Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Racing films fo the 1960s and early 1970s -- a seminar paper by Andrew Hall











Andrew Hall
Heitmann
HST 485
12/13/10

Racing Films and the Emergence of the Action Thriller
The influence of 1960 auto racing films on the emerging genre of the action thriller cannot be understated. These films include Grand Prix, Le Mans, Winning and Red Line 7000. These titles feature many recognizable A-List Hollywood actors but are not distinguishable for today’s average cinema regular. All of these films were innovative in the techniques they utilized. These techniques mainly surrounded a revolutionary use of cinematography to film the race scenes, which are critical to each film. The development of these techniques represents an important piece of film history. What appears in action thrillers on screen today can be linked to these early racing films. That also is true for the common links that each plot shares. These films can tell the viewer a lot about auto racing, the surrounding society, and society in general during this time period. Many of the same plot elements that appear in these early auto racing films still appear today in films like Gone in 60 Seconds and The Fast and the Furious. Understanding the common links between these films is important to understanding the genre of action thrillers. Although these films are not well known by the average movie viewer, they are an important piece of cinema history because they are at the genesis of the action thriller. These films define what the action thriller is in today’s Hollywood.

Winning (1969)
Winning tells the story of Frank Capua, a rising star in auto racing, who dreams of winning the Indianapolis 500. However, to follow his dream of winning the Indianapolis 500, Capua risks losing his wife to his rival and alienating his stepson. Winning stars Paul Newman as Capua and Joanne Woodward as Capua’s wife, Elora. Joanne Woodward was Paul Newman’s wife and they were becoming an emerging power on Hollywood’s social scene at the time of the film’s release. According to William Wolf of Cue in a review of the film, “Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward are zooming in stature as film world couple.” [1] The film was originally intended as a film that would be seen on NBC. However, changes were made to the original plans and it became a movie intended for theatrical release. The film benefited greatly from Paul Newman’s presence in the film. [2] Critics were very favorable towards the performances that Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward put forth. Variety stated, “Newman underplays his part throughout, resulting in one of his better performances.” [3] Leo Mishkin in the New York Morning Telegraph stated, “Newman and Miss Woodward both invest this formula with the sensitivity and compassion of exquisitely fine performances, as honest, as real and as true as anything either, or both, have ever done.” [4] The film features unique filmmaking techniques and a compelling plot that make Winning a typical action thriller.
Winning benefits from the use of actual footage to help illustrate the film’s intense car scenes as well as excellent cinematography techniques of that time. In the one of the final scenes, Frank Capua is racing in the Indianapolis 500 against his rival, Luther Erding. This scene features a magnificent seventeen-car wreck that allows Capua to win the race. The importance of this scene to the film cannot be understated. Without this scene, Capua does not triumph and, furthermore, the film does not feature the wreck that is typical in many action thrillers. According to University of Dayton Historian John Heitmann, “it was necessary for any ‘real’ action film to contain at least on major chase scene that culminated in a major crash or explosion.” [5] This scene actually features a large amount of real footage that was filmed at the Indianapolis 500 on Memorial Day in 1968. [6] The 1968 Indianapolis 500 featured the seventeen-car crash that appeared in the film. The filmmakers performed a decent job at utilizing this footage and incorporating it into the plot of the film.
Using this footage has two positive benefits for the film. First, using actual footage gives the picture a very real feel. At the time this film was being created, CGI and computer designed stunts did not exist. Filming the actual event for many filmmakers was the most realistic option to achieve the look they desired. Second, filming an actual event instead of creating an event cuts down on the budget immensely. The only items that are costly when filming an actual event are the film and the individuals sent to film it. In this case, the Indianapolis 500 was going to run whether or not a film starring Paul Newman was going to film it or not. The only negative to using actual footage is that the creators of the film lose creative control over all aspects of the film. In Winning, the directors and producers were forced to adapt their plot to accommodate the actual footage they had shot. They may have been more than pleased to incorporate this crash, however, they were controlled by whatever footage they shot on Memorial Day 1968. Winning also utilized the most current techniques available in the late 1960s. According to J.A. Martin and Thomas F. Saal in American Auto Racing: The Milestones and Personalities of a Century of Speed, the techniques used in Winning “…showed the great race from the inside in a way unsurpassed until the advent of the on-board TV camera in the 1980s.” [7] Furthermore, Roger Ebert states in his review of Winning that “The production values are lush. The photography is the most expensive money can buy.” [8] These techniques make Winning extremely innovative for the time it was created. These techniques were influenced by previous films and influenced future films in the action thriller genre. The use of actual footage in Winning to create a large wreck scene demonstrates that it is at the foundation of all action thriller films.
