Niki Lauda 22nd February 1949 – 20th May 2019

I’ve been through a lot and I realize the future can’t be controlled. I’m not worried. You can always learn to overcome difficulties.  Iconic racer Niki Lauda has died aged 70. For those of us obsessed with motor sports this brings a tear to our eyes. Lauda’s clinical approach to engineering ensured his success given the right team and backing. His miraculous return to Formula 1 just six weeks after surviving the German Grand Prix at Nurburgring in 1976 when he received third-degree burns in a horrific crash is one of the legends of sporting history and it led to that track’s closure. That story is told in documentary The Green Hell; while his contemporary rivalry with James Hunt is dramatised in widescreen movie Rush and their personality clash is one of the reasons the sport became such a global hit in its third decade. He is the only racer to win the World Championship for both Ferrari and McLaren and for that alone he is in the history books. A keen pilot and a successful businessman with his own airline, he could be seen until very recently in the paddock on race weekends, ready to speak to the media pack about Mercedes where he was the non-executive chairman. The toxic fumes that damaged his lungs in 1976 led to a transplant last summer and he has finally succumbed, 43 years after receiving the last rites. His fighting spirit is an example to us all, his courage unparalleled.  He was some kind of man. Race to the stars, Niki.

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Williams: Formula 1 In The Blood (2017)

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The accident didn’t just happen to Frank, it happened to everybody. Frank Williams’ career as an F1 team boss didn’t quite end in 1986 as his eponymous team was cresting towards major success but his mobility was brought to a crashing conclusion at a wall in the South of France when he was rushing to the airport to get back home to England. He was in and out of consciousness for six weeks after snapping his spine in two and became a quadriplegic overnight.  His team would come visit him at the London Hospital to regale a man barely alive about the latest intra-team spats between Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell simply to try and keep him going. The man who ran 12 miles a day and competed in marathons was subsequently confined to a wheelchair. This revolves around his refusal to engage with his family’s desire to come to terms with the horrific accident and how they handled it – he simply never mentioned it and got on with things, unable to share a bed with wife Ginny and looked after by a 24/7 carer. Ginny wrote a book (A Different Kind of Life) in 1991 which she recorded in secret with the help of a writer friend. The conflict in the film is this: Frank has never read it while his daughter Claire, now team boss (and says I never expected to be given the keys to the shop) is in tears at the fact that her mother died of cancer in 2013 without the couple ever discussing its contents, namely her anguish at his physical destruction.  Ginny’s absence is the most powerful presence in the story. The narration is primarily excerpts from the book (filmed to her audio as staged reconstruction, like the crash) but visually the film mostly consists of Claire Williams interviewed today and archive footage starting with Williams in his early career as a Northern chancer selling spare parts, obsessed with becoming a driver and sharing a flat with posh Etonians, one of whom, Piers Courage, died in one of his early cars. The film concludes with Claire reading to her father from Ginny’s book and there are perhaps a few tears in the man’s eyes.  It’s a feeble conclusion considering the breadth of his actions. The impact of his own attitudes was borne at far greater price by third parties, the team’s recent failure to achieve podium finishes notwithstanding, a terrible fate for an old school marque. Williams’ imperturbable visage had a quite different, sinister affect when he was introduced (like Count Dracula) in slo-mo in Asif Kapadia’s magnificent Senna, clearly the villain of that tragic piece, when he and Patrick Head forced the greatest driver of my lifetime, who was at the forefront of the F1 driver safety campaign, into a dangerous car to his death, literally cut off in his prime. This is the flipside of Williams’ refusal to engage with humanity, open his mouth and speak. Sadly, when you look at this old, strangely enigmatic quadriplegic, dead from the neck down, you realise that sometimes bad things can really happen to bad people. It’s a vital story in F1 history but it’s hard to care. Featuring interviews with Mansell, Peter Windsor (who was in the crash with Williams), Jackie Stewart and Head. Directed by Morgan Matthews.

