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The Young Racers

One of American film's most famous producers, Roger Corman is also a thoroughly maligned figure, critically speaking. No one has yet made a thorough-going case for Corman as an auteur, and it's easy to see why: Corman himself has never professed to be anything but a money-monger, and his boasts over 60 years of prolific pop culture-making have always been about how cheaply and quickly his movies were made. (His merciless thrift is also what allowed him to become something of a film-school-brat intern factory, giving low-paying first jobs to Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme, George Armitage, Monte Hellman, Peter Bogdanovich, Jack Nicholson, et al.) But even the most profit-minded producer/director, if he or she personally churns out an average of seven films a year for more than a half-century, stands a good chance at stumbling into disarming originality and resonance on occasion, and Corman's own hunger to capitalize on social trends brought him to many rich arenas. As it is, his famous Poe films, despite the weaning presence of Vincent Price, are marvelously inspired wonder cabinets of gothic cardboard and smoke-machine artifice. The presence in the Corman stable of behind-the-camera artisans like Floyd Crosby, Richard Matheson, Nicolas Roeg, Milton R. Krasner, Charles Willeford and Nestor Almendros proves, in a sense, that Corman wasn't merely nickel and diming his way onto drive-in screens.

The Young Racers (1963) pegs Corman's conflicting ambitions - it's a briskly-made, dramatically to-the-point hot-trend youth movie, designed to be seen half-dressed from the back seat of your family's Ford Fairlane. But it's also a saga of international formula racing, set and filmed in at least five different European cities, from Monte Carlo to Rouen to Spa-Francorchamps to Zandvoort to Aintree, filming real Grand Prix races but also staging races and shooting them with car-mounted cameras, not back projection. It couldn't have been cheap to make, and Corman was a savvy enough filmmaker to know how to capitalize on the energy of high-speed racing, the lovely bucolic and old-urban landscapes Europeans use for "open wheel" contests (it looks like entire cities are closed down for the occasions), and when to sparingly cut in news footage of crashes and spin-outs. If an uproarious piece of chintz like Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957) pops to mind when Corman's name is mentioned (or, perhaps more contemporarily, 2010's Sharktopus), then the elegance and location splendor of The Young Racers can be a shock.

The screenplay, written by star William Campbell's brother R. Wright Campbell, is an earnest slab of soap, centering on a rake of a racing champ Joe Machin (Campbell, possibly most familiar from the Star Trek episode "The Squire of Gothos"), who indulges his celebrity by using women like Kleenex, and who dares to seduce the lost love of Stephen Children (Mark Damon), a journalist and erstwhile driving champ who quit the circuit years earlier. Stephen resolves to carry out a vendetta against the big kahuna - by writing a book about him and nailing him to the wall forever. Along with proto-feminist secretary Luana Anders, Stephen poses as a simple writer doing research, and attaches himself to the driver's support staff - which includes Joe's resentful brother (played by the screenwriter), who's in love with the Lothario's long-suffering Spanish wife (Marie Versini) - and as the group tours Europe from race to race, there's miles of existentialist banter about love and racing, death and winning. In fact, the film is explicit about taking the circular, risky, ultimately pointless action of auto racing as a metaphor for modern life. The characters muse over the fatalistic strangeness of it all, and then race.

Stephen gets in the driver's seat eventually, of course, and the two rivals battle it out - just as Campbell's cock-of the walk begins to doubt his achievements and get scared, and Damon's embittered hero begins to sympathize with him. The Young Racers isn't to be taken too seriously - Damon's sculpted haircut and William Shatner-dubbed dialogue reminds you periodically to stop worrying and love the kitsch, even before Patrick Magee shows up as a puppet-master Brit aristo with a leering yen to interfere in the love lives of the racing circuit. Corman's cineastical craft is undeniable here - he's not just a sell-anything counter-jumper - but we should remember that however relatively lavish the production of this film was, Corman squeezed it for every possible drop of juice. Namely, while shooting in Ireland, Corman told 24-year-old sound techie Francis Coppola he could use the sets and cast to shoot another entire film - as long as he could film it in nine days, while also shooting The Young Racers. The result, a demi-Gothic slasher thriller titled Dementia 13 (1963), was Coppola's first official directorial credit, and has since been rescued from the Corman-cheapie abyss to be beloved as a cult fave.

The Young Racers might be the better film - it has a sure grip on the relationship between its subcultural sport and the '60s Zeitgeist of generational searcher-dom, and the characters' arcs all begin in stereotype and end up ambivalently somewhere west of three-dimensions. It's also one of those movies that captures the '60s without trying to be painfully hip - there's no post-jazz bop on the soundtrack, or strobed party scenes, or absurd slang, just sensibly dressed people trying to figure out their lives in and around a universal culture of automotive obsession and imperilment.

By Michael Atkinson VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

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