Thoughts on Downhill Racer (1969)

Michael Ritchie’s Downhill Racer (1969) features a young and handsome Robert Redford as a gifted slalom skier and grade-A egotistical asshole. Aside from some seriously exhilarating racing shots, including a couple of lengthy POVs (cinematography by Brian Probyn), the film is basically a character study of a one-dimensional man (written by James Salter), mostly from the outside, which makes it kind of boring. But the few moments we do get inside his head make him a tragic figure indeed.

David Chappellet (Redford) knows he’s got the goods and is so focused on winning he forgets how to be human. A scene where he visits his dad (Walter Stroud) back home hints that this is a product of nurture more than nature, but the cause is immaterial. He treats his teammates, coach (Gene Hackman), and even girlfriends (the current one Camilla Sparv) as either tools for his success or drains on his time and energy—or both. The funny thing is, he’s so good (and so handsome) that not only do these people half-forgive him, we viewers do, too. It’s an intensely strange situation to be in sympathy with a douchebag.

After the second-best skier on the US team (Jim McMullan) wipes out before the Olympics, Chappellet has no one to share the pressure with. Now that his rivalry’s won, we start to wonder if he’s really good enough to get the gold, and you can see that intense pressure on Redford’s face. There comes a time in every egotist’s life when they have to prove that they’re as good as their self-mythologizing makes them out to be, and the more of an asshole they’ve been, the more is at stake, and the more intense the pressure they give themselves. Chappellet breaks the record, but—the nightmare of all egotists!—the very next competitor (Christian Doermer) threatens to be even faster. The roller coaster playing out on Redford’s face as he shifts from being adored by surrounding journalists, to seeing the guy’s halfway time on the board, to finally watching him wipe out just before the finish line, humanizes Chappellet for a brief moment before letting him off the moral hook again. This astounding ending absolves the film of all its other sins, including a screeching score (by Kenyon Hopkins) and choppy scene transitions (edited by Richard A. Harris).

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