It’s hard to say where this film ranks in the history of car racing movies. The fact is, no one’s really been able to crack this genre, specifically the two other films from the same era, John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix and Winning starring Paul Newman. The only value we can find in Le Mans is the undeniable enigmatic charisma of Steve McQueen and his well-documented love for racing.
Le Mans (1971) dir. Lee H. Katzin
Starring: Steve McQueen, Elga Anderson, Siegfried Rauch, Ronald Leigh-Hunt
By Alan Bacchus
Le Mans is the third of this late '60s/early '70s racing trilogy of sorts. There’s a strict adherence to racing realism in this picture, purposely eschewing any semblance of a story for a distinct vérité documentary-like feel. The first 30 minutes of the film is one long preparation scene, building up to the start of the Le Mans race. There’s almost no dialogue, save for the announcer telling the crowd, and thus the audience, the rules of Le Mans. It’s actually a very clever way to dance around the necessary exposition of the film, but the drawn out excessiveness of this opening is just too much to bear.
The only story going on is told in the opening pre-credit sequence. We learn of Michael Delaney (McQueen), an American driver psychologically burdened by the death of his Italian rival, Piero Belgetti, and the mysterious attachment to Belgetti’s girlfriend. In the present, the entire film is about the race and the race only. The reverence for the psychology of the racers and creating an existential mythologization of their lifestyle is clearly brought across on screen. The racers are treated like Roman gladiators, pandered to by beautiful women and looked after by their slave-like female servants before venturing into their respective arenas of danger and death. Unfortunately, the drama of the race notwithstanding, without inter-character conflict, the movie falls flat.
There are two reasons why we should care about Le Mans. The first is Steve McQueen, the iconic actor and racing fan whose passion project this was. His crow’s feet eyes, messy blond hair, striking blue eyes and general elusiveness are Hollywood superstar-personified. Unfortunately, he can’t get by solely on his handsomeness, as Katzin’s staid tone results in lifelessness in his character. And the European actors playing his fellow drivers also suffer the same fate.
The other point of relevance is the race scenes, which are shot with porno-like allure for the vehicles. For strict authenticity, real cars and real locations were used during a real Le Mans race. The cameras rigged to the actual cars accentuate the feeling of speed these drivers experience. But John Frankenheimer also did this (and better) in Grand Prix.
Cinema nostalgics of the '60s and '70s will get a kick out of the frolicking and bouncy score, as well as the equally funky crash-camera zooms, off-kilter sharp editing and grainy film stock. But ultimately, Le Mans is for McQueen aficionados and Euro-racing gear heads.
Le Mans is available on Blu-ray from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment.