In his 1997 memoir, Burning the Days, screenwriter James Salter recalls telling Robert Redford that he planned to model the Downhill Racer on Billy Kidd, an American competing at the 1968 Grenoble Olympics. Redford, according to Salter, “shook his head, no.” He wanted his skier to resemble instead Spider Sabich, one of Kidd’s lesser-known teammates whose “reputation seemed to be based on his having broken his leg six or seven times.” Redford and Salter compromised. David Chappellet, the titular hot dog, shares a hardscrabble background with Kidd, but on the slopes he has the same aggressive style as Sabich; he spends a portion of the movie in traction.
One of the least conventional sports films ever made, Downhill Racer (1969) isn’t another movie about an athlete rising to the top, or worse, staging a comeback, though both of those plot devices are called upon. In keeping with the usual themes of Salter (a moonlighting novelist’s novelist) the story concerns a mildly unlikable man driven by an ambition that is total. Chappellet wants to win, not at any cost, but only on his own showboat terms.
Redford, 32 at the time and an Adonis, was already the break out darling, two months earlier, of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Mr. Sundance Festival, perhaps reading the tea leaves, is exquisite in the way he appreciates the opaque surfaces of his own beauty. At this stage in his career, he works perfectly as the archetypical Salter striver. Redford/Chappellet loves/hates the luxury goods, the clothes, the fame and the women that accrue with his victories. Gene Hackman, excellent as the stereotypical coach, responds in subdued conniptions.
Criterion will finally issue Downhill Racer on DVD in November, but it’s worth attending this rare screening for the alpine action sequences alone, which director Michael Ritchie stages like a budding auteur. Ritchie would go on to make two seminal 1970s American studio pics, The Candidate (also with a peak-form Redford) and The Bad News Bears. In Downhill Racer, Ritchie hones his cynical sense of humor. In the final scene, a ski competition doesn’t go quite the way a prematurely triumphant Redford expects it to.
Downhill Racer screens tonight at BAM’s Robert Redford series.