The first thing that happens when I find a new writer that I really dig is I’ll start wishing they’d written a film. Sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes it never happens, like in the case of Thomas Pynchon or Peter Matthiessen. Sometimes that wish was granted far earlier than I ever made it, like in the case of Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne’s Panic In Needle Park or James Salter’s Downhill Racer.
Released in 1969 and directed by Michael Ritchie, Downhill Racer is set in the world of competitive skiing in the late 60’s. A character study focussing on an obsessed David Chappellet, played by Robert Redford, who sees little value in anything other than winning an Olympic Gold Medal.
Like another Robert Redford picture I’ve written about, The Great Waldo Pepper, Michael Ritchie’s Downhill Racer has some spectacular stunt work. Instead of taking the no doubt easier route of solely employing fast whip pans and disorienting quick cuts to depict the races that this film hangs its drama on, Downhill Racer takes it a step further. The racing sequences here show, from the skier’s point of view, the exhilarating and terrifyingly fast descent down the slopes. Everything from the trees to the spectators are hardly more than a blur.
The man who captured these sequences was former member of the U.S. National Ski Team, Joe Jay Jalbert, then only 19 years old. He’d never held a camera before, let alone had anything to do with the motion picture business, and now he was racing down the slopes of Austrian mountains with a 15 pound 35mm camera strapped to his shoulder. Puts any GoPro footage to shame.
Downhill Racer was very much Robert Redford’s passion project, having to fight to convince the criminally underrated writer James Salter to even give it a shot. But thank god he was able to convince him because what Salter wound up giving us is one of the sharpest, most thrilling and most intelligent sports films ever made. Kind of ironic given that Salter had made it very clear to Redford that he had very little interest in sports at all, let alone skiing.
What attracted Redford to Salter in the first place was a screenplay he’d written called “And Then They Were Three” which had impressed him with its lean economy of language. A film script as it was supposed to be, according to Redford. It’s that economy that Salter brings over to Downhill Racer to great effect. Like any great film, the scenes in Downhill Racer say a lot without having to do much at all.
Salter was often praised as being one of the finest prose stylists in the English language, with writers like Richard Ford, Susan Sontag and John Irving showering him with praise. “Sentence for sentence, Salter is the master,” said Ford. But while well deserved, this praise winds up distracting from Salter’s not to be overlooked strength as a storyteller. I don’t think there could be a better example of this strength than the ending of Downhill Racer. I won’t spoil it here, if you watch the film you’ll know exactly what I mean, but what makes the ending so great is that it belongs solely to this film. It’s an ending built from its premise, not one of those endings you could easily find in a dozen other films or maybe even a dozen other genres. The ending to Downhill Racer couldn’t be in any film other than one about competitive downhill skiing. That’s how endings ought to be.
The film did almost nothing when it was released. Poorly marketed most definitely, but like a lot of great films before it and a lot of great films to come, it was just drowned out. This is the late 60’s we’re talking about. In the span of four years, there’d been a revolution in Hollywood that would give us some of the most timeless films of all time. The first ever screening of the film was in a double bill with Midnight Cowboy with no intermission. People were so bummed out by the end of Midnight Cowboy, according to Redford, that people just didn’t want to give a film about skiing of all things a chance. It’s no wonder that in a period already cramped with dozens of near perfect films that one or two wouldn’t get the attention they deserved.