Michael Delaney (Steve McQueen) is driving around France in his Porsche, specifically the area where the famed twenty-four hour race Le Mans takes place, wallowing in his memories of competing in it the previous year. Not that those memories are good ones, as he never finished his contest having crashed part of the way through it with the result that one of the other drivers died. He still sees the man's widow, Lisa Belgetti (Elga Andersen), at race meetings and wonders why, not to mention the guilt he feels; however, he is prepared to put this to one side to compete in this year's Le Mans as the need for speed outweighs anything else in his life...
When talking about the greatest racing car movie ever made, and not counting such unofficial events as The Gumball Rally or The Cannonball Run, it appears to boil down to one of two films, made within five years of each other quite a while ago. Nobody rates Days of Thunder or Driven, nobody who knows their way around a racetrack anyway, so Le Mans and Grand Prix seem to be the benchmarks that all others have to live up to, and the debate about which is better will probably rage as long as there are still copies of both to be seen. Steve McQueen wouldn't have any doubt that he'd made the better movie, of course, as this was practically his baby from the inception of the project.
His cantankerous personality tended to sour the experience for everyone involved, seeing off the original director John Sturges and drafting in a television director in his place who presumably would be more likely to do whatever Steve said, but the fans of this have great faith that he knew what he was doing when he implemented his hands on style. That extended to doing his own driving for the race sequences, not that it was obvious as he would be wearing his helmet and facemask, so it could have been any of the professional racers he recruited behind the wheel of his Porsche. For the sake of drama, a plot was conjured up which lost a little of the authentic tone, but this was not a documentary after all.
Nonetheless, when Delaney keeps crossing paths with Lisa, you are led to expect far more fireworks than actually happen, as what the relationship amounts to is a few hushed conversations and meaningful looks, which in itself is significant because McQueen kept his dialogue down to a minimum - he doesn't speak at all for about the first forty minutes of the film. But really the character stuff is a distraction from the driving, and you can tell the star's heart wasn't in those parts where he has to communicate. The result of this is a noticeably icy work, where any emotion is given only to the cars themselves as with little false hysteria, repressed or otherwise, it is the roar of those engines which has our excitement levels rising.
In its way, Le Mans is the 2001: A Space Odyssey of racing movies. Think about it: the hypnotic travelling of great distances, the muted emotions, only the machines allotted any outward expression, and those high speed shots of the drivers in their cockpits as the scenery rushes by in a blur are like the stargate sequence of the Kubrick film, only more grounded in reality. Not even winning the race means as much as reaching that bulleting performance in the vehicles, as if attaining these velocities is enough to send the participants into a higher state of consciousness which they will forever crave when the race is over and they must get back to their ordinary lives. Yes, there are crashes, and those bystanders who observe how dangerous it all is, including wives and girlfriends, but the true driver will not be put off by these things. Only the last segment where it seems Delaney will replace Lisa's late husband in her affections seems a trifle off. Music by Michel Legrand.