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.