One of the joys of being a film reviewer (er, HD DVD reviewer) is rediscovering lost gems, or seeing films for the first time that you've never heard of but everyone else has. Latter case in point is 'Grand Prix,' which I had absolutely no familiarity with but, after a little bit of web research, I discovered is actually considered one of the best, if not the best, film ever made about professional auto racing. Better than 'Days of Thunder.' Better than 'Stroker Ace.' Yes, even better than 'The Cannonball Run.' If the fans at IMDB thought so highly of this movie, then it had to be one to see, right?
Fortunately, 'Grand Prix' is indeed a stellar cinematic achievement. It is that rare film that works on every level it was intended -- as a drama, an action movie and an examination of the sport of auto racing. That it also has a great cast, top-notch direction, plenty of melodrama and fabulous car crashes only sweetens the deal.
Directed by John Frankenheimer, 'Grand Prix' stars James Garner as Pete Aron, an American driver searching for redemption after his ego puts teammate Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford) into the hospital, and Aron loses his corporate sponsorship. Also a part of the racing circuit is Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand), the venerated elder of the sport, and Antonio Sabato is his talented but hot-headed teammate Nino Barlini. Across nine different races, and both on and off the track, these four drivers will compete with each other for the checkered flag. Ultimately, they will discover that winning and losing are relative, and sometimes the price you pay for the pole position can be far too high.
Narrative aside, 'Grand Prix' is a landmark technical achievement. The winner of three effects Oscars, the film pioneered a number of new techniques that continue influence modern cinema. Working with legendary editor and title designer Saul Bass, as well as a team of sound designers way ahead of their time, the filmmakers created a unique visual and aural language to tell their story. Utilizing split screen, incredible aerial camerawork, meticulous sound design and Maurice Jarre's percussive score, each racing sequence has its own tone and style. Finely interweaved into the narrative, the races both exist on their own as amazing pieces of high-octane effects filmmaking -- all done live without a net, and with no help from CGI -- as well as further the narrative. It's a tough tightwire act to straddle, and there are few action films today that haven't learned a trick or two from how 'Grand Prix' so seamlessly integrated its action with its drama.
Had 'Grand Prix' only been an action movie, however strong, it wouldn't have held up all these years. What Frankenheimer also achieved, and just as important, is a sense of dramatic authenticity. He populates his film with realistic and believable characters and, impressively, doesn't turn any of the racers into heroes or villains. He also avoids the "disaster movie" type of melodrama that turned such classics as 'Airport' and 'Poseidon Adventure' into camp, however much I lose those type of movies. What Frankenheimer did with 'Grand Prix' was to simply, plainly and with great impact, make us understand these people, their sport and while they would risk their lives to win. Rare for a movie like this, 'Grand Prix' not only surprised and entertained me, but left me with a new appreciation for a sport I never thought in a million years I could care about.
Warner has proven itself to be one of the best studios when it comes to remastering vintage titles older on disc, and they've done it again with 'Grand Prix.' Here is a film that is now four decades old and still it looks pretty darn fantastic. Minted from the film's original 65mm Super Panavision 70 negative and painstakingly restored, this 2.20:1 and 1080p/VC-1 transfer is one of the best I've seen on the format, regardless of age.
On its own, this restoration would be mighty impressive just for its cleanliness. Despite a runtime of 176 minutes, this transfer is blemish-free, with no speckles, dropouts or blemish. But considering that the film also makes extensive use of split screens -- which in the pre-CGI age required the use of antiquated matting techniques that result in heavier dirt and grain -- the smoothness of this image is astounding. Even colors, which often waver with old effects films like these, are rock solid. Hues are also vibrant and pure, with no chroma noise or bleeding. Even film grain, which you would rightly expect on a film forty years-old, is almost non-existent. The depth and dimensionality here is pretty gorgeous.
The only caveat I will add is that the image is quite bright -- maybe too much so? Though blacks are rock solid and contrast and consistent, I found I sometimes had to cover my eyes during the daylight scenes. The whites here are so intense and the luminosity of the transfer was so strong it really took me aback. I certainly can't say for sure what was the intended look of the filmmakers, but I can say that this is the first time I actually thought about wearing sunglasses while watching an HD DVD.
