There is a moment about 1/3 of the way through Le Mans, the 1971 film directed by Lee Katzin*, when I realized that I had heard almost no dialogue. I checked my realization, and indeed, there are about three lines of actual on screen dialogue in the first 30 minutes of the film. My next thought was that this was a strange type of mainstream filmmaking, even for a film starring Steve McQueen, not usually one of Hollywood’s most loquacious stars. I then realized that this is because Le Mans is not a mainstream narrative film, but falls somewhere in the middle of a sort of Venn diagram of documentary, alternative cinema, mechanical film, and traditional narrative Hollywood filmmaking. It is also the most pure racing movie ever made by Hollywood.
I have always admired films that deal with simple plots and characters who are trying to excel in realms of extremity (e.g. The World’s Fastest Indian, Man On Wire). These are films that feature protagonists with one goal, one dangerous goal. In The World’s Fastest Indian, it’s Burt Munro trying to set land speed records on his motorcycle. In Man on Wire, it’s Philippe Petit walking on air.
Le Mans is certainly this type of film. This is a film about cars going fast around a 13-km circuit, the people who pilot the cars, and the buildup around the race. However, unlike the films mentioned above, Le Mans strips away almost all psychological examination of the drivers. The race, the pure act of driving, is the center of this film. At least 3/5 of this movie is just footage of racing. It is not a study of the type of person required to drive, what makes him tick, what motivates him. Le Mans assumes that the qualities needed to pilot race cars for up to 14 hours are more or less a given.
Early in the film, almost nothing is shown of interaction between the drivers and anyone else. The first real conversation besides a deep Michael Delaney (McQueen) glance and a “hello” is the talk between the German driver Johan Ritter (Fred Haltiner) and his wife, where he tells her that he is considering quitting. Other than that, most communication is done through matched eyelines and zooms into deep stares (McQueen has the ability to say more with staring than just about any actor before or since). There are shots of the gathering crowd, arriving in droves, camping in the forest by the circuit (shots here recall a pioneering documentary of the previous year, Woodstock), and moving to the grandstand. Almost all of the exposition necessary is done through the off-screen voice of the track announcer, and it doesn’t feel forced at all, as this is what he would actually be telling the gathered crowd. He gives us the two crucial pieces of narrative information that we need: 1) Porsche driver Delaney was involved in an accident at Le Mans 1969 with an Italian driver, Belgetti, who died from the crash (this explains the film’s first scene, where a flashback shows us an accident involving Delaney and another driver, whose widow we also see); 2) Delaney’s chief rival on the track is the driver of Ferrari #8, Erich Stahler (Sigfried Rauch).
This first section of the film is more in the prevailing documentary tradition of the time. Most of the shots are not staged, but are shots of the actual gathering crowd at the circuit. And indeed, most of the film’s racing shots are shots of the actual race – McQueen was to drive his own car in the film, but the producers wouldn’t allow this**. The film features two of the greatest racecars ever produced, the Porsche 917*** and the Ferrari 512 (the Ferraris had to be bought from a third party, since Ferrari wouldn’t give them to a film where Porsche won – those proud Italians!).
Once the race begins at about the 25-minute mark, the film settles into just showing footage of the race and the pit crews. The first interaction between the rivals Delaney and Stahler off the track, something one might expect in a more traditional Hollywood film (everyone loves a Teutonic villain!), doesn’t occur until 45 minutes into the film. Their rivalry is shown as being friendly, professional (they talk in terse sentences about the cars and the press). Stahler tells Delaney to be careful (honorable), and Delaney replies after a moment by saying, “Now, don’t be a pain in the ass, Erich” (smart-alecky, maverick American). And that just about sums up the entire dynamic; the film says no more about their relationship, at least off the track, until the very end.
And then there is Lisa, the widow of the Italian driver Belgetti. In a more traditional Hollywood film (cf. Grand Prix with James Garner, a film that McQueen declined), the relationship between her and the protagonist would feature. Here, it is almost an afterthought, an excuse for Delaney to talk about what drives the racers. Lisa is standoffish, understandably, in her interactions with the drivers (a French driver, Claude Durac, tries to get her to have some coffee; she declines). There is a lyrical sequence at the midpoint of the film where Lisa ventures off into the carnival inside the circuit at night and watches the crowd on rides and at games. Delaney runs into her at the cafe, and in a tense exchange, she tells him that she came back to Le Mans “for myself.” Delaney only can stare.
