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Downhill Racer

One disc; Criterion; $29.95

By Michael S. Gant

Was this how Bode Miller got started? In Michael Ritchie's 1969 feature Downhill Racer, Robert Redwood plays David Chappellet, a handsome, cocky and callow skier. Brought on board by the U.S. ski team coach (Gene Hackman) after an injury to another team member, Chappellet quickly and brusquely works his way to the head of the tow-line without much thought for the feelings of his teammates, who can't seem to convince him that skiing is a team sport. During the course of a European season leading up to the Winter Olympics, Chappellet clashes with competitors, wins enough races to become a minor celebrity and carries on a desultory relationship with an equally shallow slope bunny (the forgettable Swedish actress Camilla Sparv). The film is meant as a character study of a self-absorbed athlete always on the verge of a wipeout (metaphorically if not physically). Redford, who pushed the project through on his own, certainly looks the part with his impenetrable good looks and aura of golden-haired entitlement. Unfortunately, there is no edge or bite to the performance, mostly because Redford can't completely turn off his innate charm. The best scene contrasts Chappellet's self-assurance with the bitter, bottled-up disapproval of his taciturn farmer father (Walter Stroud). The real excitement, however, comes not from the characters but from the ski footage. The competition scenes were filmed documentary-style on the major European slopes and convey a rush of real danger. Cinematographer Brian Probyn even experimented with helmet-mounted cameras. Redford, a fairly accomplished skier, did some of his own runs. The film includes a couple of fascinating interviews. Redford, quite thoughtful, reminisces about how, even at that early date, he was alternating big-budget movies with personal projects. He reveals that he was the original choice for the male lead in Rosemary's Baby, but wanted to do Downhill Racer instead. Screenwriter James Salter, who adapted Oakley Hall's novel, opens up about a collaborative process with Redford and Ritchie that resulted in some changes he wasn't really sure would work.

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