I’m a big fan of Michael Ritchie’s Prime Cut. Downhill Racer is at first glance a departure from the tough guy weirdness of that film, but perhaps it has more in common than it initially seems. Both films feature taciturn outsiders trying to dominate a male-dominated industry. Both revel in wide-shots of their respective locations. And both like shallow depth montages.
I really love Gene Hackman and he does a 180 from Prime Cut to Downhill Racer. Here he plays Claire, the ski coach to the arrogant Chappellet (Robert Redford in a very nice turn). Hackman is so restrained in this film. His role in Hoosiers would maybe be the easiest comparison, but it’s not the same thing. He really exudes the feeling in Downhill Racer that he’s trying to be a good coach. That he’s thinking of what to say, and that he isn’t always sure. It’s a really great human role.
I like Ritchie’s style a lot. There’s something in this film that makes me think it’s cut shorter than the script. Scenes are abrupt, like Ritchie and editor Richard A. Harris (talk about an editor with some credits!) chopped out whole bits of dialogue to make the thing feel terser.
The end of the film takes us to the Olympics as Chappellet tries for gold. Ritchie has a fantastic sequence of shots leading up to the skier starting his race.
The camera starts behind Chappellet before moving into a wobbly POV:
Ritchie uses a lot of POV here and it makes sense. He captures the feeling of nervousness and anticipation quite well. I love the one above for its unsteadiness, which reflects not only Chappellet’s inner turmoil, but also the fact that he’s walking on skis!
A cut to a tight profile is followed by a long angle MCU, which Ritchie will hang on a lot in this sequence:
And then a further series of POVs. To the clock, back to Chappellet, to the hill, back to Chappellet:
The next section is probably my favorite part of this sequence. Chappellet hunches forward. Ritchie cuts to his skis with pure, open whiteness beyond. And from there he unexpectedly leaves the skier:
It’s odd to get so intimate – the CUs, the detailed inserts – and then leave the POV entirely and go to the course. I think it’s pretty atypical. Most directors, I imagine, would stay up there with Chappellet and try to keep the tension going through his nervous energy. Ritchie gives us the crowd’s anticipation, and just as importantly, leaves us for a few moments to imagine Chappellet instead of watching his stomach churn. It’s strange in that it feels simultaneously like a release and build of tension.
Back to Chappellet in a wide low angle, and then from coach to coach:
That wide low angle is the first real signal – since we haven’t seen the timer in a bit – that it’s almost time to go. It makes sense to follow the previous wides of the course (in the block just before this one). There’s that partial release of tension when we get the spectators, and then the first shot back of Chappellet is a similar frame; composing him in this way anticipates his imminent descent.
Then we get the final bit. We’re thrown back into tight frames, including this rack focus at the top (check out my previous post. Here’s another example of time as a major means to suspense), which is followed by a grandiose over the shoulder showing the sheer height and immensity of it all:
Ritchie’s shot selection in here is varied and does a whole lot. Moving from tight and with Chappellet to wide and away from him and then back to tight is a nice arc that expands time and amps up the nervousness in the climactic moment. The camera is smartly positioned for POVs, scale, and anticipation.