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European Auto Racing
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suppliedTitle,The Racers

The Racers

Movies about racing, like movies about any sport, are rarely successful. The problem comes in portraying the sport in a way that serves the plot and isn't just about showing the sport itself. On the one hand, movies love showing cars going fast. Chase scenes have been a staple in the movies since the earliest days of the Nickelodeon. On the other hand, showing cars race just isn't that exciting. Watching a race in real life is different, there's something visceral about a race, the loud engines, the palpable sense that someone could die. But in a movie, it feels far less dramatic. The Racers (1955) avoids most of the problems of other race movies by making itself firmly about the racer himself, Gino Borgesa (Kirk Douglas), and his personal problems. Racing just happens to be something he does.

The movie begins with a narrator (Carleton Young) informing the viewers how Monte Carlo racing works, how teams are assembled and how money plays an important role while independent racers, like Gino, must struggle. A young woman, Nicole (Bella Darvi), strikes up a conversation about racing with Gino as he works on his car and wishes him luck, something he tells her she should never do. Wishing luck to a driver is bad luck, as he's about to learn. Shortly after, as he begins his test run for the next day's pole position, Nicole's poodle runs across the track in pursuit of a cat and Gino is forced to swerve his car off the track, destroying it.

Gino is understandably upset about this new misfortune and Nicole feels guilty, setting Gino up with a new car. The two become involved but racing comes first for Gino. After a serious accident, Gino pays a doctor to supply him with painkillers and pays him more money to keep quiet. Tension mounts as Gino's recklessness on the track collides with Nicole's alienation from him and his sport.

That great Hollywood warhorse, Henry Hathaway, directs the action and makes it surprisingly thrilling by keeping the camera directly in front of the cars, rarely using long shots or static side shots of cars passing by. Hathaway's camera is almost always on the track, going just as fast as the cars, and when he has to photograph the actors up close in front of a rear-projection screen, he keeps the camera tight on their faces and shakes the frame, to make it more difficult to distinguish the obvious change from real race track to Hollywood studio.

The cast is made up of some of the best talent Hollywood had to offer. Kirk Douglas brings his usual intense energy to the role and makes the selfish and singularly focused Gino more, ahem, driven than most actors would have the nerve to do. Lee J. Cobb, Cesar Romero, Gilbert Roland and Katy Jurado fill out a cast of great supporting players who bring more to their roles than, perhaps, the script asks for. Or maybe Hathaway had a way of getting the best from his actors no matter the material. And it's not that the material's bad, just that it's centered on Gino, with everyone else left to do little but react to him.

The saddest story of The Racers comes from the lead actress, Bella Darvi. Born Bayla Wegier, she and her family endured the Holocaust in Europe. While she made it out alive, her brother, Robert, perished in a concentration camp in Poland. Later, she spent her days drinking and gambling in Monaco where she was discovered by Darryl F. Zanuck and his wife, Virginia Fox. They paid off her debts, changed her name to Bella Darvi (the last name came from the first three letters of "Darryl" and the first two letters of "Virginia") and prepped her to become a Hollywood star. Sadly, it never came to be. After three starring roles, in The Egyptian, Hell and High Water (both 1954) and, of course, The Racers, her star never shone brightly enough, at least not as much as was expected. She became Zanuck's lover but the relationship soured and she went back to gambling. She made a dozen more films in France and Italy before taking her own life in 1972 at the age of 42. The Polish actress never became a star but she will always be remembered for her grace and beauty.

The Racers is a better drama than it is a racing film, focusing more on the ego and reckless personality of its anti-hero, Gino, than on racing. There is no big race that he must win or train for. In fact, all of his major victories are detailed in a simple montage of newspaper headlines announcing the victories. The focus here is on the character, the racing being just a means to an end. Of course, it's directed by Henry Hathaway, so the means are pretty thrilling nonetheless. And Kirk Douglas is, as always, a pleasure to watch. Forget the cars, Douglas is the real engine that drives the movie. And he drives it right into the winner's circle.

By Greg Ferrara

Directed by: Henry Hathaway Written by: Charles Kaufman Produced by: Julian Blaustein Original Music: Alex North Cinematography: Joseph MacDonald Film Editing: James B. Clark Production Design: George Patrick, Lyle R. Wheeler Cast: Kirk Douglas (Gino Borgesa), Bella Darvi (Nicole), Gilbert Roland (Dell'Oro), Cesar Romero (Carlos Chavez), Lee J. Cobb (Maglio), Katy Jurado (Maria Chávez)




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