Ford vs. Ferrari / Le Mans ’66 (2019) *****

So good that immediately on finishing a screening I pressed the re-watch button. But then this proved such compulsive viewing on original release that I saw it at the cinema four times in as many weeks. High-octane pedal-to-the-metal drama that easily takes the chequered flag from such illustrious predecessors as Grand Prix (1966), Le Mans (1971) and Rush (2103).

Astonishing racing footage is matched by a gripping narrative of ambition and revenge played out at the highest level by a quartet of terrific performances. Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), humiliated by competitors in the domestic market and thwarted by his plan to take over Ferrari, decides to steal the Italian giant’s crown at Le Mans, the 24-hour race considered then the pinnacle of motor racing achievement rather than Grand Prix.

He hires Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), the only American winner of Le Mans, who now runs a sports racing construction business and in turn he recruits maverick English driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Putting a spanner in the works at every possibly opportunity is oily Ford top executive Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) who constantly shifts the goalposts because he’s just mean that way or to win commercial advantage. Driven as much by personality conflict as anything else,  the narrative pivots on Shelby shouldering the job of placating both big business and his maniac driver while outmanoeuvring all in sight to achieve his goals.

Jargon overload should be the kiss of death but that bold decision to involve the viewer in the minor and major technicalities of motor sport – proven and unproven techniques such as applying strips of paper to a car or battering the car boot with a hammer to increase its capacity and so comply with an arcane rule – pays off big time so that the picture can actually cover in greater depth the reality of running a racing team. Winning can be a matter of millimetres, tiny alterations amounting to massive differences during a race.

And it helps the narrative thrust that Le Mans is a single race rather Grand Prix or Nascar where over a season inevitably attention and excitement will sag. Other races are easily accommodated because they are vital to the end result, either in personal or technical terms. This is the ultimate battle against the odds, not just novice Americans taking on the big boys  of Italy, but the ageing driver needing to prove himself again and again and the constructor sometimes giving in, sometimes not, to big business.

It’s pretty difficult to retain audience involvement with the competitors masked up but (as Top Gun: Maverick would later prove) little works better than having your half-hidden driver (or pilot) reveal his emotions by talking to the machine, providing a commentary on the action, though Miles’s favoured expression of “giddy-up” may not qualify as a technical term.

Interestingly enough, the principals are all indifferent, not to say occasionally shady, businessmen, Henry Ford II laboring in the shadow of his father, the repair shop run by Miles shut down by the taxman, Shelby selling the same car over and over to multiple buyers. But this is a richness of character rarely seen in action films, flaws usually restricted to sexual or alcoholic peccadilloes. Nor is there any sign of the old trope of wife/lover unable to watch drivers race, and marriages/relationships buckling under that pressure. Instead Miles’ wife Mollie (Catriona Balfe) rejoices in his skills while Henry Ford II clearly has a string of lovers.

The contrast between the romance and the reality of speed is no better expressed than when Ford is taken for a spin by Shelby or between the devil-may-care and the safe than when Shelby takes control of an aeroplane.

So many internal obstacles, Beebe’s manoeuvrings for a start, remain to be overcome never mind complications on the track that it is pretty much one twist after another with one awful ironic twist left for the climax of the race.

Christian Bale (Thor: Love and Thunder, 2022)  picked up most of the acting plaudits, nominated for a Golden Globe, but I thought Matt Damon, Tracy Letts and Josh Lucas ran him close. Damon (The Last Duel, 2021) delivers a restrained performance that occasionally cuts loose to reveal the carefully camouflaged daredevil. Letts (Lady Bird, 2017), better known to me as a playwright, brings the right mixture of arrogance and power. One-time matinee idol Josh Lucas (A Beautiful Mind, 2001) eases back on the shit-eating grin and is one of the most self-righteous business bad guys you could encounter.

Sterling turns also from Jon Bernthal (Those Who Wish Me Dead, 2021) as Lee Iacocca (who later wrote a book about brilliant he was, although there’s little evidence of that here); Catriona Balfe (Belfast, 2021) and Noah Jupe (A Quiet Place, 2018) as her son. Special mentions for Ray Mackinnon (News of the World, 2020) as Shelby’s number two and Remo Girone (The Right to Happiness, 2021) as Enzo Ferrari.