The Rake’s Progress (1945)

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Aka The Notorious Gentleman. The private life of a magnificent heel…who brought out the woman in women! Posh boy Vivian Kenway (Rex Harrison) is sent down from Oxford after putting a chamberpot on a beloved statue. He is known as a cad, a playboy and a scoundrel. Seducing his best friend’s wife Jill Duncan (Jean Kent) and his father’s (Godfrey Tearle) secretary Jennifer Calthorp (Margaret Johnston) before ultimately marrying for money may be considered reprehensible and foolish. But when his questionable behaviour results in his serving in the Army during World War II, his actions and decisions just might lead him to redemption after being challenged by his conscience … Eton’s no joking matter old cock. Half the war cabinet came from there.  Zippy, funny and snide, its conclusion may be affected by the recent days of war, but this is a superb entertainment mostly set between 1931-1938, with a raft of comments about class, conduct and notions of masculinity. Harrison is ideally cast in a screenplay written by director Sidney Gilliat with his usual partner Frank Launder and Val Valentine. Harrison’s wife at the time, Lili Palmer, appears in the supporting cast. There’s a wonderful score by William Alwyn. Fast and rather furious about a lot of things.  It’s just that you’re the last straw that’s all. I’m sick and tired of teaching their jobs to gilded youths backed by influence and class privilege, and then watching them end up with better positions than my own

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951)

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The measure of love is what one is willing to give up for it. Dutchman Hendrik van der Zee (James Mason) living in the 17th century, is not permitted to rest until he finds a woman who loves him enough to die for him. In 1930s Spain where his body is fished out of the water, he meets the reincarnation of a woman from his dead past Pandora Reynolds (Ava Gardner) and falls in love. The story progresses to a hair-raising reconciliation of past and present as she becomes engaged to besotted racing driver Stephen Cameron (Nigel Patrick) while also juggling with the affections of ardent matador Juan Montalvo (Mario Cabré) whose mother has predicted their union … There’s something beyond my understanding. There’s something mystical about the feeling I have for you. Albert Lewin’s cult film is weirdly compelling and boring all at once:  a woman who drives men wild with desire is herself obsessed with a man who has been condemned to wander the earth forever. This legend is elevated to almost mythic quality in a production that is beautiful, sensuous and strange, and that’s just Gardner. There are lengthy exchanges of meaningful dialogue, lusty looks and a gorgeous shadow hangs over every Technicolor frame. Never mind the melo, feel the drama. That’s not me as I am at all. But it’s what I’d like to be

Driven (2001)

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He’s a younger, better you. Jimmy Bly (Kip Pardue) is an up-and-coming young star of the open-wheel circuit known as Champ Car, but he’s slipping in the rankings as the championships loom. Under pressure from his promoter brother Demille (Robert Sean Leonard) and wheelchair-bound team owner Carl Henry (Burt Reynolds), Jimmy is given a mentor – Joe Tanto (Stallone), a legendary former CART racer whose career and marriage to Cathy (Gina Gershon) were destroyed by a tragic accident. Joe has to earn the rookie’s trust, while attempting a career comeback following years of retirement, dealing with persistent reporter Lucretia Clan (Stacy Edwards), and seeing Cathy, now married to rival racer Memo Moreno (Cristian de la Fuente). Meanwhile, Jimmy is pursuing Sophia (model Estella Warren), the girlfriend of top driver Beau Brandenburg (Til Schweiger) and there’s a journalist (Stacy Edwards) following everyone around the place in search of a scoop for her season-long coverage … Fans of Formula One racing will have spotted Stallone lurking in the team areas in the late 90s, attempting to get top-secret information for a biography of Ayrton Senna, killed while driving for Williams in 1994. He abandoned that idea when he got nowhere and decided to go his own way in an action drama set in Champ Car, albeit with guest spots from some of my own sporting heroes (Jacques Villeneuve! Juan Pablo Montoya!). As an F1 nut (or petrolhead) there is nothing more exciting on this good earth than watching a live race:  this consigns the danger into a raft of effects and no matter how impressive they cannot compete with the real thing. There are also some geographical issues:  for F1 fans the great races are the European classics at Monaco, Monza and Spa.  This was shot at Long Beach, Chicago, Florida, Canada and Japan. Stallone is of course starring in this Renny Harlin-directed epic, with real-life NASCAR enthusiast Burt Reynolds co-starring, (but in a wheelchair, recalling F1 team owner Frank Williams) and in a nod to his own epic lifestsyle, he comments of the journalist pursuing them, She’s doing an exposé on male dominance in sports. More of this ironic dialogue would have enhanced the fast-cutting and action sequences which don’t dwell on the ever-present danger of death in a tangle of metal – here the outcomes from a crash are minimised to a broken ankle. It’s never going to get to the root of what makes drivers do what they do despite the tagline What Drives You? but there’s a nice sense of jeopardy, coming to terms with the past and some terrific racing – even a completely implausible episode through night-time traffic in Chicago. As if! That’s movies for ya. The best motor racing movie is still Grand Prix;  and the best film about Senna would take devastating form in the titular documentary. Stallone wrote the screenplay from an original story by Jan Skrentny &  Neal Tabchnick. Glad you stuck around