Winning features the plot of an unfaithful marriage, a young man thirsting for a father and an undeniable need to win. At the beginning of the film, Frank Capua is an emerging star in auto racing when he meets Elora, a woman who has been divorced, and her son Charley. There is an instant connection between Capua and Elora. Because of this instant connection, the two marry and Capua offers to adopt Charley. However, the storybook ending is affected by Capua’s infatuation with his racing career. Despite Capua becoming a rising star, he cannot beat his rival Luther Erding. Capua becomes more and more absorbed in auto racing. In doing so, he overlooks his obligations as a husband and a father. Sad and lonely, Elora has a physical affair with Luther Erding, Capua’s rival. Capua discovers the two in bed together and moves to a motel. Sympathizing with his stepfather, Charley hitchhikes to Indianapolis to see Capua race in the Indianapolis 500. Noticing Charley’s love and affection, Frank is inspired to victory in the Indianapolis 500. Recognizing that it was his devotion to racing that made Elora commit adultery, he suggests that they reconcile their marriage. [9] This type of plot, although slightly more complicated than some, is typical in action thrillers. In a film review of Winning, Roger Ebert states, “Well of course he wins the race and gets the girl. You know that to begin with when you go to a movie named Winning that stars Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and is about the Indy 500. The only questions are how does he win the race, how does he get the girl and what difficulties does he have? The rest is familiar territory.” [10] Typically, the action thriller involves overcoming some type of problem and winning the girl over either directly or loosely based on the ability to overcome that problem. In this film, Capua wins the Indianapolis 500 and defeats his rival, Luther Erding. This victory is something that Capua has been attempting to achieve for the entire film. After this victory, Capua reconciles his marriage with Elora. Ebert argues that this plot is no different than thousands of films that have come before it. Winning’s plot is the prototype for the action thriller.
Red Line 7000 (1965)
Red Line 7000 also follows the same type of prototype of the action thriller. In Todd McCarthy’s biography Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, McCarthy states that Hawks wrote in a foreword to the screenplay of Red Line 7000 that, “Red Line 7000 is the story of three men and the women who love them. The three stories have little or no connection except that the men are race drivers. They are those prima donnas who handle incredibly fast combustions of steel and other metals and do it as a virtuoso plays a violin. Racing is the epitome of the dangerous professions, and while in some ways the men are similar in their abilities as men they are vastly different.” [11] Red Line 7000 stars James Caan as Mike Marsh. The film is the creation of Howard Hawks whose reasons for creating the film are under debate. One of the reasons for Howard Hawks creating Red Line 7000 was, “Hawks had been intrigued with the possibility of telling multiple stories in one overall narrative.” [12] According to Paul Helmick, he did this because he “wanted to show that he could make a film without paying John Wayne a million dollars.” [13] The final reason according to Crissy Wellman, who was in Red Line 7000, “he only did it because of his son. Gregg was ten and was into cars, and that’s the only reason he did it.” [14] Despite Hawks reasons for taking on Red Line 7000 as a project, Hawks agreed on a $1.35 million budget for the film. A December 31, 1964 Variety review of Red Line 7000 stated Hawks’ “…troubles lie in limning his various characters in their more intimate moments. Title refers to an engine speed beyond which it's dangerous to operate a race car, perhaps symbolic of what Hawks wanted to achieve in the emotions of his players.” [15] Hawks’ use of innovative filming techniques and creation of the film’s plot make Red Line 7000 an influential action thriller.
Red Line 7000 utilized a partnership with NASCAR to gain large amounts of principal photography. Hawks employed Bruce Kessler because of a short film he made called The Sound of Speed to film actual races. Beginning on July 4, 1964, Kessler began filming several different races. These races included the Firecracker 400 in Daytona, the Southern 500 in Darlington, the National 400 in Charlotte, and the Motor Trend 500 near Los Angeles. Other than a small amount of dialogue scenes, Kessler filmed almost all of the footage on location.[16] It can be argued that the reason for filming in this manner was because of Red Line 7000’s limited budget. Filming actual events creates a large amount of realism and saves thousands of dollars. Similar to Winning, Red Line 7000 properly uses actual footage to help create the real feel that is necessary for the action thriller.
Red Line 7000 features a plot of three racing drivers and the three women who constantly worry about their well-being. In the beginning of the film, Jim Loomis, a member of Pat Cassarian’s racing team, dies in a race before his fiancĂ©e arrives. James Caan’s character, Mike Marsh, and another womanizer Dan McCall are also part of Pat Cassarian’s racing team. The film is similar to the soap opera in the aspect that all characters in the film are involved with each other. All of the individuals in the film either are victorious or meet a deadly demise on the track. In the end of the film, the drivers by the sheer reality of being alive get whatever girl is available to them. The film featured sexual references that are worth noting because they are typical for action thrillers. Prior to filming, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) questioned some of the material that appeared in the original script. When dealing with a discussion surrounding sex, the MPAA stated “pages of dialogue which refer to the boy’s past sex experiences and Julie’s attitude that she desires to be the best sex companion possible. We do not wish to imply here that the problem is one of treatment. In our opinion, the fact that there is a sex relationship between the two could not be approved.” [17] These scenes were eventually altered to meet the MPAA’s demands. However, it is important to note both the original intention of the film and actual scene that appeared in the movie. The action-thriller constantly attempts to push the boundaries of what is accepted regarding sex. This can be viewed in action thrillers that appear on screen today.
Red Line 7000 also features extremely defined sexual gender roles. According to Sexual Sports Rhetoric: Global and Universal Contexts, the author states, “The women in Red Line 7000 never seem to gain respect from the drivers. Julie gets lectured about how she uses ‘bad’ language and is told to code her speech and actions as a ‘girl’ would.” [18] Most action thrillers have these types of gender roles in common. The men are always strong and masculine living their lives on the edge. The women are always beautiful, elegant and lady-like or at least desired to be that way. Red Line 7000 features these prototype roles. Red Line 7000, like Winning, has the same plot elements and proposition. If an individual wins on the track, he will undoubtedly win off the track as well. In this manner, Red Line 7000 is a typical action thriller.
Grand Prix (1966)
Grand Prix is the story of American Grand Prix driver Pete Anon who is fired from his Jordan-BRM racing team because a crash that injures his teammate Scott Stoddard. Grand Prix stars James Garner as Pete Aron. James Garner was one of the large stars during the mid-1960s. MGM released Grand Prix as reserved seat film. A reserved seat film required the customer to pay more for the film than the typical price. This was also referred to the 70mm or “the big picture” category.[19] This led to a great box office success for MGM. [20] Reviews for the film were positive for the technical aspects of Grand Prix. According to Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, Grand Prix “…is a smashing and thundering compilation of racing footage shot superbly at the scenes of the big meets around the circuit, jazzed up with some great photographic trickery.” [21] Grand Prix is extremely innovative in its portrayal of the European racing circuit. The plot follows the same elements that Red Line 7000 and Winning do.
Frankenheimer insistence on filming principally on location creates a realism that was unsurpassed at the time. Pictures About Extremes: The Films of John Frankenheimer author Stephen B. Armstrong writes, “…to intensify the viewers’ experience, to spare them the monotony of simply watching the automobiles speeding about the circuits, Frankenheimer and Lindon shot the races from a variety of angles and distances, using remote controlled cameras which they mounted to the fronts and mid-sections of the cars, as well as several aerial shots which they filmed with helicopters.” [22] These techniques were instrumental in making Grand Prix one of the most visually astounding movies of the mid-1960s. The variations of shots created a realistic feel that racing film prior to Grand Prix has failed to achieve. Frankenheimer and his director of photography Lionel Lindon also utilized the widescreen format to properly portrait life on the track. Stephen B. Armstrong writes, “…the Super Panavision 70 camera system, allowing the director to compose his shots with a super-wide aspect ratio, enabling him to cram the screen with a great deal of images and actions at once.” [23] The film also featured split screen views of the race sequences, which gave a unique view of racing that had not been seen prior to Grand Prix. J.A. Martin and Thomas F. Saal, authors of American Auto Racing: The Milestones and Personalities of a Century of Speed, wrote, “The quality of racing movies took a great step forward in 1966 with John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix. The Cinemascope film with on-board cameras and stars like Jim Garner and Yves Montand doing their own driving brought the viewer into racing as never before.” [24] University of Dayton Historian John Heitmann offers further praise for Grand Prix’s technical achievements. He states, “…use of NASA-developed cameras and microwave systems, monster camera cars that were capable of 150 mph, and helicopters was imitated in other films, and set a benchmark in terms of realism.” [25] Clearly Grand Prix’s technical contributions are numerous and immense. Without the technical contributions of Grand Prix, the action thriller would have failed to evolve into the explosive and high paced films that viewers see in movie theaters world wide today.
