The problem with Cinerama is that the movie is invariably anticlimactic after the unveiling of the screen. You sit in the immense red-upholstered theatre listening to a six-track stereophonic overture, surrounded by a 160 degree are of curtain. The overture fades, the lights dim, and as the projectors start to roll, the red curtain majestically opens, revealing the screen. And the screen doesn't stop; it fills a wall and keeps going past it, curtain majestically opens, revealing the screen. And the screen doesn't stop; it fills a wall and keeps going past it, curving until it begins to run parallel with the extreme left and right aisles. Finally it stops--just short of engulfing the audience. A Cinerama screen is breathtaking: the height of the one in Boston in 25 feet and the width (stated as a chord drawn from one end of the curved screen to the other) is 64 feet. The height to width ratio of the projected image is 1 to 2.85, and that they (quite rightly) call Super Panavision.
But people are never satisfied. Most of the audience at the Cinerama Theatre would have felt cheated had the manager stepped to the front of the house and said that their $3.00 tickets only entitled them to see the unveiling of a formidable white rectangle. They came to see a movie. Instead they were given Grand Prix.
Watching Grand Prix, it is difficult to figure out what director John Frankenheimer and screenwriter Robert Alan Arthur thought they were doing. One could envision an early conference where Frankenheimer said, "Hey guys, let's make the racing picture to end all racing pictures"--except that Grand Prix doesn't have much to do with racing, outside of the first and last race sequences. One could also imagine Arthur saying, "Racing car drivers lead fascinating lives. Let's give the public the low-down on those fascinating racing car drivers"--except that the characters are conventional types who act according to formula. Their problems have been explored well enough on daytime television.
Formula here is the key word. Back in the '30's, Howard Hawks made a fishing picture called Tiger Shark which, for a "B" picture, was a box-office hit. Legend has it hthat soon afterwards, the head of Warner Brothers' "B" picture unit went to his writers saying, "Write me Tiger Shark with a circus setting" or "Do Tiger Shark with airplanes." Hollywood knew that character and plot was the necessary evil that turned the uncommercial documentary into fairytale fiction and potential box-office gold. They also knew that a popular plot could be used again and again, as long as the costumes and the actors were different.
Hollywood hasn't changed much in 30 years, and Grand Prix is pure formula scenes of racing car driving are alternated with scenes of the drivers' personal lives, culminating in a climactic last race which neatly resolves the conflicts of both the professional (who wins the championship) and personal elements in the script.
Given that script formula is a standard and perhaps valid dramatic device to facilitate the presentation of exciting material, Grand Prix's evil is not so much that it is an old-fashioned formula picture, but that it bungles the job miserably and wallows for 2 1/2 of its 3 hours in its own plot complications. Arthur spends too much time on his dreary characters, barely managing to solve their problems and tie-up the loose ends for the finish. He introduces an English driver (Brian Bedford) who competes neurotically to break the track record of his dead brother, a one-time world champion. But Arthur soon forgets about his elaborately stated plot premise and does nothing with the character. An American (James Garner), supposedly the lead character, has such little function he hardly appears in the second half. The mechanies of the final race, involving the death of a French driver (Yves Montand), are staggeringly gratuitous: we are aware only of the omnipotent hand of the screenwriter trying desperately to take care of everything before the end titles.
But Grand Prix's mediocrity is basically a consequence of poor photography and editing. Certainly some of the isolated shots in the racing sequences are excellent, a triumph of MGM's technical facilities. But as soon as Grand Prix leaves the track, it becomes an ugly film. There are eight directors in Hollywood who know how to use wide screen. They are George Cukor, Nicholas Ray, Otto Preminger, Douglas Sirk, John Ford, Fritz Lang, Frank Tashlin, and Budd Boetticher. Not John Frankenheimer.
John Frankenheimer is a hack, an ex-television director obviously more comfortable composing shots within squares than he is filling rectangles. Unable to compose good shots, he frequently employs a split-screen technique, puttting two or more different images on the screen simultaneously, separated by black dividing lines. This enables him to avoid the challenge of coming to grips with Super Panavision. Unable to put shots together with any art or precision, he resorts to tricks; Grand Prix is filled with multiple image shots and dream shots done with prisms. His over-all use of trick photography is never relevant, always self-conscious and arbitrary. Grand Prix really has no color either, only color tone carefully inserted by the laboratories, probably when they discovered that no one involved in making the picture had done anything about planning or controlling the color. Someone should stop amateurs like this Frankenheimer person from making movies. Grand Prix is an insult to the intelligence of the audience, but more important, it's an insult to the size of its screen.
What finally cripples Grand Prix, really pushing it over the edge, is that it views the world of racing so much from the outside, it fails to present any realistic or interesting detail about the profession. In a three-hour film about racing, the name Ferrari is the only noun, proper noun, and brand name appearing that has anything to do with cars. Frequently, Frankenheimer fails to establish the location of his characters, or which Grand Prix we happen to be watching. The characters never talk about racing realistically, or speak about it on a technical plane. To them, Arthur and Frankenheimer would have us believe, racing only inspires soul-searching metaphor; Bedford says, "with a car, you can take the body off, find out what's wrong, and fix it. Too bad people are never like that." Perhaps most exasperating though is the scene where Garner is forced to watch 16 mm footage of his mistakes in the last race. Frankenheimer effortlessly cuts away from the scene, just as the American's employer begins to show him what went wrong.
The point is clear: if, for reason or reasons unknown, you find yourself in the Cinerama Theatre one night, stick around for the opening of the curtain and then leave fast. As interesting, even amusing, storytelling, Grand Prix is just this side of wretched; as film-making, Grand Prix is (no pun intended) the pits.