The Other Love (1947)

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I’m tired of resting, tired of sleeping, tired of lying in the sun. Celebrated concert pianist Karen Duncan (Barbara Stanwyck) becomes seriously ill and is ordered to a Swiss sanitorium for some R&R where resident medical expert Dr Anthony  Stanton (David Niven) is unimpressed with her desire to socialise, particularly when she’s being squired around nightclubs and casinos down in Monte Carlo by suave racing driver Paul Clermont (Richard Conte). When she returns from a night on the town and sees her friend Celestine (Joan Lorring ) being removed on a gurney – dead – she realises she’s in real trouble and this is not a holiday. To complicate everyone’s plans a croupier (Gilbert Roland) has designs on her, leading to a very unpleasant late night encounter on the street… An old-fashioned romantic drama with added Alps, torchlit skiing and roulette. Adapted from a story by Erich Maria Remarque, it’s oddly compelling principally on account of Stanwyck who is always intense, even when she’s a victim of consumption. She rehearsed three hours a day for a month to get the piano pieces matched correctly to recordings by Ania Dorfman and did her own stunts on location. Directed by Andre De Toth, who shot the mountain scenes at Mount Wilson, near LA. Not Switzerland. Made for independent company Enterprise with a screenplay by Ladislas Fodor and Harry Brown, this is a bittersweet tale that might have needed a more finessed touch.

Grand Prix (1966)

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The only thing to do here is drive as fast as you know how and hope your car doesn’t brake. Have you ever been to the racetrack at Monza? It’s eerie. It has an aura of death about it. It seems to be hanging in the gloom of all those tall trees. Probably the memory of those spectators killed trackside 1961:  and the final race here in the fictional reconstruction of the 1966 season told from the perspectives of four drivers is at Monza and the death is of a driver, whose broken body is strung up on a tree as his car flies off the north ridge. It’s shocking. This is a brilliant film, still the best by far of all the motor racing films, with an opening 20 minute sequence on the street circuit at Monaco that is one of the best in the history of cinema. Of course it helps to be a petrolhead, but the screenplay, by Robert Alan Arthur, is clever and artful, blending action and storytelling and characterisation as efficiently as you’ll ever see in that opening, using the TV commentary to introduce us to Pete Aron (James Garner) who causes a terrible crash sending Brit driver Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford) into hospital with appalling injuries and destroying both their Jordan-BRM cars. Pete is forced to look for a drive in Japan with Toshiro Mifune doing a take on Soichiro Honda. Twice world champion, Ferrari driver Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand) is looking for another title but has young team-mate Nino Barlini (Antonio Sabato) to contend with. If there isn’t enough drama on the track, there’s a complex of love lives off it, with Scott’s wife Pat (Jessica Walter) looking for love and finding it for a spell with Pete while her husband continues to relive his late brother’s career despite being drugged to the hilt; the married Jean-Pierre falling for American journalist Louise Frederickson (Eva Marie Saint); and Nino meeting Lisa (Francoise Hardy – nope, she doesn’t sing!) in a bar with an amusing exchange of perfunctory sentences before they get together and she becomes the perfect racer girlfriend, attending the races, timing the laps. This is a great sports film and one that is redolent with both danger and romance. It’s amazing looking and I only wish I could have been around for the original release in Cinerama which would do justice to the split-screen and the amazing Super Panavision 70 cinematography by Lionel Lindon with Saul Bass. It’s as tightly wound as a suspense thriller with the threat of death on every corner and it’s tough on the business side of this most unforgiving sport and the obsession of its participants. For fans there’s the joy of seeing real-life heroes like Graham Hill, Jim Clark, Jack Brabham, oh, a whole host of legends. Adolfo Celi does a take on Enzo Ferrari aka Manetta and real-life BBC reporter Raymond Baxter interviews Nino at Brand’s Hatch. Years later, in 1996, my acting hero (Garner) met my driving hero (Jacques Villeneuve) at Monza to celebrate the film 30 years after its release:

Garner was a fine driver and after shooting this – doing all his own driving and one fire stunt with butane that nearly went fatally wrong – he founded the American International Racers team, running cars in Formula A (just below F1), driving in the Baja 100, all leading to his eventually being inducted into the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame.

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The Racing Scene is a documentary following the team in 1969 when he finally broke it up because of the money and time commitment. He drove the pace car at the Indy 500 in 1975, 1977 and 1985. What a mensch. He said after making Grand Prix – thanks to his Great Escape castmate Steve McQueen dropping out! – he simply had to be involved in the sport.  This won Academy Awards for editing, sound and sound effects (none for the magnificent Maurice Jarre score) but it is so much more than the sum of its parts. Simply sensational. Directed by John Frankenheimer, whose wife, Evans Evans, has an uncredited role.

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Viva Las Vegas (1964)

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Aka Love in Las Vegas. The legendary pairing of The King with Ann-Margret is literally the whole show in a town full of them. Even for an Elvis film the storyline is surprisingly weak but the eye-poppingly colourful scene-setting by supreme stylist George Sidney mitigates the problem. Elvis  is Lucky Jackson, a talented singer and driver whose luck has run out so he’s in Vegas to raise money to take part in the Grand Prix. He sees dancer and swimming instructor Rusty (A-M) and is smitten. But so is his rival, Count Elmo Mancini (Cesare Danova). Lucky and Rusty do some sightseeing around the Hoover Dam – nice helicopter views – and we learn a little about Nevada and her good relationship with her father (William Demarest).  Lucky winds up losing all his money in the hotel pool and having to earn his living as a waiter which leads to some nice slapstick serving Rusty and Elmo. Then his luck turns and there is the climactic race across the desert which is pretty well shot and there are some disasters along the route … The songs are terrific and the sequences of the city and casinos are wonderful. You can see Teri Garr in a bit part as a showgirl at one point but the most surprising element is that this was written by Sally Benson, responsible for Meet Me in St Louis. And then there’s the real-life romance between Elvis and Ann-Margret! In the film they marry at the Little Church of the West, the oldest wedding chapel in Vegas.

The Goob (2014)

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Guy Myhill’s Fenland drama is brutal stuff. It’s a long hot summer for Goob (Liam Walpole) who arrives home to find Mum (Sienna Guillory) shacked up at a transport cafe with ugly violent stock racing bully Gene (Sean Harris) and he has to grow up bloody fast. A gay cousin who likes to dance and cross-dress and a lovely foreign fruit picker create diversions and ultimately obstructions and Goob has to choose sides in a dangerous household that has already seen off his brother following a prank gone wrong. This is an intelligent story of violent sordid lowlifes with limited ambitions and worldviews and while convincingly and even poetically evoked at times it’s a tough watch. Guillory’s willing subjugation is hard to take while son Goob is the collateral damage. Harris, one of the least attractive individuals ever to grace a screen, is all too realistic; and the masturbation and sex scenes are somewhat de trop, as Celeste Holm might have said. Sometimes some things are best left … imagined. Spare and affecting with some really good faces inhabiting a fascinating landscape, beautifully captured in shimmering golden hour light, a new approach to British social realism.