Wednesday, July 17, 2002

Latest Car Film

Le Mans (1971)

Steve McQueen's pet project to bring the 24 hour sports car race to the silver screen, Le Mans mixes real footage from the 1970 race along with recreated driving action and adds a few token 'off track' scenes. The movie has always had a special place in the heart for our family as my parents went to the 70 race (in which McQueen actually entered in a Porsche 908 as research for the film). My Dad also beat up a French busker for forcing his trained monkey to smoke cigarettes but that's a different matter altogether.

Is it any good?

Well, let's put it this way. If two hours of the coolest white man ever to walk the Earth staring into the middle distance and then dipping his eyes in order to blink alongside noisy footage of Porsche 917s and Ferrari 512s sounds like the greatest film ever made then you will be in heaven. If not you'll be bored rigid.

Personally I thought it was fantastic.

McQueen plays Michael de Laney, US race driver(*) returning to Le Mans in 1970 after a crash in the 1969 race which hospitalized him and killed the other driver. We learn this at the start when de Laney stops his Porsche road car on the track (public road remember) and just stares and stares and stares at a stretch of armco that is obviously newer than the rest. The crash occurs in flashback at night and is so deliberately confusing that you don't know if de Laney was to blame for the smash, leaving his mental
state and fitness to race unclear for most of the film.

Suffice to say the dead man's widow turns up at Le Mans in order to wallow in her morbidity and McQueen feels obliged to start up a relationship with her. Don't worry about this, it isn't the important part.

Stylistically it reminds me of Bullit - long, lingering camera shots and a semi-documentary style, helped by the fact that a lot of it is in fact documentary footage anyway. It's also reminscent of Top Gun in that the machines are the stars of the film and the cinematography only really picks up when the awkward human beings are out of the way.

Apart from the flashback crash at the start there are two big shunts, one for a Ferrari driver which, like a snowball growing as it rolls downhill escalates to take McQueen out as well (bet you weren't expecting that eh?). Superb cinema. After the Ferrari crashes, the sound drops so that all you can hear is the drivers laboured breathing. He runs towards the camera away from the stricken car in slow motion but cleverly the director keeps cutting away to a side view which shows just how agonisingly slow his
progress is, akin to the 'running through treacle' nightmare before the whole thing explodes in flames.

The film is a little laboured by the need to explain the whole principle of the race to those in the cinema audience and the 'four cars together on the final lap' ending is bit trite but otherwise this is a fantastic film for anyone who loves motor cars. It beautifully captures an era when Porsche and Ferrari went head to head with the result that the sore losers of Ferrari dropped out of GT racing altogether. The 917 was converted to an open-topped car and went over to North America for Can-Am racing and so utterly dominated it that the series was abandoned.

You're expecting me to say 'Go Out on buy the DVD now' aren't you? Well, you can't. Le Mans has never been released on DVD and according to rumour there is an extremely complicated tangle of property rights hanging over the whole movie that may forever keep it locked away in archives somewhere. My copy was taped off BBC2 many years ago and there is a roaring trade in 'copied VHS to copied VHS' doing the rounds amongst Le Mans enthusiasts as it is the only way to acquire it. Damned shame. Take a look around HMV or Virgin next time you are in and look at the amount of utter shit that turns up on DVD and get extremely angry that classics like this are unlikely to see the light of day.

(*) Some accounts have McQueen playing an Englishman, based I think on the (British) V-sign that he famously flicks at the Ferrari crew post-race. However on the rare occasions that he speaks he has an American accent and also wears a Stars and Stripes patch on his overalls - his British team-mate has a Union Jack on his.