Fifty years after its release, Grand Prix is still the grand-daddy of motor racing films
For all its thrills and glamour, Formula One hasn’t been well served by cinema. There are exceptions, however.
2010’s Senna told the story of the great Brazilian by ingeniously repurposing some fantastic “found” footage, and welding it to a masterful script.
Rush, which followed three years later, focused on James Hunt and Ferrari’s Niki Lauda, and was well received by an audience that knew little of that tumultuous 1976 championship battle.
But it’s Grand Prix, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, that remains the touchstone for anyone fired up by the possibilities of film and the drama of motor racing. It was directed by John Frankenheimer, who pioneered a new form of hyperkinetic realism to capture the all-consuming buzz of motor racing.
Frankenheimer would refine his technique and become the acknowledged master of the car chase, setting new parameters in 1975’s French Connection II and 1998’s Ronin.
Like many films of the era, the plot was wholly subservient to its style and atmosphere, though fortunately not fatally so. The story arcs have the usual redemptive and “last-roll-of-the-dice” elements, and play out in the context of a fictionalised F1 season.
James Garner is American driver Pete Aron (a maverick, obviously) who signs with Japanese newcomer Yamura (played by Toshirô Mifune, who worked extensively with the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa), in a bid to get on terms with old foe and former team-mate Jean-Pierre Sarti (a composite of Fangio, Jean Behra, and Wolfgang von Trips, played by Yves Montand).
Meanwhile, the injured British driver Scott Stoddard (as portrayed by Jim Clark lookalike Brian Bedford) stages a comeback, and bike racer turned rookie F1 driver Nino Barlini impresses everyone in his Manetta-Ferrari.
The four battle heroically to the finish.
Needless to say, there’s a lot of extra-curricular romantic activity, and no-one could argue with the casting of screen icon Eva Marie Saint as a magazine editor who dallies with Montand’s character, or lissom French pop sensation Françoise Hardy, as the Ferrari driver’s love interest.
Adolfo Celi is also memorable as Agostini Manetta, a clear homage to Enzo Ferrari (whose disinterest subsided when he was shown rushes from the film).
One could not question Frankenheimer’s commitment to verisimilitude; originally keen to enter his own team, he had to settle for embedding with 1966’s F1 grid, relying on a host of racing’s stars as technical advisers and in some cases on-screen extras (Graham Hill was a better driver than actor).
Garner, like fellow racing-obsessed screen stars Paul Newman and Steve McQueen (who turned the film down in favour of his own project, 1971’s Le Mans), turned out to be a genuinely talented driver. It helps.
For true film fans, it’s Grand Prix’s peerless opening sequence and split-screen imagery that lingers longest in the mind. This was the work of Saul Bass, a native New Yorker and graphic designer who helped shape the visual identity of 20th century corporate America; amongst others, he created logos for Warner Bros, AT&T, and United Airlines.
Bass is best-known for his movie-title sequences, dizzying typographic works of art in their own right that set the tone for films by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho, no less), Stanley Kubrick, and Martin Scorsese.
In fact, along with Lionel Lindon, Bass was responsible for the cinematography; given that it was shot in Panavision 70mm and shown in selected theatres at the time on Cinerama, this was a film designed for a typically epic 1960s canvas.
Grand Prix was a bigger commercial than critical success, and won three Academy Awards. Ignore the story, and enjoy the ride.
Ferrari employees thoroughly enjoyed a special screening of the revved up classic on 21 July at the Museo Enzo Ferrari.