As a kid I remember seeing some clip from the documentary show Whicker’s World — I can’t remember in what context — and I was shocked — SHOCKED! — to see the late James Garner of Rockford Files fame being aggressive on a film set. Years later I watch John Frankenheimer’s GRAND PRIX and then the extra feature documentary on the disc and there’s the same clip, and Garner’s disgruntlitude is entirely understandable — he’s just spent half an hour freezing his ass off in the sea while a Monacan shopkeeper holds the production to ransom to get more money for the inconvenience of the street being closed.

Nevertheless, I understand why Garner’s demeanour discomfited me so — I think it was my first real clue that movie and TV personalities weren’t always the same in real life as onscreen. Nobody has a bad word to say about Garner, of course, and like I say, what the clip shows is that he was a three-dimensional human being with an occasional, justifiable temper. He wasn’t Jim Rockford, whose response to the most diabolical situations was to become querulously reasonable. Then he’d leave the scene of the crime undisturbed and make an anonymous tip-off call to the cops.


GRAND PRIX is an impressive logistical feat, and not such an impressive film — the classic bloated Sunday teatime movie of my childhood in front of the box. Lots of drab scenes — the Yves Montand/Eva Marie Saint romance was especially turgid — the Garner/Jessica Walter one is pretty interesting by comparison, at least in places — they’re attracted but don’t actually like one another very much. Toshiro Mifune is wasted in the English language.

The action is super-impressive though, and Saul Bass’s montages are often beautiful. Frankenheimer created a sort of sizzle reel out of his early Monte Carlo footage and got Enzo Ferrari onboard with that. You can see why.

Also — Frankenheimer’s camera car was driven by champion Phil Hill, who would’ve been  the main character in David Cronenberg’s Formula One movie RED CARS if that had ever gotten off the ground. Everyone in the doc reckons that 1966, when JF made his movie, was the last time such a film could’ve been made, because after that the sponsorship interests plus the whole event got too big. Ron Howard’s recent movie solves that with CGI. But the main thing the Frankenheimer movie has in its favour is our knowledge that everything we see is physically real. An amazing helicopter shot that snakes along with the winding street below as the ant-like racers speed along would become essentially meaningless if animated. There’s a kind of unwritten law about what kind of things are worth faking. It would be interesting to try to work out what the rules are…


Frankenheimer, interviewed by Alan Whicker in the sixties and by the doc-makers in the early noughties, is curiously attractive — volcanic levels of ebullience and a simmering fury that ripples the surface of even the calmest conversation. The sheer speed of his responses suggests that Jerry Lewis quality of being about to snap your head off at any moment. And yet, like I say, somehow appealing. A macho dinosaur.

UK: Grand Prix (1966) – Official Warner Blu-Line HD Region B Bluray (2.2:1 Anamorphic Widescreen)

US: Grand Prix (Two-Disc Special Edition)

20 Responses to “Cars”

  1. Mifune is (to me) almost totally wasted, a lot of the off-track drama is soapish, and if anything this film has the quality of needing some inside knowledge of Formula 1 of the early-mid ’60s to get the most out of it. I remember it being a hard slog due to the length but with impressive racing scenes the first time I saw it, much more interesting (who the real life stories were lifted from – yes, Phil Hill was a source of some of the race drama) the second, and now rather long to sit through except to see the charmingly deadly cars of my early youth.

  2. Precisely!

    Which is why the DVD doc is so useful. You slog through the film, perking up at all the driving bits, and then hear the behind-the-secens stuff and the experience is retroactively redeemed.

  3. woolworthdiamond Says:

    I think the rule is something like ‘As Long As It’s More,’ for CGI. Along with maybe ‘As Long As It’s New.’ What saddens me is the spiralling arms race going on now for action movies because of this.

  4. Sports movies are generally a hard slog and car racing movies are harder because well, the whole time actors are in the pit and aside from close-ups of eyesight on helmets no attempt at separating or levelling them, no dialogue. The cars become the characters. The only movie that made a car a character was DUEL, with the giant truck which has a face and a presence and is a monster.

    I don’t know if the reality of representing the sport is important, the whole reason Raging Bull’s boxing scenes are so striking is the fact that it’s highly stylized and fantastic. A real boxing scene would be boring. Likewise, the football sequence at the end of MASH is way more fun than a straight football game. Ultimately the racing scenes of Grand Prix may be more realistic than the CGI of RUSH but its still less real than an actual F1 race from that period.

  5. Pauline Kael wrote of Grand Prix that “Francoise Hardy seems to have wandered in from another movie that was ore fun.”

  6. Isn’t she just sleepy all the time in this? I would certainly rather be looking at her than most of the mugs on display.

    Grand Prix’s realistic detail is the whole reason to watch — if they’d thrown out the soap opera and gotten some Hawksian feeling into it then we would have had the pleasure of a window onto a private world.

