Virtually an experimental film despite its big budget and marquee star, Le Mans is actor Steve McQueen’s most ardent cinematic love letter to auto racing. Although fast-moving cars played important roles in previous McQueen flicks, notably Bullitt (1968), vehicles are more important to Le Mans than actors, including McQueen himself. Shot on location during the 1970 edition of the grueling 24 Hours of Le Mans road race, the picture has very little characterization, dialogue, or plot. Instead, it’s an impressionistic assembly of exciting footage that plays out like a blend of documentary and European art film.
We eventually grasp the major threads of the piece, particularly the psychological damage that stoic American driver Michael Delaney (McQueen) suffered after his involvement in a crash at the previous year’s race. We also get glimpses of Delaney’s strained relationships with other drivers and the women who form an emotional constellation around the racetrack. Yet these supporting characters, played by minor European actors, all fade into the background—McQueen’s star power ensures that his is the only personality to emerge from the noise.
Still, it’s possible that no degree of character definition would have made this piece more distinctive, since there’s a long tradition of auto-racing movies in which actors are overwhelmed by the sturm und drang of their roaring engines. Plus, it’s so clear in every frame of this picture that McQueen gets off on the mechanics of auto racing that it seems likely he got this picture made for his own satisfaction, with the idea of entertaining anyone but hardcore racing fans a secondary consideration. Thus, Le Mans is impressive but soulless.
Some of the racing footage is undeniably exciting, showing low-riding speed machines blasting around French streets in dangerous conditions like darkness and inclement weather, so it’s impossible not to react viscerally while waiting for the inevitable catastrophes. (The movie’s crash scenes are compelling, with finely tuned vehicles crumbling to scrap given their speeds at the moment of impact.) Furthermore, director Lee H. Katzin’s team employs some truly extraordinary editing, using devices like audio dropouts and jump cuts to maximize the drama of key moments within races, and composer Michel Legrand’s jazzy, Golden Globe-nominated score turns some sequences into the equivalent of slick music videos. However, one longs for a greater sense of the men behind the wheel and the women who love them.
Le Mans: FUNKY