The great skiing movies of yore—not much a list, honestly. Sure, some will proudly defend their Hot Dog...The Movie, others make questionable claims for Better Off Dead or even the chase scene from The Spy Who Loved Me. Perhaps since the sport is essentially a solitary one—a contest against time and endurance—it doesn’t quite translate to the social nature of the big screen.
Downhill Racer, a brooding 1969 drama starring Robert Redford at the peak of his handsomeness (not his acting talent), actually confirms this. Redford plays David Chappellet, a cocksure American competitor hoping to make his way to the Olympics; Gene Hackman is his ice-hearted coach who refuses to coddle him. Sometimes the snowy European locations have more warmth and character than these two individuals.
If the movie often feels like you’re watching a vaguely interesting bit of 1970s television (complete with paranoid lens zooms, trumpet blares and a pair of blurry kissing scenes), that makes perfect sense. The director is Michael Ritchie, a TV hired gun attempting his feature debut. He’d go on to helm the immortal The Bad News Bears, but this bone-dry material (shaped into a terse script by novelist James Salter) requires a stronger artistic sensibility to lift it out of its awkward monotony.
Still, we salute Criterion’s attempt to think outside its usual “classics” box and reclaim a lost title, however worthy. Extras include new interviews with Redford and Salter, the former with fond memories of the project, one that he personally shopped to Paramount’s chief. The late Ritchie is represented by a 1977 audio interview, and while Redford’s test footage (referred to in chats) is AWOL, there’s a fascinating promo film included.—Joshua Rothkopf
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