A Grand Prix motor race is taking place at Monte Carlo, and while the competitors speed around the track, the wife of one of them, Pat Stoddard (Jessica Walter) tries to get some rest and forget that her husband Scott (Brian Bedford) is in a car out there, risking his life. Meanwhile, on the track the American Pete Aron (James Garner) is having gearbox trouble, but his team's boss urges him to carry on anyway, something they will all regret. This is because Scott, his teammate, is currently winning and when he moves up the field to lap Aron, he cannot get by. Later Aron blames this on his mechanical failure, but the fact remains they both crash badly...
There's not only a competition in this film, but in the movie world as well to judge which is the finest racing film ever made, and often that contest will come down to two productions shot within five years of each other: Le Mans and Grand Prix. Steve McQueen starred in the former, and was supposed to star in the latter if the rumours are to be believed, but for whatever reason did not and set up his own racing effort later on. Although they are about different events, the two are often compared, mainly because of the authenticity that both feature, as McQueen and director John Frankenheimer were both fans of motorsports and wished to get the details just right.
In Grand Prix, which had a longer running time to contend with, you might expect most of it to consist of the vehicles going round and around at great velocity, presented as exctiingly as possible, yet while there is that aspect, quite a lot of it opted to delve into the psychology of what made racing drivers tick, and not exactly successfully. The four sportsmen that Frankenheimer focused on may have different personalities, but they share a certain loneliness of character that is brought out in their relationships with women, as for example we follow Garner's Aron as he gets close to Pat, but finds her guilt at leaving Scott too much to handle.
The most touching couple is the French driver played by Yves Montand and the magazine journalist played by Eva Marie Saint; these two manage to rise above the soap opera that blights the rest of the plot and get under the skin of how dangerous a profession they are dealing with. Montand's Sarti has his own tragedies to weigh up, yet still wishes to finish the season before he retires, and naturally he wants to win it too, but Saint's Louise begins to latch on to the demons which are haunting her new partner, which we perceive have already broken up his marriage to Monique (Geneviève Page). As Louise grows ever more fearful and critical of the crowds who turn out to watch a possible accident or death, she is only concerning herself with what Sarti is suffering every day.
Montand gives the best performance here, as a haunted but noble driver and the film might have been better to ditch the ensemble angle and concentrate on Sarti. After all, the way the film ends is notably depressing and more fitting with Sarti's disillusion with the Grand Prix than it is the supposed joy of winning the season, but as Scott determines to fight his way back from injury, and to some extent succeeds, and Aron struggles to find a new team after being dropped (we're not entirely sure that was unjustified), a mood of malaise settles that is at odds with the pulse pounding thrills of the track footage. That footage was captured as convincingly as it possibly could have been at the time, and the Saul Bass-assisted split screen effects of the Cinerama prove a genuinely satisfying and innovative way of putting across as much information about the racing as they possibly can without becoming confusing. It's simply that Grand Prix is not the celebration you might have thought; indeed, you'd be tempted to think that the filmmakers didn't like the sport at all on this evidence. Music by Maurice Jarre.