Everybody likes to make lists, and if a car geek were asked to make a Top 5 Racing Films list, it's a fair bet that John Frankenheimer's Grand Prix would be there, alongside Le Mans and at least one Fast and Furious film. Which is all fine and good, until you're forced to wonder why most of these lists rarely include a really good film about the subject at hand; I mean, Citizen Kane makes all kind of "best of" lists, but it's probably not even the best possible film about William Randolph Hearst.
Which isn't to say that Grand Prix is a bad film, but nobody's ever been able to make much of a case that, if Frankenheimer's cameras avoided the track in favour of the plot, it would have been even remotely watchable.
It's probably an essential film, however, for the simple fact that it documents Formula One racing during its most exciting and archetypical period, with footage from actual races and cameos by most of the best drivers of the time, many of whom wouldn't survive the decade. Posterity would have been better served, though, if MGM had spent a fraction of the budget and simply sent out a really talented team of documentary filmmakers to follow Graham Hill, Jochen Rindt and Jim Clark around the Grand Prix circuit in the summer of 1965 or '66.
The film begins with a really spectacular title sequence at Monaco, where we meet the drivers in documentary-style close-ups while a clipped British race announcer gives us the backstory. Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand) and Nino Barlini (Antonio Sabato) are racing for Ferrari, and their rivals are Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford) and Pete Aron (James Garner,) driving for the very Lotus-like Jordan-BRM team.
Before they've left the starter's grid, we already know that Aron has a testy relationship with his team owner by the sharp, typically Garner-esque glare that he shoots him from the cockpit of his car. We hear voiceovers from the actors in character, being interviewed by the press that will be a composite character, lingering at the fringes of the action, lunging in to let us know that there's tragedy in the offing.
The racing sequence that kicks off the film is thrilling, which at first seems a function of the location - Monaco is probably the most exciting and glamourous of all the Grand Prix venues, then and today. What's really startling is how close spectators are allowed to the action, separated from the cars not by Armco barriers and twenty-foot fences but by waist-high hay bales draped with advertising banners.
A shot of the Grand Hotel hairpin has to be contrasted with the circuit today - here's a shot of the same turn from this year's race:
The hairpin has been safetied up and depopulated, and the crowds corraled into spots where they can follow the action on big screens after it's roared past them. The cars don't look the same anymore, and if Grand Prix has anything to tell us about what else has changed, it's how the drivers and spectators once put themselves in a position where the race was a potential threat to the lives of both - a mutual bargain that they'd had since the beginning of motorsport. Frankenheimer's film, more than anything else, is a document of the last moments of that dangerous relationship.
Frankenheimer hangs the structure of the film on six Grand Prix races - Monaco, Clermont-Ferrand, Spa, Zandvoort, Brands Hatch and Monza. Each race is a crucial moment for at least one of the characters, and Monaco sets the ball rolling with a near-fatal accident.
Bedford's Stoddard, we quickly learn, is the favorite of team owner Jeff Jordan (Jack Watson,) and when teammate Aron's gearbox troubles block Stoddard's pursuit of Sarti for the lead, the two men end up colliding somewhere between Tabac and Piscine. Aron is sent crashing through the hay bales into the harbour...
...while Stoddard has a spectacular collision with a stone wall that leaves him bloodied and broken. Jordan is furious, and fires Aron after calling him a liar and a coward, which seems a bit extreme. Sarti wins the race, and becomes the season favorite for his fourth championship.
Sarti is less than celebratory when Aron meets him at the hotel; they're both veterans, but Sarti is losing his love for the race, and asks Pete if he ever gets "tired of the driving." His world-weariness gets sidelined, however, when Montand's Sarti meets Louise, an American journalist played by Eva Marie Saint, at a tony party that night.
They have a wary, probing exchange in a private auto museum owned by the party's host, which establishes that Louise is mystified by the appeal of motor racing and horrified by the cavalier acceptance of injury and death by the racers, and the crowd's eagerness for blood. Montand is the perfect actor to counter her squeamishness with a weary stoicism, and a bitterly heroic insistence that "there is no terrible way to win. There is only winning."
