Bob Dylan sang about how there’s no success like failure, but in the films of Michael Ritchie, the opposite is often true. Elected to the Senate after a brutal, compromise-filled campaign in The Candidate, Robert Redford turns to his closest advisor and asks, “What do we do now?” He’s lost sight of the sure moral ground on which he once stood, and the trip across the finish line has left him—to borrow another Dylan line—with no direction home. The Candidate was conceived as the second in a series of Redford-starring/Ritchie-directed movies about what it takes to win. Their work together stopped there, but the theme remained a persistent concern for Ritchie in films like Smile and The Bad News Bears. It’s also much in evidence in the 1969 film Downhill Racer, Ritchie’s feature debut and his little-seen first pairing with Redford.
Redford stars as an innately talented small-town skier who behaves as if he’s already won a championship when coach Gene Hackman calls him up to replace an injured star on the U.S. men’s team. Redford’s entitled behavior seems tame by the standards of today’s athletes, but that just makes the film feel prescient. Redford looks and acts the part of a winner, though he has yet to prove himself. If Hackman, a skiing lifer often seen struggling to stir up any interest from potential sponsors of the then-fringe sport, wants his American athletes to establish a foothold in the European-dominated field, he has to keep his prize pony happy.
Ritchie works fast, loose, and with little concern for sports-movie formulas. And as a sports movie, Downhill Racer doesn’t always work. It alternates amazing POV shots with undercranked footage shot with the distance of a ’60s highlight reel, and it sets both to Kenyon Hopkins ’ pedestrian score. As a look at how Redford’s character and those orbiting him spend their time between runs, however, it’s superb. He’s learned how to do one thing, and only one thing, well. As long as he does it better than almost anyone, and only that long, the world bends to him. But when he tells his stoic father that he wants to be a champion, the old man responds simply, “World’s full of ’em.” It sounds cruel, but it’s true. He’s seen what his son can’t: Redford he may have done the work to be a champion, but that doesn’t make him a man.
Key features: A new, detailed documentary featuring extensive interviews with Redford and James Salter, the acclaimed novelist who wrote the screenplay. Interesting facts: Roman Polanski came this close to directing the film. And its burial by Paramount, which didn’t know what to do with such an odd duck of a movie, helped inspire Redford to found Sundance.