the actors, the screenplay and the unspoken emotions that are spread throughout this film. That’s where the storyline shines, where words don’t matter but the emotion and how emotion is conveyed does. This was Steve McQueen’s vanity project, and it cost him his marriage, boatloads of money and a lot of personal capital that took years to recoup. It was also a disappointment at the box office, but time and history have given this film the respect it deserves, now considered one of only a very few racing films that can honestly be viewed as true-to-life.

Are you ready to take on this challenge? Are you capable of turning off your spacephone for 94 minutes… IN A ROW?!?!?! I guarantee that if you view this film in its entirety, pay attention to the spoken and unspoken words, watch the nuances of emotional interaction among these fine actors, you will be rewarded with a sense of completion at the film’s end that will make you smile broadly, glad to have made the effort. And, if my hunch is right, you will become a fan of 'Le Mans'. If you are already a fan of the film, see it again and (if you're like me), pretend to be Michael Delaney during those last two laps of driving flat-out in the 1970 French countryside. Full-screen zoom, volume up, eyes wide open.

It's not just a film about racing, it's a film about people who race and why they do it, and what it does to them. It's about the human condition, about why we push, no matter what the risk, in order to feel like we've achieved something bigger than ourselves. The risks are great at the sharp-end of motor racing, but the same desire for life is no less vital to any loving, feeling individual, yearning to touch the white-hot center of their short existence on this spinning Blue rock, speeding through the vacuum of time and space.



Lead image, muchismas gracias de theselvedgeyard.wordpress.com; all video clips, muchismas gracias de youtube.com; historical references, muchismas gracias de wikipedia.com. Viva Steve McQueen!

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