It's a grim kind of meet-cute, but from my own jaded critical perspective, the most radical thing about it is the fact that the film's key relationship will involve two people clearly in middle age, attractive though they might be.
Frankenheimer's film will involve two other romances, one a triangle involving Stoddard, Aron, and Stoddard's estranged wife Pat (Jessica Walter - known today as the caustic snob matriarch Lucille Bluth on Arrested Development,) the other an embarassing youthful tryst between Sabato's Barlini and a beatnik racing groupie played by French chanteuse Francoise Hardy. (Bedford's Stoddard, with the tartan band on his helmet and his very pretty wife, seems to be based largely on Jackie Stewart; Montand's Sarti is a cross between John Surtees and Lorenzo Bandini; Garner's character is anyone's guess, though there's perhaps a bit of Phil Hill.)
If it were made today - and I can't imagine that it would be without Bernie Ecclestone making the producers pay a prohibitively high price for F1 involvement - I doubt that the youthful romance would be so tossed off compared to the tentative but adult consolations that Montand and Saint's characters offer each other, though I like to hope that a contemporary screenwriter would recognize the triangle as an ultimately pointless thing and abandon it in an early draft.
In any case, the only other relationship that matches Louise and Sarti is the one between Manetta, the Enzo Ferrari stand-in played by Adolfo Celi (Bond villain Largo in Thunderball) and his stable of drivers. After Monaco, we see Garner's Aron make the pilgrimage to Maranello to plead for a place on the team.
Frankenheimer was able to get unprecedented access to Ferrari's shop floor, and while Manetta tells Aron that he no longer trusts him as a driver who truly wants to win, our eyes are distracted by the long row of red F1 cars and a few of the curvaceous and ravishing 330 P3s that Ferrari was wielding in their ultimately unsuccessful battle with the Ford GT40 at Le Mans.
Ferrari's involvement in the film was hard won; Enzo originally turned Frankenheimer down, but when the director sent him a rough edit of his Monaco race sequence, Ferrari changed his mind and gave him complete access to the cars and the shop, and even turned a blind eye to the less-than-flattering portrayal by Celi of a controlling dictator indifferent to the emotional and physical cost of racing on his drivers. There was no mistaking who Celi was playing - actors even address Manetta as "commendatore," Ferrari's own honorific - and a Google search pulled up evidence that the men even met, highlighting their striking resemblance.
The next race is at the Charade Circuit at Clermont-Ferrand. Pete has been forced to humiliate himself by taking a gig as a racing reporter for an American news network.
While he wanders the pits looking for an interview, Garner shares the screen with actual drivers like Graham Hill and Joe Bonnier, who either played themselves or took on small roles as rival racers and camera car drivers. Many of these men - Hill, Bonnier, Jim Clark, Bruce McLaren, Jochen Rindt - would die on the track in a few years, underlining how real the film's portrayal of mortal risk actually was.
By this time Sarti and Louise have begun a very serene romance, and Frankenheimer captures the race at Clement-Ferrand with an audacious lyricism. Over a dreamy waltz by composer Maurice Jarre, the camera coyly shoots around the edges of the track, through crowds in the trees, and breaks up into soft-edged multiples and superimpositions.
If you knew what you were looking for, a title card way back at the beginning of the film revealed the inspiration for Frankenheimer's visual genius in Grand Prix:
Saul Bass, the designer of the shower sequence in Psycho and some of the most iconic title sequences in movie history, was the director's collaborator for the racing scenes in Grand Prix, and one day a special edition release of the film will allow viewers to skip the plot of the film entirely and simply take in all six racing scenes in sequence, like the karoke features on movie musical DVDs that just play the songs.
(Hopefully the same deluxe version will include samples of the 27 reels of footage Frankenheimer shot at the Nürburgring, and was forced in a contractual dispute to give to John Sturges and Steve McQueen, who were working on the racing film that would ultimately become Le Mans four years later.)
Sarti wins the race, and steps up his courtship of Louise by inviting her to stay with him at a place he keeps just by the track at Monza. Pete also begins his very guilty fling with Stoddard's wife Pat while Yamura (Toshiro Mifune,) the owner of the Honda-like Japanese team struggling for its first Grand Prix win, begins his own courtship of Pete to drive for this team.
