Grand Prix (1966)

I Sleep In A Racing Car, Do You?

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Grand Prix may be the best Howard Hawks film he didn’t make – a loosely plotted film following four Formula 1 drivers with the theme of male bonding. There is even a Hawksian woman in the form of Eva Marie Saint as Louise Frederickson in a role similar to that of Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings, an onlooker who  is taken back by this subculture and the reaction or lack thereof the drivers have to death and injury. The loosely plotted structure avoids the cliché of many sports films in which the drama hinges on whether or not the protagonist or team wins the final bout. Rather Grand Prix is an examination of these stoic modern gladiators and the women who come to reject their men’s participation in the sport.

Grand Prix was John Frankenheimer’s first picture in colour and while something is lost when compared to his earlier films which are some of the most visually astounding black & white films of the era, Grand Prix is one colourful and eye-popping film. Grand Prix is one of the best examples of a movie which offers such a vibrant slice of exotic, European flavor; complete with beautiful locations, gorgeous women, an exquisite score by Maurice Jarre and the full glitz and glamour of the sport. It plays like a not so cynical tourism commercial complete with early use of film product placement (the first of two Frankenheimer films to make use of the Good Year brand).

The 1960’s, when every movie was over three hours long, complete with an overture, intermission and entr’acte. Filmed in Super Panavision for display on a Cinerama screen, Grand Prix was a movie designed for the theatrical experience with its astounding racing sequences – no further proof is required that Frankenheimer is one of the screen’s greatest directors of action. During the film’s three major race sequences there are no instances of cars being filmed slowly with footage sped up in post production as seen in many older films – no, this is the real deal. Grand Prix was filmed during the 1966 racing season with the actual actors in the film performing their own driving (bar Brian Bedford).

The location shots during the film’s opening race at the Monaco Grand Prix are a thing of beauty to look at with the winding roads, palm trees and glorious architecture. Combine that with extensive use of shot types and transitions and you have an unforgettable feast for the senses. Right from the Saul Bass opening credits with the extreme use of close-ups and use of checkered frames to the fast-moving ariel footage, POVs, split-screen and quick cuts – Grand Prix is a marvel of editing. In relation to the sound design, just like the sound of galloping horses during the chariot race from Ben-Hur, the sound of Formula 1 engines ramps up the suspense without the aid of music – rather it creates a rhythm of its own. One race in Grand Prix is however scored by Jarre’s music in a surprisingly relaxing and dreamlike montage of overlapping footage of F1 cars which the sounds of their engines subtly in the background. I wonder if Grand Prix played an influence on George Lucas for the pod race sequence in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Well guess who was a young camera operator on Grand Prix back in 1966?

Among the glamour of Grand Prix, things do u-turn on several instances during the film’s bloody and graphic injury scenes of various drivers, not to mention a very upsetting scene involving two young boys who should not have entered the race track as and when they did. With the comparable lack of safety back in 1966, one has to ask does this make the sport more exciting for both the drivers and spectators? There is even one scene in which James Garner is recklessly driving on a country road and no one in the car is wearing a seatbelt.

James Garner headlines Grand Prix as American racer Pete Aron, a bit of jackass but one who has a sympathetic streak to him. Toshiro Mifune makes his Hollywood debut as Japanese automobile magnet Izo Yamura. I’ve read many reviews complaining that Mifune’s English dubbing is on par with a Godzilla film but I beg to ask what copy of the film are they watching? – I can’t see any issue with the quality of the dub. Yves Montand however in the role of Jean-Pierre Sarti brings the highest level of gravitas from the film’s cast. He questions his participation in the sport and has wanted to quit after witnessing many an accident (“Maybe to do something that brings you so close to the possibility of death and to survive it is to feel life and living so much more intensely”). In a sign of mutual respect and good sportsmanship, he even stops in the middle of a race when Pete Aron is trying to escape a burning vehicle. Montand’s character appears to be a stereotype for French existential angst, a man wearied by the absurdity of his existence. This is backed up by the fact that his name is similar to that of French, existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.

Grand Prix hits its emotional peak with the tragic ending in which Sarti’s body comes flying out of a vehicle and only to lie mangled on a tree, all because he drove into a pipe which came loose from another vehicle. The irony of the character who contemplated most on retiring would see such a bloody end and not to mention the emotional breakdown in which Louise Frederickson screams at the press, while her hands are covered in Sarti’s blood – it leaves much food for thought. Grand Prix is as much a tribute to Formula 1 as it is a reminder of how dangerous it once was – for better or worse.

My Geisha (1962)

Land of the Rising Fun!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Oh man, these are the kinds of quirky film concepts I live for, definitely up there with films like The Major and the Minor, The Whole Town’s Talking or Sylvia Scarlett. I’ve never previously been a Shirley MacLaine fan but My Geisha may have converted me. Unlike many dual identity films, I actually found the premise here believable, in that Lucy’s husband Paul Robiax (Yves Montand) wouldn’t recognise her disguised as her alter ego geisha by the name of Yoko – At times I found myself MacLaine is pretending to be a Geisha. Ok, the illusion might not work for everyone but it did for this viewer. Also on a more superficial appraisal, omg Yoko is so cute! I was also surprised and delighted that Edward G. Robinson actually has almost as much screen time as MacLaine, making the two a great comedic pairing. I stated in my review of The Whole Towns Talking (1935) that Edward G. Robinson appeared in some very quirky comedies in his career but this film just furthers that statement, My Geisha is by far the quirkiest of them all.

However, it’s not just goofiness for the sake of goofiness, the dual identity set up actually allows for a deep and complex plot. For starters it examines the business of film by acknowledging the dilemma of casting white actors as non-white characters; you can’t get a large budget for a film unless it stars a big box office draw, most of who in the early 1960’s where white. The other surprising area of depth that comes out of the goofy plot is the examination of the husband’s ego, tired of being in the shadow of his wife’s success and desiring the more conservative nature of Japanese society, a nature which Robaix acknowledges is disappearing from Japan as the country becomes increasingly westernised. Another point of interest if the moment when Edward G. Robinson’s character receives the news that Lucy’s husband has discovered the truth about Yoko, Robinson asks to be taken to the fourth floor of the hotel. The Japanese tend to avoid the use of the number 4 due to superstitions regarding the number as unlucky.

My Geisha would unsurprisingly not be made today would be seen as politically incorrect with its use of so-called “yellowface”, not to mention Bob Cummings in the role of somewhat creepy adulterous movie star Bob Moore who doesn’t quite understand boundaries. Yet even a film of this manner was made today, you know the film world come to a halt for 20 minutes when Lucy’s secret is revealed (otherwise known as the dreaded cliché of the liar revealed) in which one character would tell the other about how they’ve been betrayed and they never want to see each other again even though they get back together at the end. Not here though, when Lucy’s husband discovers she is Yoko (which I should add is done a very clever manner) he quietly accepts that he was fooled and there’s no big pointless, drawn-out argument scene. Sorry, classic movie fanboy rant.

I wonder what the Japanese reaction to this was. I assume this is an idealised, tourist brochure version of Japan but either way this film sure looks beautiful. I believe this could likely be credited to the surprising choice of director, Jack Cardiff, normally more famous for his work as a cinematographer. The entire film is a feast for the eyes and ears with its eye-popping colour and score by Franz Waxman (even the film within a film looks incredible and is itself emotionally moving). Not to mention to the costume design by the great Edith Head, it’s clear in classic Hollywood films that costumes were no afterthought. My Geisha is another obscure, quirky gem which I adore.