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Hollywood has always had a love affair with fast cars. If you've ever been stuck in L.A. traffic, it's easy to understand why. Who wouldn't yearn to tear past the other cars, leaving your fellow drivers to cower in your wake, and pedestrians to stare open-mouthed at your car as it blows past them in a blur, covering their ears from the deafening roar as they at once fear and marvel at your power? It is that feeling exactly that John Frankenheimer sought to capture on film with Grand Prix (1966).
In order "to show what racing was really like," Frankenheimer molded an amalgam of events and drivers into the story of Pete Aron, played by James Garner. After causing an accident at the Monaco Grand Prix that injures colleague Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford), Aron is fired from his team. Literally adding insult to injury, Aron takes up with Stoddard's wife, Pat (Jessica Walter), who is bored by her husband's "brooding-in-the-shadow-of-my-dead-brother" routine. Along with all this, we are introduced to Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand), a two-time world champion on the brink of retirement, and his lover, Louise Frederickson (Eva Marie Saint), a magazine editor who is touring the racing circuit. Aron eventually finds another job with a Japanese team and, after earning back his reputation with a few wins, finds himself in competition with Stoddard and Sarti for the world championship at the British Grand Prix. As could be expected, a tight race ensues with plenty of thrills, chills, and spills, before a final victor emerges from the big event.
Grand Prix is Frankenheimer's first color film, and his first original screenplay since The Young Stranger (1957). Having been an amateur racer himself, Frankenheimer is intensely passionate about the subject, calling Grand Prix "one of the most satisfactory films I've made." Shot in 70mm Cinerama, Frankenheimer used the wide space to his advantage with a creative use of split-screen - an idea he got from the film To Be Alive at the New York World's fair, and from watching the World Series on television. To further the visual experience, Frankenheimer and cinematographer Lionel Lindon used specially constructed cameras mounted on the racing cars, which put us on the track with the drivers. By combining the "on-track" footage with helicopter shots of the cars in a split-screen action sequence, Frankenheimer combats the monotony of racing cars merely driving around in circles.
To achieve the level of realism that Frankenheimer wanted, there were no "process shots" used in the film. All scenes, whether they involved racing or not, used real cars with mounted cameras. For the spectacular crashes, special effects man Milton Rice created a hydrogen cannon, which functioned as a giant pea-shooter. A car could be attached to a shaft on the cannon, and then "shot" out like a projectile at speeds in excess of 125 miles an hour. The cannon was so effective it was used for all the crash shots, including the wreck at the beginning of the film at the Monte Carlo Grand Prix. On an oddly prophetic note, Lorenzo Bandini, a driver who helped stage the crash at Monte Carlo in the film, was later killed in exactly the same place in a crash at a subsequent Monte Carlo Grand Prix.
The production schedule for Grand Prix was a race in itself. Frankenheimer began shooting in May, and wrapped the first week of October. By December 21, 1966, Grand Prix was in the theaters. Though a relative success, Frankenheimer has said he felt the film would have done better had he been able to cast Steve McQueen, his first choice for the James Garner role. Garner was, in fact, Frankenheimer's third choice behind Robert Redford. But casting decisions aside, Frankenheimer's enthusiasm and passion for racing comes across on screen, as the action doesn't merely race past you but straps you into the driver's seat. Grand Prix didn't race past the Academy either, earning three Oscars for Best Sound Effects (by Gordon Daniel), Best Editing, and Best Sound.
Producer: Edward Lewis
Director: John Frankenheimer
Screenplay: Robert Alan Arthur
Production Design: Richard Sylbert
Cinematography: Lionel Lindon
Film Editing: Henry Berman, Stewart Linder, Frank Santillo
Original Music: Maurice Jarre
Principal Cast: James Garner (Pete Aron), Eva Marie Saint (Louise Frederickson), Yves Montand (Jean-Pierre Sarti), Toshiro Mifune (Izo Yamura), Brian Bedford (Scott Stoddard), Jessica Walter (Pat Stoddard), Francoise Hardy (Lisa), Antonio Sabato (Nino Barlini), Genevieve Page (Monique Delvaux-Smith), Claude Dauphin (Hugo Simon)
C-170m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Bill Goodman