Before the next race, a scene shows Garner and Montand with the other drivers, at an informal meeting of the driver's association where they argue about unsafe conditions at Spa.
Racing fans will geek out over the scene - besides Graham Hill, we recognize Rindt, Bruce McLaren, Phil Hill and Richie Ginter. Sharper eyes might pick out Dan Gurney and Jack Brabham, and there are persistent rumours that Lorenzo Bandini and Juan Manguel Fangio can be spotted in the briefest of cameos. You won't see this many racecar driver cameos again until Cars 2.
The camera at the Spa race begins high in the air and settles in the cockpit of the cars, first looking over the shoulder of the drivers before settling firmly behind the wheel, and a viewpoint familiar to anyone who's killed countless afternoons on Forza or Gran Turismo.
Pete trails Sarti until rain begins falling, and Frankenheimer's camera gives us the treacherous vision of cars lurching into view through the squalls. Sarti's car loses a wheel, and he crashes, killing two boys who had snuck past the nonexistent barriers closer to the track - an echo of a similar accident at Le Mans just two years before.
Pete wins while Stoddard looks on sourly from his crutches in pit lane, and Sarti is attacked by the father of one of the dead boys. After an intermission, we see Stoddard take delivery of a beautiful late '50s car in British racing green. His brother, a champion who died on the track, had raced in it, and while his anguished mother looks on he painfully folds himself into the cockpit and sets out on the road to recovery...
...which leads him in one quick cut to a record-breaking qualifying lap at Zandvoort. He's keen to make up for lost ground and win back his wife, and his painkiller-fuelled comeback has clearly unnerved Pete, who seems to be losing his appetite for both Stoddard's wife and driving.
After a glorious aerial shot showing the scenic seaside bleakness of the track, the Frankenheimer-Bass collaboration shifts into top gear, with a sequence where the screen splits into quarters, each quadrant focusing on a driver or playing off someone in the stands or the pits with a driver.
Sarti's car loses its throttle and as the camera focuses on Stoddard in victory lane in one part of the frame, another shows Montand arguing with his mechanic, then Stoddard in his hotel room massaging his scarred leg and filling up another syringe. It's such brisk, stylish and economical filmmaking, and it's the major reason why the rest of the film, away from the track, seems tame and conventional.
Stoddard's winning streak continues offscreen through Watkins Glen and Mexico City, but ends at Brands Hatch, a section of the film that begins with a fantastic shot of Lord Kitchener leading a Guards band down the home straight.
The drugs and the pace finally take their toll on Stoddard, who retires halfway through the race, and Sarti's winning streak seems to have deserted him - he loses the lead to his callow but cocky junior teammate, and ends up fighting with Pete for second place, which he loses as Aron literally drives past him on fire.
Garner did this stunt himself, and after narrowly escaping death when his car really did burst into flames, lost his Lloyd's insurance policy for the rest of the filming. Apart from the real drivers, the cast wasn't embarassed by racing talent - Sabato and Bedford apparently couldn't drive, and Montand was so scared that he did most of his scenes being towed by the camera car. Garner, like Paul Newman a year later on Winning, discovered that he loved racing, and became a team owner a year after Grand Prix came out, fielding cars in endurance races like Le Mans and Sebring and preparing race cars for AMC, but his place in automotive history would be assured thanks to the "Rockford."
By this point, you might have realized that Grand Prix is really just a re-make of an old World War Two flyboy picture; two hotshot aces fighting over the same girl while their grizzled squadron leader finds consolation in the arms of the frosty WAAF officer. Flight Lieutenant Stoddard, recovering from hideous burns, would find that Pilot Officer Aron, the Yank who left Chicago to fight the Nazis, had been making time with the lieutenant's querulous wife. Frankenheimer might have been innovating wildly with his cameras on the race track with Bass, but nobody had bothered to find a new way to tell the story.
