Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Greatest Movie Opening Sequences: John Frankenheimer's Grand Prix

It is an article of faith, universally accepted in OnceWereBachelor circles, that Steve McQueen is an icon, perhaps Icon Number One. He is one of few real people whom, as the old saw goes, men want to be and women want to be with. So it may be blasphemy not to select his legendary racing movie Le Mans for veneration in this series. But I have mentioned Mr. McQueen here and here, so I think my opinion of the man is a matter of record.

Le Mans, in fact, is a great movie and perhaps iconic in its own right. The fact that it even exists is testament to the Icon's sheer will. McQueen envisioned it as an artifice-free depiction of the great endurance race, and in watching it one can see that, despite studio involvement, the movie largely delivers that. Very little drama, very much racing - real racing. McQueen's personality, persona, and devotion to the motorsports must have been turned up to eleven, to overcome the Suits who were concerned about the marketability of such a film; one which was really an unadorned depiction of a 24 hour race going round and round, and in which its principal bankable star would do his own driving at race speeds.

So, despite not being blessed with the Greatest Movie Opening Sequence in a Movie About Racing, I present to you, the opening sequence of Le Mans, in which Icon Number One wordlessly tours the early morning roads of France in a 911T of pristine condition and provenance, prior to doing actual battle with hated Ferrari in a Porsche 917 in Gulf livery.

We now move on to the actual subject of this post, Grand Prix, starring James Garner and Eva Marie Saint, and directed by All-Timer, John Frankenheimer. This sequence is the Greatest because it is everything about the event and almost nothing about the man. It captures the details of pre-race preparation, the sliding throttle bodies, the wrenching, the vintage helmets, the roaring engines. And the goggles (we all know how much I love goggles). The lore is that Frankenheimer labored to develop a technique that would portray cars racing in a way never before seen, and I think he's succeeded. It doesn't have the mythology of Le Mans, especially as history passes judgment, but as a technical achievement in its own right, it may be more exciting, more entertaining, more complete a movie. And so, Frankenheimer serves up a better movie of lesser legend, one which begins here in Monaco, and wends its way through Formula 1 Europe circa 1966, stopping at such locales as the Belgian GP circuit, Brands Hatch, and - most dramatically - through the deadly banked turn at Monza.

And this post would not be complete, I think without a goat. And that goat is Sly Stallone and Reny Harlin's Driven, about some palooka named Joe Tanto brought back to the sport to mentor a young buck named Jimmy Bly in IndyCar racing. I would describe this as the racing movie analogue to the stripper flick Showgirls. Actually, the movie does a fair to middling job of referencing the other two movies here, but that's about as good as it gets and arguably its more rip-off than homage. So here, coming in DFL*, is its trailer, wherein much of the car racing is computer generated. Ick.

* In racing parlance, dead f**king last.

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