A guest post by Patrick Andrews
I don’t know why I love this film so much. It’s essentially a documentary – but without any more information than can be gleaned from the advertising hoardings flashing past at 225 mph (kph hadn’t even been invented then). Dunlop, Ferodo, Castrol, Firestone, Girling, Lucas…
Set in 1970s France, it’s nominally about a 24 hours race around a rural road circuit. The central character, Delaney, is played by Steve McQueen (who represented the US in the 1968 Olympic staring team after having won a Frowning blackbelt in the Marine Corps).
It’s 30 minutes before anyone says anything and then it’s not exactly gripping. The music is forgettable and that Tannoy is as annoying as a TV commentator who describes only what can be seen on screen. McQueen’s plot development was several fronds short of a Palme d’Or. “Cars,” he apparently told the crew, “we film the f***ing cars.”
Beyond that, though, it’s cinematic perfection.
I always find the ambient noise in this movie is genuinely exciting – reminding me of engines heard in childhood. That ripping-calico sound of high compression machines in an era when ‘green’ only existed as a postfix to ‘racing’. Pale blue and orange (yuck) Gulf Porsche 917s blast around day and night in their brand-war rivalry with Ferrari. It looks real. Everyone is suitably sleepless and sooty. McQueen even had dead insects glued to his windscreen, then, after a lot of staring, declared ‘No – wrong kind of bugs.’
The most evocative section of the entire film is pre-race, when McQueen drives the course alone on an early Summer morning in the slate grey 911s he bought as a production runabout. He looks utterly at home behind the wheel and there is a marvellous sense of the unsuspecting countryside: the calm before the storm. In reality, the storm also included numerous fallings-out with the studio as well as his retinue of 30 or so hairdressers and gardeners. There was a move to substitute Robert Redford (good at staring, but no petrol head) and several people were actually hurt in crashes during filming.
It was a time when the dangers of racing were seen as a raison d’être. Following this theme, the Delaney character had somehow contributed to the death of a driver the previous year – a driver whose wife is now mysteriously attending this year’s event, but who seems to be largely immune to Mr McQ’s gruff charms. Her main function is as recipient of a few flashed smiles, stares and the most quoted line in a very tight-lipped script: