Cast & Crew
Joe Jay Jalbert
When one of the top American skiers on the United States team is hurt, dedicated coach Eugene Claire sends for replacements David Chappellet and D. K. Bryan. Chappellet is a loner, but he manages to stay on the team during the remainder of the European circuit, complaining all the while about his positions but producing some spectacular though inconsistent runs, even rivaling on occasion the best United States racer, Johnny Creech. Home for summer training, Chappellet leaves the team in Bend, Oregon, and hitchhikes home to Idaho Springs, Colorado, where he is no more at home than in any of the drab and anonymous hotel quarters on the tour. He is unable to communicate with his father and can show no interest in his old girl friend, Lena, whom he greets in cavalier fashion in the back seat of his father's old jalopy. Back in Europe for the season, he begins an affair with Carole Stahl, the secretary to rich ski manufacturer Machet, but is not distracted from his singular involvement with downhill racing as he wins for the United States a race that has hitherto been considered out of America's reach, and thus sharpens his rivalry with Creech. This time the American team returns home with some fulfillment of the years of hopeful promises, and Claire enthusiastically embarks upon a fundraising tour for the upcoming Olympic year. Back for his third season of major league racing, Chappellet senses the magnitude and importance of the Olympic competition as the race approaches; a quip turns into banter between him and Creech, leading to a hair-raising downhill race wherein Creech is nearly injured and Claire's patience with his prima donna rebel is worn dangerously thin. When Creech breaks his leg in the last pre-Olympic trial, Chappellet is the only American hope, but he bests all of the superior European competition with a dazzling display of downhill racing. Flush with apparent victory, his attention is called to the imposing mountain he has just conquered as word comes down that a faster run is being skied by an unknown; but a fall assures the first American gold medal in Olympic downhill racing and gives David Chappellet a precarious perch at the top of a sport in which the fastest is the best.
Joe Jay Jalbert
Karl Michael Vogler
Tom J. Kirk
Ulrike Von Zerboni
Richard C. Harris
Joe Jay Jalbert
Based on Oakley Hall's novel and with a screenplay by James Salter, Downhill Racer is a no-holds barred look at a champion skier. Unlike other sports films, which tend to romanticize events, there is no room for sentiment here. Redford's David Chappellet seems to have one focus in his life his single-minded determination to become number one, regardless of who he has to hurt to get there. Salter told Redford he wanted to base the character on Billy Kidd, one of the American skiers then racing at the 1968 Winter Olympics. Redford disagreed, preferring to model Chappellet on Spider Sabich, a teammate of Kidd's whose "reputation seemed to be based on his having broken his leg six or seven times." In the end, Chappellet was an amalgamation of the two: his background was similar to Kidd's but his personality was closer to Sabich's.
It was not a character Redford was used to playing and it made the studio nervous. Hollywood has always had built-in restrictions on casting against type and Redford found getting Paramount to finance the film a tough sell. To help with his argument, Redford convinced filmmaker Dick Barrymore to disguise himself and secretly shoot races at the 1968 Olympic Games in Grenoble, France. "I wanted to show Paramount that I could get the footage without spending a lot, so I got the writer, the photographer and some ski-bum assistants over to Grenoble on my own. We were holed up in one room in this dive by the river. And the French weren't letting people film the Olympics, so we had to use disguises to get by the guards. Like the photographer was pretty well known, so I fixed him up in a hairpiece and a false nose so he could get out on the slopes with his camera. He loved it. The ski bums shot a lot of footage too, but they couldn't get by the officials, so they swiped a sign from a refreshment vendor, put it in their car window, and got through that way. Every night we met at the room to see who was still alive. But we came back with 20,000 feet of film."
It worked. Paramount agreed, envisioning it with Roman Polanski at the helm; Polanski preferred to make Rosemary's Baby  instead. Redford then took another gamble and chose Michael Ritchie; a television director with no feature film experience. He would later work with Redford on The Candidate . Ritchie chose to shoot the film in both 16mm and 35mm which gave the film the deliberate feel of a documentary. "I did not want the audience to feel that a director was 'designing' what they were seeing. We were aiming for a documentary feeling, as though cameras happened to be around while something real was happening."
Redford drove a snowmobile over a cliff only ten days before shooting began on Downhill Racer, tearing a tendon and having stitches to close a cut. Despite the pain, he did most of his own skiing but was doubled in scenes that required him to fall by twenty-three-year-old skier Joe Jay Jalbert, who played Tommy Erb in the film. Jalbert also shot action footage while following other skiers, which was made all the more remarkable because he was using heavy equipment. Jalbert later became a producer of ski films.
The film was released on November 6, 1969 in New York. Famed critic Richard Schickel's Life magazine review was nothing short of a love-fest, "Downhill Racer is precisely what we have waited so long to see a small, tense, expertly made (and, on occasion, surprisingly funny) film about a newly chic form of athletic competition Alpine skiing....That insistence on the heart of the matter, winning or losing, is not the least of Downhill's virtues, but there are others. Quite obviously, they include capturing on color film the sheer beauty of the white world in which racers live. Here the director, Michael Ritchie, splendidly exploits a couple of paradoxes. From a distance, the skiers seem to have the effortless natural grace of birds in flight. Close up, though, he makes us see they are engaged in a brutal, breath-stealing ordeal, and the contrast gripped me as strongly as anything I have recently seen on the screen."
According to John Fry in his book, The Story of Modern Skiing, "Over Redford's objections, Paramount marketed it as an action feature, then did little to promote it. Redford had conceived Downhill Racer as the first in a trilogy of films about the American mythology of success. He never completed the trilogy, but his discouraging experience with the studio led him to create the Sundance Institute at his Utah resort, and the Sundance Film Festival at Park City both dedicated to independent filmmaking and to repudiating the kind of Hollywood represented by Paramount's treatment of Downhill Racer. Thus did a minor controversy over a movie about ski racing inspire of one of the world's premiere film festivals."
Producer: Richard Gregson
Director: Michael Ritchie
Screenplay: James Salter, based on the novel by Oakley Hall
Cinematography: Brian Probyn
Art Direction: Ian Whittaker
Music: Kenyon Hopkins
Film Editing: Richard A. Harris
Cast: Robert Redford (David Chappellet), Gene Hackman (Eugene Claire), Camilla Sparv (Carole Stahl), Joe Jay Jalbert (Tommy Erb), Tom J. Kirk (Stiles), Dabney Coleman (Mayo).
by Lorraine LoBianco
Didinger, Ray and Macnow, Glen. The Ultimate Book of Sports Movies: Featuring the 100 Greatest Sports Films Encyclopedia of Film, October 1969
Fry, John. The Story of Modern Skiing
Hunter, Allan. Gene Hackman
The Internet Movie Database
Monaco, Paul. The Sixties, 1960-1969
Schickel, Richard. "The Brutal Beauty of Ski Racing: Downhill Racer with Robert Redford". Life 5 Dec 1969
Strong, Benjamin. "Downhill Racer, Almost Certainly the Greatest (non-German) Movie Ever Made About Competitive Alpine Skiing" 9 Sep 2009
Downhill Racer - Robert Redford Stars in Michael Ritchie's DOWNHILL RACER on DVD
This background makes Michael Ritchie's semi-documentary drama Downhill Racer all the more significant. The 1969 film about competition skiing began as a "deal" picture concocted by Paramount to attract hot director Roman Polanski, an avid skier. When Polanski chose instead to do Rosemary's Baby the project's enthusiastic star Robert Redford put together the production on his own. The directing nod was given to Michael Ritchie, a TV talent untested on the big screen. Filming in distant Austria proved to be a major plus that allowed the show to maintain independent of studio oversight.
Using a camera style more suited to documentaries, Downhill Racer fashions an intelligent drama around the American Olympic skiing team, then considered inexperienced outsiders outclassed by the European pros. James Salter's lean script establishes the character of David Chappellet, a highly motivated country boy from Colorado who gets his break when an injury creates an opening in the team lineup. Chappellet is a handsome, vain and anti-social loner who considers his own teammates enemy competitors; he's only interested in winning. He has no interest in the problems of his coach Eugene Claire (Gene Hackman, excellent), who must bow and scrape to woo team sponsors. Robert Redford is perfect for the role, and uncharacteristically for a Hollywood star, he's willing to portray David as an unlikable heel. Chappellet picks up an old girl friend back in Colorado for some fast sex; he refuses to waste the time or effort to even have a conversation with her.
Salter and Redford use Downhill Racer to tell the truth that movies never admit: after all the sentiment about sportsmanship, competition is all about winning and nothing else. Even today, television injects fake dramatic conflicts into the Olympics. When not promoting national rivalries the coverage exploits insipid inspirational back stories, with athletes overcoming hardship and trauma on their path to glory. Focused sports pros are certainly not all like David Chappellet, but hotheaded egoists are often the best performers.
Unlike John Frankenheimer's Formula One racing epic Grand Prix, Downhill Racer doesn't use announcers and random voiceovers to explain the facts and mechanics of the sport. We learn by observation. We see the skiers preparing their equipment and shivering at the top of the ski runs. Nobody need tell us that the athletes are cold. The freezing waits must surely leave their muscles in knots.
When the races begin director Ritchie's docu methods take over completely. The racers fly down the narrow, bumpy runs at up to 80 mph, sometimes racing through snowy fog. The skiing action is excellent. Realizing that they needed to roll thousands of feet of film to get a few useful seconds, the production switched to 16mm for much of the downhill action. When they captured an impressive spill, they'd then contrive to have one of their skier-actors dress in the same color suit and helmet to match continuity. The large numbers printed on the racers' elastic Bibs don't really matter. In the ultra-fast skiing scenes, the Bibs are largely unreadable anyway!
Ritchie extends the docu filming style throughout the show, shooting with long lenses and arranging and cutting scenes as if the camera just happened to catch important moments. This European look was very fresh in Hollywood of 1969. The film was one of the first to show TV announcers fumbling in stage waits and false starts, a revelation that amused audiences that wouldn't think to question the polished surface of The Wide World of Sports. Most scenes are fragments without full exits or entrances. Dialogue rarely extends beyond an exchange or two. As David spends most of his time being sullen and incommunicative this method works out quite well. David becomes particularly irate about his lowly status in the starting order. Starting back in the pack he must race down a course already rutted and torn up by dozens of skiers that have gone before. Eugene tells him that low Bib Numbers have to be earned.
Downhill Racer keeps its dramatics lean, but telling. On David's trip back home we learn that his father considers him a worthless ski bum. He dismisses David's desire to be a champion in four bitter words: "World's full of 'em". The narcissistic David eagerly pursues an affair with Swiss beauty Carole Stahr (Camilla Sparv), who works for a ski equipment manufacturer hungry for product endorsements. David gives Carole his best silent charm treatment; she seems another easy conquest. Only too late does he discover that a European woman might be an even more experienced User than he is.
The unspoken lesson behind all of this is that talent trumps all notions of sportsmanship and even civility; David Chappellet is a promising contender and therefore is indulged at every turn. He's "centered" and "focused", positive terms for conceit and insensitivity. David's mind is wired only for self-interest. He has no reaction to the fate of teammates who suffer career-ending injuries. The film challenges our automatic approval of winners.
Downhill Racer's brilliant ending opts neither for easy cynicism nor an audience-pleasing comeuppance. Even as he accepts his big prize David realizes that more talented and ruthless competitors will be coming down the runs every year. Like a western gunfighter, he'll eventually be overtaken by the winner-take-all code. For the Lone Wolf competitor, forced retirement is only a bad season or a single accident away.
Criterion's DVD of Downhill Racer is a great-looking enhanced transfer of an excellent picture that was reportedly not given much of a release by Paramount Pictures. The digital cleanup is careful not to disturb original flaws in some of the 16mm material, including a brief flurry of emulsion spotting during one of the best high-speed spills. Kenyon Hopkins, a composer noted for his work with Elia Kazan and Robert Rosson, provides an effective and unobtrusive score.
Robert Redford and screenwriter James Salter appear in a new interview explaining the studio politics that both aided and obstructed the film's production. Another set of interviews gathers the production manager, the film editor and a pro skier / ski double to provide technical details of the shoot. Director Ritchie would work again with Redford on The Candidate; he passed away in 2001. Ritchie appears in an audio interview from 1977 when he was at the peak of his career.
In addition to an original trailer the disc offers How Fast?, a promotional featurette narrated by Robert Redford that plays more like a quality short subject. The insert booklet carries an exceptionally good essay by critic Todd McCarthy.
For more information about Downhill Racer, visit The Criterion Collection. To order Downhill Racer, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
Downhill Racer - Robert Redford Stars in Michael Ritchie's DOWNHILL RACER on DVD
TCM Remembers - Michael Ritchie
Director Michael Ritchie died April 16th at the age of 62. A Wisconsin native, Ritchie studied at Harvard before succumbing to the attractions of the theatre. He started working in television during the 1960s where he directed episodes of The Big Valley and The Man from UNCLE among others. He moved into feature films with Downhill Racer (1969) at star Robert Redford's invitation and later directed Redford again in The Candidate (1972). The latter is a classic look at American political life that hasn't lost any of its power or insights over the years. This was the start of Ritchie's most productive period when he made several films that were both popular and critically acclaimed. You can find his sly wit and sense of critical drama in Smile (1975), The Bad News Bears (1976) and Semi-Tough (1978). By the 1980s, though, Ritchie's films focused less on social criticism and more on stars. The Survivors (1983) with Robin Williams remains under-rated but Ritchie-directed vehicles for Eddie Murphy (1986's The Golden Child), Bette Midler (1980's Divine Madness) and Chevy Chase (two Fletch films) didn't quite achieve their potential. Some of the old Ritchie spark and intelligence appeared in the made-for-cable The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom (1993) which earned him a Directors Guild Award. One of his final films was the long-awaited screen adaptation of The Fantasticks (1995) which partly brought Ritchie back to his theatrical roots.
ANN SOTHERN: 1909 - 2001
Actress Ann Sothern passed away on March 15th at the age of 89. Her film career spanned sixty years and included a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for The Whales of August (1987) and several Emmy nominations for her roles in the TV shows Private Secretary (1953) and The Ann Sothern Show (1958). Sothern was born as Harriette Lake in North Dakota. She made her first film appearance in 1927 in small roles (so small, in fact, that some sources omit any films before 1929) before deciding to work on Broadway instead. Shortly afterwards she signed with Columbia Pictures where studio head Harry Cohn insisted she change her name because there were already too many actors with the last name of Lake. So "Ann" came from her mother's name Annette and "Sothern" from Shakespearean actor E.H. Sothern. For most of the 1930s she appeared in light comedies working with Eddie Cantor, Maurice Chevalier, Mickey Rooney and Fredric March. However, it wasn't until she switched to MGM (after a brief period with RKO) and made the film Maisie (1939) that Sothern hit pay dirt. It proved enormously popular and led to a series of nine more films through 1947 when she moved into dramas and musicals. During the 50s, Sothern made a mark with her TV series but returned to mostly second tier movies in the 1960s and 1970s. Finally she earned an Oscar nomination for her work in 1987's The Whales of August (in which, incidentally, her daughter Tisha Sterling played her at an earlier age). Turner Classic Movies plans to host a retrospective film tribute to her in July. Check back for details in June.
TCM Remembers - Michael Ritchie
'Wood, Natalie' worked as an assistant behind the scenes of this movie. She typed script revisions, shopped for wardrobe and props, and also appeared, well-disguised, as an extra in some crowd scenes
This was going to be Roman Polanski's first American film. Robert Evans of Paramount needed someone to direct Rosemary's Baby (1968) so Polanski was given that project due to the nature of some of his recent films. 'Robert Redford' was also considered for the male lead in that film.
Racing footage in the film is a mixture of real races (held at Kitzbuhel, Austria, during February and March, 1969) and scenes staged by the company on location in Kitzbuhel and Wengen, Switzerland. American locations were filmed in Idaho Springs, Colorado, and around Golden, Colorado.
Released in United States Fall November 1969
Released in United States July 1984
Released in United States Fall November 1969
Released in United States July 1984 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (50 Hour Sports Movie Marathon) July 5¿20, 1984.)