The plot of Grand Prix is a typical action thriller plot. Moreover, all of the elements that have been seen in Winning and Red Line 7000 are featured in Grand Prix. However, this may have some foundation. Gerald Pratley, author of The Films of Frankenheimer, writes, “…lives of the drivers seem familiar—waiting women, affairs, broken marriages, the stiff upper lip of the Englishman living in the shadow of his dead brother—but, in view of Frankenheimer’s statement that all these things are based on actual happenings, we can only assume that this is one more case where what we think of as movie stereotypes are, in fact, real-life happenings and people.” [26] The film begins with the first race of the season. Pete Aron, played by James Garner, causes the crash and severe injury of his teammate, Scott Stoddard. Aron is fired due to this accident. However, Aron finds a new companion in Stoddard’s wife who is tired of her husband chasing the memory of his former world champion dead brother. A Japanese team eventually offers Aron a contract to race for them. Stoddard begins racing again despite his injuries. The two gentlemen are up for the championship at the conclusion of the film. Aron beats Stoddard in an extremely close finish. The consolation prize for Stoddard is his reconciliation with his wife. The plot features some type of love affair and intense desires for victory on the track. Although Frankenheimer’s comments about the basis of the story are interesting, they cannot altogether be verified. Bosley Crowther, New York Times film critic, writes, “It is too bad the auto racing drivers in John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix aren’t as cool and sensible about their women as they are about their machines.” [27] This statement is not only true about Grand Prix but many action thrillers in general.
Le Mans (1971)
Although Grand Prix set the standard for auto racing films, Le Mans is a faster and more intense film. Obviously, the techniques utilized in Grand Prix, which was completed in 1966, were improved by the June 1971 release of Le Mans. It is the story of the 24-hour endurance race and two teams vying to win it. Le Mans was filmed primary on location. The production manager, Hubert Froehlich, erected what was known as Solar Village. Solar Village featured a restaurant for the cast and crew, offices and storage sheds. The film was a Solar Production and was financed by Cinema Center Films, the movie production branch of CBS. The budget was around $7.5 million. [28] Tim Satchell, author of McQueen, writes, “With $7.5 million invested in the movie, they weren’t having McQueen driving. He was furious, but his protests were in vain. They were a C.B.S. subsidiary, and couldn’t justify that kind of risk with shareholders’ money.” [29] This was obviously devastating for a car enthusiast like Steve McQueen. Like Grand Prix, Le Mans was hailed for its technical achievements but critics found the story lacking depth. A New York Times film review stated, “…the star’s [McQueen] exchange of monosyllabic utterances and long, meaningful stares with other drivers, and especially with Elga Andersen, a sensitive-faced blonde, add up to tepid, monotonous drama during the two-day race intervals.” However, the success of this film is not measured in the plot but in the cinematic excellence displayed in the racing sequences. Le Mans furthered on the technical success that Grand Prix had created.
Le Mans’ use of multiple cameras and car equipped with cameras to be used for point-of-view shots make the film the premiere cinematic piece of the early auto racing films. Casey St. Charnez, author of The Films of Steve McQueen, states that, “…using 19 cameras spread over the course and a Porsche 908 equipped with three cameras to shoot POV, both for the simulation and for the actual race.” [30] The use of nineteen cameras allowed for a variety of shots similar to Grand Prix. The number of camera gives Le Mans a much faster edge than Grand Prix. The use of the Porsche 908 is also influential in making Le Mans a technical achievement. The creation of the point-of-view (POV) also helped make Le Mans edgier than Grand Prix. The significance of the POV shot is the audience sees what the driver is seeing. This adds another layer to the already complex race sequences. Overall, Le Mans is a fantastic achievement in cinematography. St. Charnez writes, “The race footage is professional, knowledgeable, and exciting, edited with an razor-sharp blade. The crashes are thrilling, captured with 14 cameras, three of them running in slow-motion. And the POV shots are dazzling…” [31] Le Mans is the best of the auto racing films in the 1960s and early 1970s for its technical achievements.
The plot of Le Mans is no different than other auto racing films of this period. The film features a duel between the German Erich Stahler and the American Michael Delaney. Michael Delaney, played by Steve McQueen, is under colossal pressure because in the prior year’s race Delaney was responsible for the death of his friend Lisa’s husband. A long and almost documentary like break down of the race occurs. Delaney ends up placing second but ahead of the German Erich Stahler. At the conclusion of the film, Erich Stahler and Michael Delaney salute the crowd. Delaney then goes to Lisa after saluting the crowd. Le Mans, like Winning, Red Line 7000 and Grand Prix involve some type of the victory on the track. In this case, Delaney is able to defeat the German Erich Stahler. Like all of the other films, Delaney gets the girl in the end based on his on track performance. Also like many other action thrillers, the action overtakes the story completely. New York Daily News critic Kathleen Carroll writes, “Appears to be an excuse for Steve McQueen to indulge his passion for auto racing. There is no attempt at characterization. The dialogue is dreadful.” [32] Furthermore, New York Times film critic Howard Thompson states, “Dramatically, the picture is a bore. And neither the oblique approach to these time-out sequences nor a ripe score by Michel Legrand manages to juice things up.” [33] These two reviews are less than decent to Le Mans. The brilliance of Le Mans and other action thrillers is not in the story but the cars and action that always ensues because of the story.

