Le mans (1971)
Directed by Lee H. Katzin
Written by Harry Kleiner
Produced by Jack N. Reddish, Alan Levine, Robert E. Relyea
Starring Steve McQueen, Elga Andersen, Siegfried Rauch, Ronald Leigh-Hunt, Christopher Waite, Fred Haltiner, Louise Edlind, Luc Merenda
At least as much a document of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1970 as a human drama, this pet project of its superstar leading man and semi-professional racer finds McQueen as a contender in the “Grand Prix of Endurance and Efficiency,” vying with a frequent German rival (Rauch), and haunted by the death of an Italian competitor a year earlier, to whose widow (Andersen) he gravitates mutually. At Katzin’s behest, DPs René Guissart Jr. and Robert B. Hauser cunningly shot their principal footage from profuse prospects and panoramas during and after the actual event at its picturesque Circuit de la Sarthe, commencing with exhaustive establishing shots of and about the venue, its shoaling spectators, correspondents, medical facilities, pit lanes, sprawling parking lots, a police detail assigned to security, and cramped traffic en route to the race. No conversational dialogue’s uttered during the first half-hour, when industrious preparation by pit crews and drivers alike culminates to a gripping depiction of the standing start exclusive to the ’70 race. During breathers while their alternates race, a Swiss driver (Haltiner) of Porsche’s team moots the prospect of retirement in discourse with his wife (Edlind), Andersen and McQueen reflect on the sport’s hazards and personal significance, and journalists probe their subjects for ancillary insights. Otherwise, the true stars here are sleekly swift Porsche 917s, Ferrari 512s and their functional mock-ups streaking across the circuit’s lengthy straights. On a track that’s claimed no few lives, numerous shunts were spectacularly staged and meticulously cut with intermittent slow-motion effects to evoke crashers’ disoriented kinestheses and emphasize a looming, treacherous, often fatal facet of automotive racing. Close-ups of the drivers and blistering first-person vistas from their cramped seats afford indispensable outlooks adjunct to ample exteriors, along with gorgeous nocturnal shots punctuated by dazzling headlights, periodically accompanied by Michel Legrand’s jazzily jaunty and emotively orchestral music. Like many fine pictures pertaining to marginal sports, McQueen’s and Katzin’s venture suffered commercial failure in ’71, but has since found favor in a cult audience including gearheads, racing enthusiasts and McQueen’s fans, whose appreciation of its authenticity and technique fortify its preeminence as a nonesuch of auto racing cinema.

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