Monday, February 2, 2015

Review: The Great Race

If anybody asks me to name my ten favorite film comedies, if this movie isn't listed somewhere in there, I need to be slapped and reminded of it.  This classic is, by far, one of the most entertaining good times you can have in film, and it saddens me that it doesn't get remembered more fondly or put on more "best of" lists.

However, I'm rather happy Hollywood is yet to remake it, considering how easy it would be these days to simply turn it into a ridiculously stupid comedy, possibly starring a Wayans brother.

First off, to understand how this worked, look at the cast.  Tony Curtis as "The Great Leslie" (back when Leslie was still a boy's name that wouldn't get you beat up in school), Jack Lemmon as the diabolical "Professor Fate" (and another appearance that needs to be seen to be believed), and the always gorgeous Natalie Wood as Penelope Pitstop Maggie Dubois, determined to prove she's as good as any man at what she does.  Peter Falk as the "more clever than he seems, but still not that clever" sidekick to Professor Fate, Maximilian Meen.

That joke cross-out above isn't just a laugh, though.  Anybody out there who might remember the cartoon show Wacky Racers might realize that the characters of Penelope Pitstop and Dick Dastardly (and Muttley) were based on the characters from this movie.  Sadly, there was no analogue for Tony Curtis, since they would've needed him to win almost every race.  He is The Great Leslie, after all.

Do you see it yet?
Clocking in at 146 minutes (side note: the theatrical release was 160 minutes, including intermission, because no projector could contain a film that length back in 1965), the movie details a race from New York to Paris by way of the United States, Asia, and Europe.   The movie is reportedly based on a real race that took place in 1908, but I'm pretty sure nobody like Professor Fate was involved in the real race.

The jokes in the film pile up quickly, but they never trip over each other.  Each one is allowed to breathe, and they balance a clever amount of word play ("Leslie escaped?"  "With a small friar."  "Leslie escaped with a chicken?") with slapstick humor (considering the fact that the largest pie fight in the history of cinema takes place in this film).

There are no flat characters in this.  Secondary characters from newspaper employees, foreign dignitaries, and even simple toughs at a saloon are all fleshed out enough to have a standard character archetype applied to them.  Even a passing polar bear still manages to show some personality, something I never suspected polar bears having a lot of besides "hungry now."  The shining power of the film, however, goes to the stars.

The fact that Jack Lemmon wasn't nominated for an academy award for this film might be one of the biggest upsets I can think of.  Not everybody will agree with me, but when you see the range he plays (and you'll understand when you see it) through the movie, it's uncanny to remember this was the same guy from Grumpy Old Men and Twelve Angry Men.  I think it's funny how much his versatility was downplayed in the later part of his career, but even when you look at the comedies he performed in, there was such a huge variety of characters.  His role in Some Like It Hot is extremely different from his performance(s) in The Great Race, and I think part of what made it work was the fact that he didn't look like he was playing it for laughs.  Professor Fate was always serious, never "goofy" and would likely take every laugh at something he did personally.

Tony Curtis is impressively suave and heroic, being the perfect straight man for all the insanity happening around him (again, not to spoil anything, I'll simply direct you to the pie fight).  Natalie Wood manages to bring raw energy to her role, being a great comedic foil to both male characters while also exuding everything that made her a sex symbol post-Gypsy.

She does more with her eyes and a smile in a silly movie than many actresses can in their most passionate love scenes.

It's still a huge tragedy that she died back in 1981, but I'm going to steer clear of the scandals, dramas, and mysteries surrounding the whole business.

None of the actors, however, play it like they're trying to go for a laugh.  The best humor comes, I feel, from normal people in extraordinary circumstances.  If you put four comedians into a film together, they know they're constantly trying to one up each other and it's obvious when they're trying to set up jokes.  Some of the jokes in this film might feel set up, but there are many that simply come out of nowhere and move on, no comedian's ego involved (including one great one involving a moose).

Does the movie feel a little long in places?  Sure.  It's over two hours long.  I felt the same way during the Lord of the Rings movies and the Hobbit films.  It doesn't mean it's not extremely enjoyable, however.  In fact, it had me grinning from ear to ear from start to finish.  Some of the jokes and humor might seem dated now, but keep in mind there was no such thing as CG in those days.  A car looks like it's being chased by a train?  It's bolted to the train.  You'd be hard pressed to find a lot of actors willing to take on that kind of stunt work.

With one of the best ensemble casts I can think of (putting it up there with American Graffiti and It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World), the movie is a lot more solid than critics at the time were willing to give it credit for.  It's a definite recommendation I make for the whole family, as parents and children alike will love it.

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