While his teammate celebrates his first Grand Prix trophy, Sarti leaves the pub, which is located with thematic heavyhandedness right next to a quaint English church and its blue-lit graveyard. He tells Louise that his life is starting to become absurd. Of course it is - this was the '60s after all, and the fallout from postwar European intellectual self-flagellation had finally begun to fall through the brilliant sunlight of Hollywood.
Heroes no longer held their heads up, glaring defiantly past the camera in the final frames, but had became pensive and skittish, no longer certain that heroism could overcome fate or time or the malice of governments or fashion or their fellow man. He wasn't quite an anti-hero yet, but he was firmly on the path, and that's the reason why the films of the '50s and '60s, even if they featured actors who once made their name playing Algeresque optimists, played out like widescreen, Technicolor bummers.
The film climaxes at Monza, where just as in real life, the Ferrari boss makes his only appearance at the track; in Grand Prix, Manetta shows up in a lovely (and extremely rare) 500 Superfast, with Sarti's chillingly beautiful wife (Geneviève Page) riding shotgun. In a confrontation that would be a startling echo of John Surtees' own showdown with Enzo Ferrari at Le Mans months before the film was released, he threatens to quit. (It was apparently no coincidence that their names were so similar, if only so that track announcements recorded while Surtees was racing could be used on the film's soundtrack.)
His icy automotive executive wife tells him that he'll never quit with either racing or their loveless marriage; they're both business relationships that benefit him and everyone else, and she won't let him compromise this equitable arrangement. Sarti, it seems, is a man who has sold his soul to the devil, and we all know where that deal ends.
The film builds to a formal elegance at the climax; each of the four drivers is introduced by a close-up of the bracelet or necklace medallion engraved with their name and blood type. The screen splits in two to show them on the Monza track alongside a flashback to an earlier moment in the film. And while Grand Prix seasons in the mid-'60s usually ended in Mexico City, it quickly becomes obvious why Frankenheimer wanted to end the film at Monza:
The in-character interview voiceovers return as we see Sarti, Stoddard, Barlini and Aron blast down the straightaways and turn into the famous banking at Monza, as they explain why drivers hate the track, why it's the perfect place to slipstream your way into the lead, and how punishing the banking is on both man and car. Let's take another look at that banking:
Holy shit. The Monza banking hadn't actually been used since 1961, and it sits rotting away in parkland next to the track today, but Frankenheimer knew what a terrifying vision it would be in Cinerama with his cameras bolted to the cars as they barreled along nearly parallel to the ground. It's not surprising that it's where Sarti, fighting up from last place and within reach of the race's leaders, falls victim to an exhaust pipe that shakes free from a Lotus he's about to lap. He loses control, goes airborne, and...
He's rushed back at the grandstands in a hopeless condition, and while his icy wife departs in the ambulance with his body, Louise dissolves into hysterics, waving her bloody hands in front of the crowd and the photographers, shrieking that they finally got what they came to see.
Manetta/Ferrari pulls out a black flag and signals for Barlini to head for the pits and give up his lead. Pete and Stoddard fight for first place and Pete wins, but his celebration happens under the pall of black smoke from Sarti's burning Ferrari. While hardly the tragic hero - that honour probably goes to Montand's Sarti - Garner takes a lonely last walk down the grid and past the finish line before the credits roll, a hero diminished by tragedy.
I could probably watch the racing sequences from Grand Prix every day, but I doubt if I'd want to sit through its lifeless dialogue, mostly unappealing relationships or culturally depressive '60s fug again. The awkward break-up scene between Hardy and Sabato alone is enough to make you wonder why, precisely, anyone thought the depthless, frugging youth of the time were worth more than the odd beach party film or Pepsi commercial; surely the decision to shift the social and cultural machinery into the hands of these half-assed hedonists was some kind of clerical error?
For race geeks, Grand Prix offers another reason to sigh deeply and curse history, and the many appreciations of the film fondly recall it as a record of a time when cars "were unadorned and gorgeously streamlined, before wings and other aerodynamic devices uglified them and before sponsors turned the cars into billboards." So what if the sport had a body count that makes logging and crab fishing look like forensic accounting? Heroism just violates health and safety regulations nowadays, they're trying to make racing "green," and nobody can drive on the Monza banking anymore.