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DOWNHILL RACER (director: Michael Ritchie; screenwriters: James Salter/based on the novel by Oakley Hall; cinematographer: Brian Probyn; editor: Richard A. Harris; music: Kenyon Hopkins; 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), Karl Michael Vogler (Machet), Jim McMullan (Creech), Walyer Stroud (Mr. Chappellet), Carole Carle (Lena), Kenneth Kirk(D. K. Bryan); Runtime: 102; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Richard Gregson; Criterion; 1969)
It’s better than most sports films since it avoids sentimentality and falsely romanticizing its unsympathetic egotistical hero.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This exciting ski film is based on Oakley Hall’s novel and has an intelligent screenplay by James Salter. Salter has said that he based his hero on American skier Billy Kidd, who raced in the 1968 Olympics. The film’s star, Robert Redford, said he based his character on Kidd’s teammate– the reckless Spider Sabich–who broke his leg six times while a competitor. Former television director Michael Ritchie (“Prime Cut”/”The Candidate”/”Semi-Tough”), directing his first feature film, gives it a smart semi-documentary look, as his character-driven film tells about the chase for fame and what price winning means.It’s better than most sports films since it avoids sentimentality and falsely romanticizing its unsympathetic egotistical hero, while at the same time offering thrilling location shots of downhill races and fully capturing the intensity of competing for medals in the world of big-time amateur skiing in authentic settings.

When an American skier on the United States team is hurt on a European tour, a year before the Olympics, coach Eugene Claire (Gene Hackman) gets replacements David Chappellet (Robert Redford) and D. K. Bryan (Kenneth Kirk). Dave is a loner from Idaho Springs, Colorado. The cocky, ambitious Dave is fixated on being a ski champ and doesn’t care who he has to step over to get there. While on the European tour, Dave makes a name for himself by winning a number of downhill races and secures a place on the Olympic team by pushing the best United States racer, Johnny Creech (Jim McMullan), for top spot. Dave in the process faces his farmer father’s (Walter Stroud) indifference to his success; has a quickie romance with the hottie Carole (Camilla Sparv), who works as an assistant for a pushy Swiss ski manufacturer, Machet (Karl Michael Vogler), who is interested in getting top skiers to endorse his product; and the self-absorbed, shallow Dave suffers from poor relations with his teammates because of his aloofness and unwillingness to be a team player.

The plotless story leads to the climactic downhil race at the Olympics, with its memorable freeze-frame ending. It’s an intriguing film that should even please those who are not skiers.

Redford was so displeased with the way Hollywood’s Paramount promoted the film, letting such a good film die in the box office because of no publicity and falsely calling it an action film, that he formed the Sundance Institute at his Utah resort and the Sundance Film Festival at Park City – both dedicated to independent filmmaking.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”