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Thursday, December 3, 2015

New On Video: Ruthless Redford in Downhill Racer

Posted By on Thu, Dec 3, 2015 at 1:00 PM

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Michael Ritchie’s Downhill Racer has never quite gotten the respect it deserves. It tends to get overshadowed by star Robert Redford’s other film from 1969, the slightly more crowd-pleasing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Director Ritchie’s career has been spotty enough that in general he’s seldom considered much more than a journeyman, even though practically every film he made from 1969 to 1977 functioned as a satire of American culture and can be argued to be a classic in its own right (Downhill Racer, Prime Cut, Smile, The Bad News Bears, and my personal favorite, Semi-Tough). He mostly did middling mainstream comedies in the 1980s, though I’ll always maintain than his 1989 Fletch Lives is funnier than the 1985 original. But it’s his debut film Downhill Racer, which the Criterion Collection is releasing on Blu-ray this week.

In Downhill Racer, the fresh-faced young Redford plays David Chappellet (no relation), a fresh-faced young skier from Colorado who is also a complete and utter asshole, leaving nobody unscathed in his path when he joins the U.S. ski team in Europe with the intention of the winning in the Gold in the Olympics. And he gets there (spoiler?), but as the old saying goes, what price glory?

The film was a passion project for Redford, and he’s said that he wanted to make a series of small movies about the dark side of “winning" in American culture. It’s significant that this was while he was still trying to launch his film acting career; while in the process of introducing himself to the American public, he wasn’t at all afraid to play a thoroughly despicable person. Again, this was the same year as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and it’s safe to say that that and The Sting a few years later cemented his onscreen persona far more than movies like Downhill Racer or his later Ritchie collaboration The Candidate. There’s a reason it’s called the Sundance Film Festival and not the Chappellet Film Festival, after all, though the latter would arguably be more thematically correct.


Beyond the heavy character drama, another selling point of Downhill Racer is the lovely photography of the Alps, as well as the footage taken from the POV of the skiiers. Coincidentally, it’s the second film of 1969 to feature spectacular skiing footage, the other being Peter R. Hunt’s underrated Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which filmed had its own groundbreaking skiing footage a few months prior.

For me, Downhill Racer has always been most interesting for its history as a bargaining chip between Robert Evans and Roman Polanski regarding, of all things, Rosemary’s Baby. As Evans told it himself in his 1994 autobiography and the subsequent 2002 documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture, he wanted Polanski to direct Rosemary’s Baby, and used the script for Downhill Racer to lure the avid skier to America. There is no mention of Redford, and Evans refers to Polanski as "The Polack" several times, because that’s how Bob rolled.


Meanwhile, in the 2009 interview with the Criterion Collection, Robert Redford says it was his idea to bring on Polanski, that they bonded over their mutual desire to make a ski film, but Paramount wanted Polanski to do Rosemary’s Baby, eventually making a deal that Polanski couldn’t refuse in order to drop Downhill Racer. At no point does Redford mention Evans, nor does he ever use any ethnic slurs toward Polanski. PC much, Redford?


The two accounts don’t so much contradict each other (like both Conrad Hall and Gordon Willis being called "The Prince of Darkness") so much as they go to show that history is always biased toward the teller. David Chappellet in Downhill Racer would no doubt approve. 

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Sherilyn Connelly

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