Distinguished career as director James Mangold has enjoyed  – from Walk the Line (2005) and 3.10 to Yuma (2007) to Logan (2007) – this has to be the peak, brilliantly bringing the human side into a movie that could easily have concentrated on the machines. He drew on an equally brilliant screenplay by Jez Butterworth (Spectre, 2015), John-Henry Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow, 2014) and Jason Keller (Escape Plan, 2013).

Viva Las Vegas (1964) / Love in Las Vegas ***

Screen chemistry, a great racing sequence and some good songs set alight this typical Presley vehicle. Unlike previous recording giants Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley had not made much attempt to be anything other than himself on screen, nor elevated his status by taking on adaptations of hit Broadway shows, so his movies tended to need a certain extra something to set them apart, if only from his other pictures  – he was churning them out at the rate of three or four a year. The certain something, a whole bag of je ne sais quoi, came in the shape of Ann-Margret.

Garage mechanic Lucky (Elvis Presley), a racing driver wannabe, gets the hots for Rusty (Ann-Margret) after he tunes up her car. Chasing her to Las Vegas where she is a swimming instructor rather than a hot-shot performer, he takes a job as a hotel waiter. He has a rival, both in driving and romance, in Count Emo Mancini (Cesare Danova). Initially, Rusty  brushes Lucky and even when they get closer she fears getting too close since the consequences of falling in love with a man who chases danger are obvious.

There’s no danger of a picture like this straying from the most obvious path and helping fill in the screen time are nods to tourism, excerpts from Vegas shows, some water ski-ing and a helicopter ride over the Boulder Dam (Rusty supplying an earnest educational lecture). There is some lackluster comedy and not much in the way of subplot.

The race is well done for the times (i.e. pre-Grand Prix, 1966) with plenty of crashes, and it looks realistic enough although probably the cars were speeded up in the cameras.

But the pairing is dynamite. Rusty, all sizzle, smoky eyes and pout, dances Presley off the screen. She has the curves and she has the moves. Not a great deal of acting is required by either – they were in the early throes of an affair – but Rusty, a homely girl after all, keeps her sexuality in check long enough to hook her suitor.

The title song – shot in one take – is a winner but what lingers in the memory is the dazzling choreography (involving multiple camera) for Lucky’s dance numbers. And Lucky dancing. Only so many ways to say that that woman can shake her booty, but she shakes it in so many different ways the outcome is sensational.

But in the end just as dancing in an Ann-Margret picture was never enough to hit the box office heights so singing, except in his first screen forays, was not enough to create the longest queues for a Presley picture. Although previous Presley movies had featured the likes of Ursula Andress (Fun in Acapulco, 1963) and Stella Stevens (Girls! Girls! Girls!, 1963) none had the impact of Ann-Margret.

Perhaps fearful that audiences might respond more to his co-star, Ann-Margret’s musical contribution was limited. The pair performed a duet on one number, “The Lady Loves Me” – two other duets were recorded but dropped from the film – and she contributed two solo songs. By comparison, Presley was accorded eight solos. The theory being, I suppose, that audiences had come to hear Presley sing. And that might have been correct, in theory, but once the public saw Ann-Margret on screen they would surely have been calling for more.

It was both the shortest film of Presley’s career and the highest grossing. While Ann-Margret was entitled to have her name above the title – not equal billing as some would have it since his name came first (equal would have put them in alphabetical order) – some cinemas took matters into their own hands and on the marquees, over which studios could exert no contractual control, put Ann-Margret’s name first.

Perhaps more interesting was the question of career development. Presley kept on doing the same old stuff until Charro (1969) by which point it was too late to save his career. Within a year, however, she was moving on to more serious roles such as Once a Thief (1965) and The Cincinnati Kid (1965).   

Taking the helm was veteran George Sidney who had directed Ann-Margret in Bye Bye Birdie (1962) and was also responsible for Pal Joey (1957), Show Boat (1951)  and Anchors Aweigh (1945). He could have done this kind of picture in his sleep, so all credit to him that he brought it to such life.

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