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Review - Grand Prix Special Edition (DVD-2006)
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Grand Prix 2-Disc Special Edition (DVD-2006)

Warner Home Video

Reviewed by Dennis Kwiatkowski

 

Modern-day filmgoers may think of an ‘event’ film as something like Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, or one of the Lord of the Rings films, or Superman Returns.  But the true event film goes back to at least the 1950’s and 1960’s with 70mm, six-track stereo super-productions such as Lawrence of Arabia, The Sound of Music, Ben-Hur and other such films, where images of spectacular clarity were matched with awesome sound in presentations of consummate showmanship.

 

One such ‘event’ film now available on DVD for the first time is the 1966 single-lens Cinerama production of Grand Prix, director John Frankenheimer’s story of four drivers, the women they love and the insatiable drive to win the Grand Prix championship. Featuring astonishing race-car sequences filmed at actual Grand Prix races in Monaco, Belgium, France and Holland, to name just a few of the locations, Grand Prix provided a ‘you are there in the driver’s seat’ visceral experience which had never been seen before and which has not been equaled to this day.

 

The mammoth production was fraught with risks and complexity.  The director employed the world’s supply of 70mm cameras, mounted on swooping helicopters and affixed to the actual Formula One racing cars themselves.  The actors had to attend race-car driving school and do the actual driving in the film themselves—something that could never be done today—for insurance reasons alone—but which adds incredible realism to the film.

 

The elaborate, artistic and poetic use of split-screen and multiple-screen photography (accomplished well before the era of digital effects) was another innovation pioneered in Grand Prix which has influenced subsequent movies.  Particular attention was also paid to the film’s sound design which pushed the envelope in every way —ambient racing sounds and motor sounds were used by the director as one might use music. And the engine sounds and gear shifting of each race car were individually recorded and matched in the complex racing sequences with exquisite precision.  It is no wonder the film won three Oscars for its extraordinary sound, its editing, and its sound effects editing.

 

James Garner stars as racing driver Pete Aron, a part originally intended for Steve McQueen.  But McQueen’s unavailability was a stroke of great luck.  Garner completely claims the role and gives an archetypal performance.  He is aided by an excellent ensemble cast which includes Yves Montand, Brian Bedford, Eva Marie Saint, Antonio Sabato, Jessica Walters and Toshiro Mifune. 

 

The lean, brilliant and underrated music score by Maurice Jarre prefigures composer John Williams with its use of trumpets and Wagnerian counterpoint.  After Grand Prix premiered, fans of the film wore out their vinyl records of the soundtrack album through repeated playings--the score is that infectious.  It is impossible to imagine Grand Prix without Jarre’s towering film score.

 

Warner Home Video’s 2-disc Special Edition DVD of Grand Prix also contains multiple documentaries as extras which detail the enormity of director Frankenheimer’s accomplishment.  The director sought to do something different and exciting with this film.  If there is unevenness in the film’s drama and if its director occasionally overreaches in his gargantuan production, it is compensated for by many great moments of filmmaking in this unique achievement. 

 

The film transfer from the original 65mm elements is absolutely astonishing with a restored image of such clarity, and with a soundtrack so superbly remastered, that this is the closest one is likely to get to the Cinerama experience on a televison screen.  Still considered to be the greatest racing film ever made, Grand Prix loses none of its power or impact  in its DVD debut.

 

 

2006 Dennis Kwiatkowski/Celluloid Dreams

 

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