Conclusion
The significance of these four films is found mainly in the technological advancements that each film made. The plots of these four films are all very similar. Both of these aspects can be seen today in action thrillers. The majority of action thrillers feature large action scenes. The use of on-board cameras by these four films undoubtedly influences how they film these scenes today. These films also have influenced writers. The plots of films today are definitely related to these four films. The plots are extremely simple. The stars of the film always have an attractive proper lady in love with them, do something to lose them and then eventually win them over again. The plight of the star and his love is always related to his performance in something. In these films, it is performance on the track. The impact that these films had on this genre is profound.














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Crowther, Bosley. "Screen: Flag Down At Warner for 'Grand Prix'." Dec. 22, 1966. http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did=82547023&sid=1&Fmt=1&clientId=3954&RQT=309&VName=HNP (accessed Oct. 29, 2010).
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Quirk, Lawrence A. The Films of Paul Newman. Secaucus: Citadel Press, 1981.
Satchell,Tim. McQueen. London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1981.
St. Charnez, Casey. The Films of Steve McQueen. Secaucus: Citadel Press, 1984.
Thompson, Howard. "Steve McQueen, a Racing-Car Buff, Sets Pace In 'Le Mans'." June 24, 1971.http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did=81951998&sid=3&Fmt=2&clientId=3954&RQT=309&VName=HNP (accessed Oct. 29, 2010).
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"Red Line 7000." Variety, Dec. 31, 1964.

[1] Quirk, Lawrence A. The Films of Paul Newman. Secaucus: Citadel Press, 1981.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Heitmann, John. The Automobile and American Life. Jefferson: McFarland, 2009.
[6] Quirk, Lawrence A. The Films of Paul Newman. Secaucus: Citadel Press, 1981.

[7] Martin, J.A. American Auto Racing: the Milestones and Personalities of a Century of Speed. Jefferson: McFarland, 2004
[8] Ebert, Roger. "Winning." May 20, 1969. http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19690520/REVIEWS/905200301/1023 (accessed Oct. 29, 2010).
[9] Quirk, Lawrence A. The Films of Paul Newman. Secaucus: Citadel Press, 1981.
[10] Ebert, Roger. "Winning." May 20, 1969. http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19690520/REVIEWS/905200301/1023 (accessed Oct. 29, 2010).
[11] McCarthy, Todd. Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood. New York: Grove Press, 1997.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] "Red Line 7000." Variety, Dec. 31, 1964.
[16] McCarthy, Todd. Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood. New York: Grove Press, 1997.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Sexual Sports Rhetoric: Global and Universal Contexts. Linda K. Fuller. New York: Peter Lang, 2010.
[19] Pratley, Gerald. The Films of Frankenheimer. Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press, 1998.
[20] Armstrong, Stephen B. Pictures About Extremes: the Films of John Frankenheimer. Jefferson: McFarland, 2008.
[21] Crowther, Bosley. "Screen: Flag Down At Warner for 'Grand Prix'." Dec. 22, 1966. http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did=82547023&sid=1&Fmt=1&clientId=3954&RQT=309&VName=HNP (accessed Oct. 29, 2010).
[22] Armstrong, Stephen B. Pictures About Extremes: the Films of John Frankenheimer. Jefferson: McFarland, 2008.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Martin, J.A. American Auto Racing: the Milestones and Personalities of a Century of Speed. Jefferson: McFarland, 2004
[25] Heitmann, John. The Automobile and American Life. Jefferson: McFarland, 2009.
[26] Pratley, Gerald. The Films of Frankenheimer. Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press, 1998.
[27] Crowther, Bosley. "Screen: Flag Down At Warner for 'Grand Prix'." Dec. 22, 1966. http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did=82547023&sid=1&Fmt=1&clientId=3954&RQT=309&VName=HNP (accessed Oct. 29, 2010).
[28] Keyser, Michael. A French Kiss With Death: Steve McQueen and the Making of LeMans The Man-The Race-The Cars-The Movie. Cambridge: Bentley, 1999.
[29] Satchell, Tim. McQueen. London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1981.
[30] St. Charnez, Casey. The Films of Steve McQueen. Secaucus: Citadel Press, 1984.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Ibid.

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