[box cover]

Le Mans

There are two things you have to love with equal ardor before settling down to watch Le Mans (1971) — Steve McQueen and racing cars. And that can't be too tough. A labor of love for McQueen at the time, Le Mans was an attempt to out-do John Frankenheimer's 1966 Grand Prix, a movie Frankenheimer wanted McQueen to headline rather than the less-engaging James Garner. There was nary a script, but director John Sturges was attached to the project at first (he helmed McQueen in The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape). McQueen himself had plenty of experience racing cars. And with that, the actor got his film green-lighted. McQueen certainly wanted the picture to moderately successful (at least), but he also was happy to work with machinery that could surpass 200 MPH. However, Sturges bailed midway through the project, to be replaced by the less-distinguished Lee Katzin. McQueen took a bath on the financing and the picture finally wrapped, only to be met with bad reviews and poor box-office returns. However, as with most "misunderstood" films, Le Mans has gained a cult following over the years. Pulling off something like Haskell Wexler's techniques in Medium Cool (blending documentary filmmaking with acting), albeit without the political themes, Le Mans is exactly about what its title states — the famed French auto race that runs for 24 hours. And not much else. The movie is almost shockingly experimental. In fact, it takes a good half-hour before we hear the film's protagonist (McQueen) utter a line of dialogue. But that's all to the taste of fans who enjoy watching the handsome, über-cool blonde stare at things (McQueen could do so much with his eyes), and the fast, beautiful cars don't hurt either. The weed-thin plot has McQueen playing Mike Delaney (the script should have just named him Steve McQueen), a racecar driver who's recovered from an accident suffered at Le Mans the previous year. The widow of another driver (Elga Andersen) enters the picture, but not wholeheartedly; spending time with Delaney, she questions why men live such lives of danger. Meanwhile, Erich Sthaler (Siegfried Rauch) is Delaney's chief competition. If you're looking for a rich story, you won't find one in Le Mans. But that's much of the film's charm — its absolutely streamlined and gives most of its attention to the cars, as does the audience. With terrific racing sequences and impressive wrecks, the spectacle is thrilling, while larger issues (the appetite for danger, the penchant for self-destruction) loom over the enterprise. It's an arduous race through the French countryside that tests a driver's technical abilities, but also his own personal will, and it's clear that the competition requires a certain type of man. Though not an existential car noir masterpiece like Monte Hellman's Two Lane Blacktop or Walter Hill's The Driver, Le Mans is something of an intriguing anomaly that pricks up our ears up towards the audible differences between cars (even a novice can discern a Porsche). Paramount Home Video presents a pristine anamorphic transfer (2.35:1), revealing that it was made for the big screen and DVD. The important audio mix (which is excellent in this film) comes in Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby 2.0 Stereo (English), and Dolby 2.0 mono (French), all vast improvements over VHS versions, and English subtitles are available. Sadly, there are no extras, which is a shame since a film this classically cultish and specific demands some sort commentary or at least a mini-doc. Surely there are some professional drivers out there who would have been happy to contribute something. Keep-case.
—Kim Morgan



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