It's too bad John Frankenheimer died before he could record a commentary track for his 1966 Euro-racing melodrama Grand Prix, because he was a commentary-track champ, always balancing good anecdotes with useful technical information. His feature Ronin is one of the more underrated action films of the '90s, but the commentary track is arguably better, because Frankenheimer detailed exactly what went into every one of the hairpin turns in the movie's famous car chase, describing them in terms of their logistical challenges and their meaning. At least on the double-disc Grand Prix DVD, a set of superb featurettes takes up the slack, covering everything from a mini-history of Formula One racing to Frankenheimer's fiery temperament.
It'd be a stretch to call the special features better than the movie, because whenever the cars are running, Grand Prix is one of the best studio efforts of the '60s. The film only stalls when it's off the track, which is where more than half of this three-hour epic takes place. James Garner stars as a headstrong racer who gets kicked off his team after he injures teammate Brian Bedford, then works his way back to the circuit through the graces of industrialist Toshirô Mifune. Garner also makes time with Bedford's playgirl wife Jessica Walter—who'll look surprisingly va-voom to those who only know her as the boozy mom on Arrested Development—while colleague Yves Montand gets close to photo-journalist Eva Marie Saint. It's all typical potboiler stuff, dosed with the blandly international flavor common to oversized '60s moviemaking, and weighed down by the way Garner's early thorniness gives way to drab professionalism (mirroring his career as an MGM studio hand, actually).
Still, even the soap-opera material is beautifully shot. Years before Nicolas Roeg's famous sex/post-sex cross-cutting in Don't Look Now, Frankenheimer built a stunning triple-exposure shot containing the whole dance of seduction, from cocktails to bathrobes. Then he jumps back to one of the racing montages he co-designed with cinema-stylist Saul Bass, sequences with the snap of a classic Sports Illustrated layout, mixed with the athletic impressionism of Kon Ichikawa's Tokyo Olympiad. While hardcore racing fans have quibbled with the movie's excessive emphasis on crashes, the insert-shot-heavy, camera-in-the-car immediacy of the track scenes has remained the standard for auto-racing movies, all the way down to Pixar's Cars. And amid the spectacle, Frankenheimer was graceful enough to indicate the onset of a life-threatening rainstorm by cutting to a single close-up of a stopwatch dotted with water. That's called artistry.
Key features: The above-mentioned featurettes.