Along with the image, Warner has also remastered the original audio elements of 'Grand Prix' to create a new 5.1 surround mix. Audio options here include a Dolby Digital-Plus track encoded at 640kbps, plus French and Spanish dubs in 1.0 mono (alas, purists may be disappointed that no English mono option is provided).
Overall, this is a fine remaster. The audio stems have been nicely cleaned up, with no noticeable anomalies present such as dropouts or distortion present. Dynamic range has been fattened up fairly well, with the mix boasting healthy enough mid-range and high-end to almost make us forget we're watching a forty-year-old movie. However, low end is almost non-existent. There are just no .1 LFE frequencies pumped out of the subwoofer to any discernible degree, so even the most dynamic of the racing sequences sound flat and uninvolving.
Surround use, too, is meager at best. While stereo separation of the front two channels is sharp, and dialogue well-placed in the center channel, I never sensed any sort of atmosphere or envelopment. A very proficient and technically superior remaster, just a not very aggressive one.
Warner Home Video only recently released 'Grand Prix' as a two-disc, standard-def DVD special edition. But this HD DVD goes one better, not only providing the full 176-minute feature film on a single disc (it was spread across two platters on the DVD), but all of the supplements, too. Gotta love these next-gen formats!
As John Frankenheimer is no longer with us, nor are most of the film's key creative team, apparently Warner opted not to produce any audio commentary tracks for the film. Instead, four new featurettes detail the making of the film and the world of racing. Each is culled from both new interviews with surviving cast members James Garner, Eva Marie Saint, Antonio Sabato and others, as well as vintage on-set material featuring Frankenheimer and editor/effects supervisor Saul Bass.
"Pushing the Limit: The Making of 'Grand Prix'" runs only a few seconds shy of 30 minutes and is the main documentary on the disc. It certainly appears that 'Grand Prix' was quite a shoot. Frankenheimer is legendary for his on-set "intensity" (i.e., he's a tyrant) and his temper is well in evidence here. I was surprised at the frankness of the archival production footage, whether it is Frankenheimer reaming a reporter for being "rude" to his cast, or the remembrances of Garner and Saint, who admit that tensions on the set often flared. (Of course, Garner was no angel either, as he is seen in one clip throwing a fit when a local shopkeeper holds up the production over money). If you only watch one of the extras on this disc, make it this one.
"The Style and Sound of Speed" clocks in at 11 minutes and is a nice tribute to Saul Bass and his pioneering work on 'Grand Prix.' I'm not really a fan of the CGI era, and quite frankly the accomplishments of Bass and his team here blow all of that wimpy computer-assisted stuff right out of the water. From his inventive use of split screens, to the highly imaginative editing that makes every car crash in the film seem absolutely real, to the amazing sound design, Bass truly pushed the boundaries of the form and evolved the language of film one step further. Awesome stuff.
The last two featurettes are more historical in nature. "Flat Out: Formula One in the Sixties" runs 17 minutes and examines the history of auto racing up through the Formula One era depicted in the film, while "Brands Hatch: Chasing the Checkered Flag" runs 11 minutes and takes us on a tour of the famous racetracks utilized in the film. A number of racing experts are interviewed, and I was actually quite fascinated by a sport I never before cared a whit about. Not that I thought auto racing was easy, but after watching this one, there is no way in hell I'm ever going to get inside a racecar, even one going 12 mph.
Rounding out the extras are two promo items. In addition to the film's Theatrical Trailer, Warner has also tacked on the wonderfully vintage featurette "Grand Prix: Challenge of the Champions." This 10-minute extended commercial is almost breathless in reminding us of the excitement of the sport and of the movie, and even includes a shameless shot of a woman's cleavage intercut with stock cars to really sell the moment. Priceless.
'Grand Prix' is, for me, a real find. I'd never heard of this movie before, but know I think it is quite arguably the best film ever made about the sport of auto racing. It is also an engaging drama and an Oscar-winning technical achievement to boot, so I give a very enthusiastic thumbs up. As for this HD DVD, it is also excellent, with a stellar remastered transfer and soundtrack and a nice batch of retrospective featurettes. If you are a fan of the film or at all interested in racing, definitely give this one a spin.