Saturday, February 7, 2015

Hiding in Plain Sight: Super Panavision Cameras in John Frankenheimer's "Grand Prix"

Note: this blog post contains what some may consider spoilers.

I saw John Frankenheimer's movie Grand Prix in a theater in Times Square not long after it was released for the holidays in 1966.  Call it January or February 1967.

Either way I was an impressionable preteen and Grand Prix was an intensely visual movie that shunned many of the lazy conventions of mid-60s moviemaking—most notably the use of rear projection (referred in the biz, I think, by its initials, RP) for scenes taking place in cars. Grand Prix is all about cars, after all; I admire Frankenheimer for deciding that RP had had its day and needed to be banished for any race car movie intended to look remotely realistic.

OK, so Turner Classic Movies owns the rights to Grand Prix and, because the movie managed to win Academy Awards for Best Sound, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound Effects, TCM trots it out every year to show during its “31 Days of Oscar” run up to the Academy Awards ceremonies. Thanks to TiVo, the other day I snagged it and watched it for the first time in perhaps 40 years—maybe longer.

Grand Prix isn’t a great movie, and I’m not even sure it’s a good one. Its bland behind-the-scenes melodrama was probably creaky even in 1966, but that’s not why anyone would ever bother watching it, then or now. The races are the thing, and they’re captured with as much vigor, expertise, style, and motion as Hollywood could muster in the analog era.

What I hadn’t noticed when I was a kid and only noticed now, though, was Frankenheimer’s willingness to use—and flaunt—what must have been the latest in camera technology back in 1966: handheld Super Panavision cameras!

What do I mean by flaunt? Just this:

These frame grabs courtesy of my TiVo Premiere, my Panasonic Viera HDTV, and my Canon S110 digital camera.  Apologies for those annoying moire patterns.
The guy on the stretcher is Brian Bedford as race car driver Scott Stoddard; he’s just had a terrible accident at Monaco and is being rushed to a medical rescue boat. And the guy in the beige sweater following behind is carrying what I’m satisfied is a handheld Super Panavision camera.

In fact, I’m pretty sure he’s not only carrying it—he’s actually using it. Because after he and the rescue crew get across the road ...

... we cut to a lengthy handheld shot that’s surely taken from his camera:

If you’re old enough you can imagine Frankenheimer’s rationale for this kind of cheeky visual cheat.

In the 1960s footage shot with handheld 16mm movie cameras had become a staple of the evening news. And because by then there was a critical mass of movie and still cameras shooting all major public events and catastrophes (Grand Prix even devotes a few moments trying to work up the audience’s outrage about news photographers who swoop in to get graphic footage of gory race car accidents) most everyone recognized and even expected them.

That civilians couldn’t tell the difference between the lightweight 16mm movie cameras deployed by TV news crews and the hefty 65mm Super Panavision hardware Frankenheimer’s crews were using is something I'd guess the director was banking on.

Frankenheimer was happy to double down on this gimmick, too. When Yves Montand, playing race car driver Jean-Pierre Sarti, wins the next race and gets his wreath in the winner’s circle, we first get an eye-level shot of him—one that includes his illicit lover, Eva Marie Saint, excitedly clapping her white-gloved hands:

And in the next cut we can see the Super Panavision camera at left that got that eye-level shot—plus a second Super Panavision camera at the bottom of the frame (I actually didn’t notice that second camera until I took this photograph):

If you’ve got a DVR, stop it at this shot and, when you restart, keep your eye on the Super Panavision camera at left.  You’ll see the unmistakable rotation of the film sprockets in the camera magazine, demonstrating that this camera is indeed shooting.
Nearly as interesting as these inside-baseball visual cheats is Frankenheimer’s—or it may have been director of photography Lionel Lindon’s—preference for making these hand-held shots rock steady. They never call attention to themselves.

Indeed, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, before the Steadicam and Panaglide handheld camera stabilization systems were invented, it became common for directors to lend their films some instant cinéma vérité cred by inserting shaky handheld point-of-view and action-news-style shots. Frankenheimer exploits these handheld Super Panavision cameras elsewhere in the movie, especially when he needed to film scenes in cramped location interiors.  (Impressively, I don’t think any of Grand Prix’s interiors were shot in a studio.)  But unless you’re paying attention you simply don’t notice these shots were achieved without standard tripods.

Frankenheimer was willing to get rid of RP, and I thank him for that.  But when it came to handheld shooting, at least, his visual style remained adamantly old school.

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