    Apart from that, Saul Bass makes a series of little abstract documentaries which could be lifted out and turned into a superb short.

    Scorsese said that boxing matches always seemed boring to him because there was only one camera position. And I tend to find the same with most sports. Football is always photographed from on high so I feel no engagement. And I’ve never seen a football movie that properly exploited the potential of ground-level filming.

    (Also, nearly all sports offend my ears. I hate the crowd noise, and even swimming is ugly as hell if you listen to it.)

  7. Still it’s a very good use of Cinerama.

  8. Recently learned that Richard Lester, with Nic Roeg as his cameraman, was the first to attach a camera to the front of a racing car, for a commercial short they made together. Widescreen of course intensifies the sensation of movement so that shot, in that format, becomes quite powerful. I would think on the big screen it would have people swaying right out of their seats.

  9. Ah, the most irresponsible film of all time!

  10. henryholland666 Says:

    “I hate the crowd noise”

    I love it. I’ve been going to sporting events since 1967 and some of my favorite memories are things like being in a crowd of 65,000 people at an Angels baseball game and having the crowd just *explode* when a player hits a game winning home run.

    I went to a Manchester United v. Chelsea FA Cup tie at Old Trafford in 1999. I’ll never forget walking through the tunnel to go to my seat and hearing all the chanting. When I was in the stadium proper, the chanting of the United and Chelsea supporters was overwhelming, 75,000 people in full voice. Amazing.

    Yes, most sports movies suck and that’s because watching it live as it happens can never be replicated.

  11. Yes, but filmed plays and concerts, though they can’t replicate the live experience, don’t always suck.

    A friend just pointed out that the primal confrontation of boxing makes it an obviously cinematic sport, whereas racing suffers from making the protagonists anonymous behind the wheel. The TV coverage being very simple makes it easier to tell one car from another, but more excitingly cut films frequently create confusion in that critical area.

  12. henryholland666 Says:

    The difference between filmed plays & concerts v. a live sporting event is that the filmed play & concert have a conclusion that is already known: I know how “King Lear” ends, I know how U2’s “One” is going to play out in concert. Even free jazz becomes predictable after a while.

    In contrast, a sporting events result is unknown until it happens, that’s why I’ve been to hundreds of baseball games since 1967. It’s why I’m really looking forward to the Ryder Cup this weekend.

    The real reason most sports film are bad is that they’re not really about sports, that’s just drapery for some melodrama between the participants. A perfect example is the abomination that is “Field of Dreams”, which uses baseball for a boring father/son reconciliation story or the endless, mind-numbing cliche of “triumphing against all odds” sports movie.

  13. So the solution ought to be: better melodrama. And so we find with Raging Bull and others.

    With most movies, you don’t entirely know how they’re going to end the first time you see them. And you could do a play with multiple-choice endings, and it wouldn’t completely reinvent theatre. (The movie Clue made a half-hearted stab at this.)

    Grand Prix is unusual in that it certainly seems like the impetus was to film the races and the melodrama was concocted as filler. ALL the interest lies in the spectacular racing footage. As you say, usually the sport is just a backdrop. And usually the filmmakers haven’t found a solution to presenting it cinematically.

    Obviously with the OTHER Red Sox film, Eight Men Out, the story is more about politics than sport but at least the games are significant to the story.

  14. Lester once told me he made a documentary on Colin Chapman (who was the owner and founder of Lotus). They followed him around and filmed the races. Jim Clark had just won the 1963 World Championship.

    One of his ideas was to put the camera in the car, Chapman was also a bit of an engineer.

    Lester said, ‘To start with we built the camera onto the back of the car but that fell off and they had to start the race again because the track was covered with debris.’

    On another occasion the car broke due to the camera being inside and all the famous racing drivers (Hill&Clark) had to push the car.

    Sounds like the same short film?

    Continuing with the Lester theme, I have some screenplays he generously let me copy after an interview at Twickenham Studios.
    They may help with your Lester studies.

  15. At least some bits of the Colin Chapman film are on YouTube.

    YES PLEASE to screenplays. They are all with the BFI now but I don’t know when I’ll make it to London and if I’ll have time. Of the unmade films, I have only read Zoo Plane and Victory, very excited to read any of the others. And I’d be keen to see the scripts for any of the films that DID get made too — only the Beatles ones have come my way.

  16. henryholland666 Says:

    “With most movies, you don’t entirely know how they’re going to end the first time you see them”

    Sure, but the writer and director and editor sure do, that’s my point. In sports *no one* knows how a game will end unless there’s match fixing going.

    “Obviously with the OTHER Red Sox film”

    Written like a guy who is British and hates sports. :-) It’s about the White Sox.

  17. Ha! There you go.

  18. Every time I watch this I keep wondering about the exploding catering truck and for which shot it was used to jolt jaded extras into reacting to.

  19. Ha! I forgot that one. I bet JF shot with several cameras and used their reactions all through the picture…

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