David Chappellet (Robert Redford) is a promising young skier whose career is going nowhere until he receives a call telling him to get on an aeroplane to Europe, the Alps, and prepare to join the official American team. This is because just as the team were preparing to compete in an important competition, one of their number was involved in an accident while skiing and has been incapacitated through injury. This is the chance you take in this sport, and David is all too aware of that, yet is still put out when the position he takes in his first race with the national team is so far down the running order that he's surprised he does as well as he did. But he's still hard to read...
One of the sparest sporting movies ever made, Downhill Racer was devised by its director Michael Ritchie as ostensibly an adaptation of a book by Oakley Hall, yet he was reluctant to be tied to the page, so after a lot of research for his first movie as director (he was experienced in television, a sign of the times), the results were effectively made up while they were filming. This served to offer an immediacy to what we saw, and many remarked on the quasi-documentary feel to the story, which may have hit various notes you would expect to see in this genre - the wins, the losses, the romance, the rivalries, you know the sort of thing - they were not presented as paramount.
What was paramount was putting on the skis and seeing if you could get the best time on the slopes, and these sequences were the best in the movie, the fact that it showed Redford giving way to his stuntmen quite often notwithstanding. That was down to his carefully pitched performance that gave as little away as possible: Chappellet was a winner in his mind, but what else was going on in there could be a mystery, as he appeared to live to compete and the clues we were offered to his background, what had shaped his personality, were doled out piecemeal. Don't mistake his stylings here as wooden, however, he was a believable character no matter what was happening around him.
Indeed, as sport is often populated by folks who are so driven that they neglect anything but the sport itself, Redford's reserved but somehow unlikeable approach was perhaps one of the most authentic portrayals of a sportsperson from the long history of such movies. Not that there was a plethora of skiing films to choose from, as while this was more or less standing alone in its field, the way in which it said what it had to convey meant there did not seem to be much point in adding to it. Maybe, also, it was the issue that American skiers did not traditionally do as well in major championships as Europeans that put Hollywood off: there are a few scenes here where the coach (Gene Hackman, an interesting match with Redford) complains that America is the richest country in the world but they are reluctant to fund his sport.
But really, there was a lot of reading between the lines to be done with Downhill Racer, so withdrawn was it in mood. The regulation romance took in two women for David, first his high school sweetheart (one hit wonder Carole Carle) who he goes back home to meet, yet we cannot tell if he has any feelings for her or simply wanted an easy conquest before resuming his career, and socialite Camilla Sparv, a Swedish actress who great things were expected of when she married super-producer Robert Evans, then she divorced him and she ended up in TV before retiring. David may fall for his woman, but she lets him down emotionally by treating him like an accessory, bringing his full concentration back to the slopes. This had a curious, almost standoffish tone, that was surprisingly compelling as you had to meet it halfway to get anything out of it; should you be compliant, there was nothing quite like it outside of documentary as far as sporting films went, and that ending was slyly powerful. Music by Kenyon Hopkins.
American director, from television, whose films of the 1970s showed an interesting, sardonic take on America. After sour skiing drama Downhill Racer, he had an unhappy experience on the bizarre Prime Cut before a run of acclaimed movies: political satire The Candidate, the excellent Smile, coarse comedy The Bad News Bears, and another sporting comedy Semi-Tough.