This lyrical moment balances what is to come; as day dawns, the nerves of the racers have started to fray a little, and it has been raining. It is getting slippery, and two crashes happen in quick succession.
Here, Le Mans takes a turn for the cinematic excessive, for the unnecessary-yet-totally-necessary excitement of racing. The documentary impulse behind the film becomes almost scientific; the directors bring fully to bear the capabilities of motion picture cameras to enlarge our visual sensorium. The first crash involves Stahler and Claude Durac; Stahler wipes out and sits in the middle of the track, and as Durac tries to avoid him, he flies off of the track through a billboard. But the film does not merely show this; as he flies off the track, the film slows down, drop frames, and freezes as his car smashes through the sign for almost two seconds. It then starts up again, slowly, as his car crushes and breaks against the brush. We then see Durac, in super slow motion, fling off his mask and stagger free of his car. The only sound is that of his breathing. In an almost surreal moment, the film speeds up dramatically in little bursts and slows down again, angles changing on the speedups, as Durac runs from danger (remember, this is 1971 – this speeding up and slowing down has since become a more mainstream technique).
Delaney continues around the track, but is distracted by the exploding Durac car, and loses control of his car (recalling the flashback of his previous year’s crash). And then, in a move that almost no mainstream director would consider, his entire crash is replayed in super-slow motion, with sound only as objects collide. Otherwise, there is complete silence. It is a marvelous sequence, both dreamlike and harrowing, both lulling and jarring. It is a technical achievement of action cinema, using multiple camera angles. It is entirely in keeping with the mode of the film, the almost fetishistic quality of the racing sequences (indeed, an anonymous imdb.com contributor referred to Le Mans as “auto racing porn”). It is startling in its visual beauty. The slow motion reveals a deeper, pure truth about the moment: the cars rending apart, the wheels and parts flying off, things that we cannot see normally, but that film can reveal to us in their mechanical glory.
After the crash, Delaney retires to his trailer, where he encounters Lisa. The conversation that then occurs is the longest that Delaney has in the film, and it reveals much about the film, McQueen’s body of work as an actor, and the world of auto racing:
Delaney: This isn’t just a 1000-1 shot. This is a professional bloodsport. And it can happen to you. And it can happen again.
Lisa: […] What is so important about driving faster than anyone else?
Delaney: A lot of people go through life doing things badly. Racing’s important to men who do it well. When you’re racing…it’s life. Anything that happens before or after…is just waiting.
Le Mans is a film that is concerned with the race, and the race only. Hints at relationships between characters are just that: hints. The life on display here is the life of the race, not the lives of the people. The drivers are professionals who have a job to do, a job that they do well. Their thoughts, their emotions, are secondary to the act itself. As the film plays out to its conclusion, emotional states are approached, but really, it’s about driving and professional rivalry.
The business of cinema is to reveal truth, the truth of moments, moments revealed visually and sonically. Le Mans is a collection of moments with drivers living. They’re not putting their lives on the line; they are dead only when they do not race. The drivers are only alive when on the track; the only truth in their lives is in the pure act. Le Mans is a film that understands this and brings the full apparatus of the cinema to bear on giving a full effort to revealing the truth underlying the actions of the people behind the wheels. Like Man on Wire, the film knows that talk is not really film’s business. Film is at its highest, its most pure, when it reveals the truth of the act.
* Le Mans was originally to be directed by John Sturges, but he quit, claiming that Steve McQueen kept interfering in everything. Katzin came on to the project, but I suspect that McQueen is the real “director” of the film, given the scope of his personality and his love for driving.
** According to imdb.com, there is a persistent rumor that McQueen actually did really drive his car, a Porsche that finished 9th overall, despite having cameras mounted all over it!
*** For more on this remarkable car, see this sweet video.