BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE GREAT RACE (Warner Archives) 1965

By • Sep 22nd, 2014 •

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Interesting what a touch of Blu can do. This was a film whose budget ran wild; one could read all about it at the time. Now, in the Warner Archive release, you can at least see where much of that dough went. The image is regal, highlighting the countless props and nuances in the sets. For a prime example of Hollywood gone wild – even in the capable hands of old pro Blake Edwards – this could be a worthy one to own.

Myself, I found this and IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (1963) to be extravagant, heavy-handed disasters with hardly a laugh to be found. They both operated on the principal that much much more is better, and failed to prove that principal to me. But I imagine they were both intensely fun sets to be on, or at least I hope so.

Take the third act pie-fight. The sequence is utterly inundated with pies. The humble pie-in-the-face gag, its origin often attributed to Chaplin, is multiplied exponentially here, and really doesn’t outdo the pie-fights of films past (except, I have to admit, in their Technicolor fillings, making the players and the room into some kind of approximation of modern art). The overkill reminds me of the multi-tyrannosaurus attack in Peter Jackson’s remake of KING KONG. More wasn’t better there either. Kubrick, after thinking over his cut of DOCTOR STRANGELOVE, removed the entire final reel, which contained a mega pie-fight in the war room. Smart move, Stanley.

NatalieWood, however, does give her best affronted looks and double-takes in this crazed sequence. She’s very cute here, and continues to be fun pretty much from this point till the end of the film.

There is both over-acting and under-acting in THE GREAT RACE. Jack Lemmon hams it to the heavens, while his earnest assistant, Max (played by Peter Falk), often plays it in a more subdued manner. Neither gets the knee-slapping reactions they’re going after. Lemmon has one great exchange with George Macready (2:07:26). Not quite enough to justify the whole trip, but very funny.

Tony Curtis, playing it low key, was the ultimate Hollywood pretty boy, and as so was hitting the nail too solidly on the head. Word has it that Charlton Heston was first approached to play that role but commitments kept him from taking it on. His ability to project naive pomposity and self-importance would have been a wonderful variation on the character. Even the scenes between him and Wood might have had a more interesting sense of conflict.

The plot is thin. A promotional race from New York to Paris includes the unflappable Great Leslie (Tony Curtis) and his uber-nemesis Professor Fate (Lemmon). Also worming her way into the mix is obnoxious Women’s Rights advocate Maggie Dubois (Natalie Wood). Wood’s feminist speeches grow tiring practically from the beginning, and her arguments with Curtis are low ebbs in the first half of the film’s 2-hour-forty-minute running time.

The first act starts with a series of Road Runner type gags, with Prof Fate trying to kill Leslie, but his plans continually backfire on him. The pacing of the cuts in these scenes feels off, often by as much as a few vital seconds. I knew THE GREAT RACE’S editor, Ralph Winters (BEN HUR, AA for KING SOLOMON’S MINES) and I greatly admired his work. Don’t know what went amiss here. The ill pacing hurts the build-ups and the punch-lines of these purely visual scenes.

Surrounding the Intermission are the Alaska/snow storm/ice flow sequences, and they’re my favorites. From the stunning use of white, to the marvelous wardrobe changes Ms. Wood undergoes, the BluRay is a knock-out. Also there are beautiful but purposely unrealistic backgrounds – matte shots and such – which are a pleasure to experience. It’s nice to note that Linwood Dunn worked on the photographic effects for this film. He goes back to RKO’s KING KONG, CITIZEN KANE, MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, etc. I knew him in his 90s and he was still a sharp, engaging techie, thrilled at the great strides that optical effects were taking in the late 1990s.

The film is dedicated to Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy. Blake Edwards’ love of comedy and respect for the great comic geniuses of the past is never in doubt. And he’s made a number of films which are comedic gems – VICTOR/VICTORIA, BLIND DATE, MICKI + MAUDE, 10, and parts of the Pink Panther films come to mind. And yet it’s his noir films such as EXPERIMENT IN TERROR, or the PETER GUNN TV series, that I end up most appreciating him for.

I teach a course in the history of film comedy, and it’s clear from listening to the students’ reactions that what one finds funny really boils down to personal taste, moreso than with other genres such as Film Noir, which I also teach. Therefore, given that this is such a fine transfer, it might behoove you to check it out and decide for yourself. IMDb gives it a very good user rating. And the production design really is a hoot. Sound, however, is uneven. Some of Curtis’ lines seem a bit low compared with the general level of the track.

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