Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Young Racers (American International, 1963)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I picked a film I’d recorded recently from TCM: The Young Racers, which turned out to be an American International melodrama about auto racing from 1963. The movie advertised itself as having been filmed during actual Grand Prix auto races, and it showed — the racing scenes were consistently the film’s most exciting portions — while in between was a rather weird romantic melodrama centered around Team Lotus driver Joe Machin (William Campbell), an unscrupulous nit both on the track and in the bedroom, where he tackles an unending series of female sexual conquests so relentlessly he makes James Bond look like a monk by comparison (and the Bond analogy isn’t really reaching — Campbell looks a lot like Sean Connery in the Bond films of the time and I suspect the resemblance helped him land the role).

Machin has a long-suffering brother/manager, Robert (R. Wright Campbell, who also wrote the movie — so he, like all the other actors in this piece, had to struggle through his own overwrought and frequently incomprehensible pseudo-philosophical dialogue), and he’s also being tracked by driver-turned-writer Stephen Children (Mark Damon, top-billed, who according to was voice-doubled throughout the movie by the young William Shatner — and I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t notice Captain Kirk’s voice coming out of Mark Damon’s body!). Stephen is mad at Joe Machin for having seduced away his girlfriend Monique (Béatrice Altariba) and then abandoned her; Stephen was willing to take her back but she regarded herself as damaged goods (“I’m a slut now,” she explains) and declined. So Stephen hatches a plan to follow Machin around the Grand Prix circuit and write a book that will expose him as the unscrupulous asshole he is, and in order to do that he actually wins the job as the second driver on Team Lotus — only as he works with Machin he actually starts to admire the guy and they end up as friends.

Meanwhile Machin has his own crisis of conscience; he sees a child in a toy race car tip over and crash, and though the pedal-powered car wasn’t traveling anywhere near fast enough to hurt the kid, Machin takes that as a sign of his own mortality and loses his edge on the track; in the next Grand Prix he lets up towards the end and comes in second instead of first, and in the race after that he crashes and decides to retire, in the process renewing his commitment to his wife and presumably stopping the 007-style playing around he’d been able to do when he was still a star driver. The film clearly looks backwards to The Racers — the 1954 vehicle for Kirk Douglas as a similarly arrogant win-at-all-costs driver who ultimately regains his humanity — and forwards to Grand Prix, the 1966 John Frankenheimer racing epic that, like this film, presents the Formula One circuit as a sort of giant bathhouse on wheels in which the only concerns of the drivers are winning and sex, pretty much in that order.

It’s also a frustrating movie because it’s a mediocre film that could have been a good one; the director is Roger Corman, who was clearly the best director American International had under contract at the time (not that that’s saying much for him, but his films are consistently better and more watchable than the rest of the dreck AIP was turning out, and some of them are engagingly aware of their own campiness); the cinematographer is the veteran Floyd Crosby (Academy Award winner for Murnau’s last film, Tabu, in 1931 and rock musician David Crosby’s father), and he makes the refractory Pathécolor process glow with a vivid sheen more modern cinematographers should emulate instead of drenching everything in dirty browns and greens; the sound man is a young up-and-comer named Francis [Ford] Coppola (who made his directorial debut while working on The Young Racers — Corman let him use his crew and cast members, including William Campbell and female lead Luana Anders, to make Coppola’s first film as a director, Dementia 13, during down time on the Irish locations of The Young Racers), who supposedly is in the movie as well, unbilled; and the overall atmosphere is not that of an AIP cheapie but of a potentially quality production gone subtly but unmistakably wrong.

Part of the problem is that the three leading men simply look too much alike — Charles and I both took a while to realize that Stephen Children and Robert Machin were supposed to be different people, since Mark Damon and R. Wright Campbell looked all too much like each other — indeed, Campbell looked more like Damon than he did like William Campbell, his real-life brother who was playing his brother in the film!) — and you keep having to wait for the other characters to address them by name just to find out who is who. The main problem with this movie, though, is R. Wright Campbell’s almost literally unspeakable dialogue and the thick air of pretension that hangs over it all, as if the writer took a basic soap-opera plot and tried to overlay it with an air of psychological and philosophical “depth” that in fact was about as deep as a puddle. Charles thought this movie would have been suitable Mystery Science Theatre 3000 fodder; I didn’t think it was that bad but it certainly wasn’t as good as it could or should have been! There also doesn’t seem to be any reason why the movie should have been called The Young Racers — the male leads don’t seem all that young — except one suspects AIP’s marketing department was so relentlessly driven to selling to the teenage audience they wanted the word “Young” in the title of every movie the company made that could even remotely support it.