Downhill Racer (1969) ***

Idealising heroes is endemic. Most films which portray sport stars with feet of clay generally start off with an attractive personality who presses the self-destruct button through alcohol, sex or drugs (or all three) such as Number One (1969) with Charlton Heston. The general consensus is that this approach to the sports movie was not rescinded until the brutal boxer exposed in Scorsese’s The Raging Bull (1980). But it turns out Scorsese was not the first.

Downhill Racer is a character study of a loner who cares for no-one but himself. Alienated from his father, his girlfriend at home treated as little more than a sex object, a constant source of friction for his national team manager (a pre-chuckle Gene Hackman) and not above the kind of dirty tricks as typified in Slap Shot (1977) he sees nothing wrong with making no bones about the fact that he is in the game for fame. He has no illusions, he’s a farm boy and few steps up from being illiterate.

That Paramount had little faith in the project was shown by the Pressbook. It was a mere eight pages long when 16-plus pages were devoted to other pictures. There was no mention of the startling success of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” released a few months before. Its limited appeal was shown by the fact there were only two adverts, both very artistic, whereas most movies had at least half a dozen different variations to help cinemas market the movie to their specific audiences. And there was but a single tag-line “how far must a man go to get from where he’s at.” Studio marketeers had managed to drum up just two promotions, both fashion-led, a six-page section in “Glamour” magazine and five pages in “Ski” magazine. A better bet was the accompanying two-page advertising supplement showing the movie had scored excellent reviews from “Time”, “Life”, “Newsweek” and the “New York Times.”

His only attractive feature is that he is played by Robert Redford, and the film plays upon the conceit that as handsome a man as this will at some point turn into a good guy.  There’s an interesting debate – and one that would last decades – about whether Redford’s looks got in the way of the characters he portrayed. Imagine Robert Duvall in the part, for instance, and relentless determination would not be called into question. This leaves the film with only pity as a way to give the character any sympathy, which duly occurs when his hopes of genuine romance with a top-notch blonde (Camilla Sparv) are dashed. 

Michael Ritchie, making his directing debut, opts for a documentary-style approach, so minimalist it’s almost perfunctory. This is a decent option given there’s very little going on beyond lonely hotel rooms, and an endless round of competitions and an occasional outburst from Hackman. Less welcome is his decision to fall back on television commentators to fill us in on exactly where we are geographically and specifically regarding individual competitions.

The film’s biggest drawback is that the skiing scenes, sensational at the time, offer little on the small screen. But at least they were competently done. Ritchie drew on a number of experts in that department: German racer Heini Schuler, Swiss team members Peter Rohr and Arnold Alpigger and ski instructors Marco Valli and Rudi Gertsch. Former U.S. Olympic team member Rip McManus turns up as an on-camera commentator. Although it gained good reviews, audiences failed to respond although Redford was on a career high after Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). But it was a brave choice for the actor.

And it was the start of his producing career. The film had been a stop-start project at Paramount and when the studio continued to dither Redford set up Wildwood with Richard Gregson, husband of Natalie Wood with whom Redford had appeared in Inside Daisy Clover (1965) and This Property Is Condemned (1966).

Assignment K (1968) ****

By the mid-1960s the screen was awash with spies so other than trying to invent a new hero in the Matt Helm/Derek Flint vein or revamping older characters such as Bulldog Drummond  or sending up the entire genre in the style of Casino Royale (1967), it was difficult to find a fresh angle.

Assignment K does in some measure succeed, in part by going down the grimy  route of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), in part by stuffing the picture full of glorious scenery – the Austrian Alps – and in part by turning Stephen Boyd into the kind of spy who has begun to question the entire business. For reasons unspecified, former racing driver turned toy salesman Boyd is running his own spy operation loosely linked into British intelligence but when the network is compromised his life and that of new love interest Camilla Sparv is endangered. Things get trickier when she is kidnapped and HE has to save her while not compromising his own agents.

There is enough mystery to keep the plot, uncoiling like Russian dolls, ticking along and the entire effort is underwritten by some decent tradecraft, dead letter drops, microfilm hidden inside cigarette filters and so on. tension is surprisingly high. And Boyd is surprisingly human, falling properly in love for one thing, not just treating women in the James Bond/Matt Helm fashion as notches on a bedpost, not ice-cool under pressure either, face knotting in fury on occasion, and not so accomplished in the old fisticuffs department.

Michael Redgrave, Leo McKern and a pre-Please, Sir John Alderton provide decent support though Jeremy Kemp is somewhat subdued. But Boyd is a revelation, given a lot more to do than stick out his chin and growl. Here, his screen charm and charisma is at its best and while he was never going to attract the attention of the Oscar fraternity is entirely believable as a spy coming to wonder at decisions taken.

Sparv, too, is much better than I have ever seen her. Unlike her turn in Murderers Row (1966), her role is not merely decorative and the unfolding romance would work perfectly well just as a love story never mind tucked away in the guise of a spy thriller. There is a lovely demonstration of her acting skill, although an odd one to describe, as she pulls on a bathrobe and shimmies out of the towel underneath; I can’t believe that was ever scripted, but if you watch it you will see what I mean.  

Director Val Guest was usually labelled a “journeyman” despite a repertoire that included The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and its sequel, Yesterday’s Enemy (1959) and sci-fi The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) and he had previous form in this genre with Where the Spies Are (1966) which played more to the comedy gallery and did some work on Casino Royale to boot. His work here falls into the efficient category, but it does zip along at the same time as allowing Boyd and Sparv to develop their characters and make their relationship believable. All in all quite enjoyable.