On June 23, 1971, the 106-minute racing drama Le Mans, starring Steve McQueen and Siegfried Rauch as rivals, hit theaters stateside. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
Le Mans, Solar production for Cinema Center, is a tense and often terrifying account of the classic auto race at Le Mans, called “the 24 hours,” because that is the particular period of endurance for this test of speed, stamina, skill and luck of men and machines.
Produced by Jack N. Reddish, with Robert E. Relyea as executive producer, Le Mans is dominated by the racing cars. It is almost wholly a visually experience; sound, music and the very miniscule dialogue is used only to enhance or explain the sight of these odd monsters and their keepers.
Le Mans is a class film in every way, attitude, realization, taste. It has visceral emotion but not heart. The National General release will do very well in mutiples and with special bookings. It has strong appeal.
It is an unsatisfying film because we know no more about the people at the end than we did at the beginning, in fact, very little at all. Very near the end, Steve McQueen is asked if this driving is worth risking one’s life for. He replies that for those men who drive these autos, “it is life … anything before or after is just waiting.”
We may thank the producers, director and writer Harry Kleiner for sparing us the rationalization that the whole bizarre, destructive sport is necessary to advance knowledge of the internal combustion engine, or for a practical trial of competing rubber synthetic tires. But what we have is not enough to give the drama the empathy or identification it needs.
Perhaps the thrill (undeniable) of vicariously driving these powerful beasts will be enough for the man who customarily is behind the wheel of a ’67 Chevrolet family car. But for most there will be a feeling of incompletion; the let-down that comes, indeed, at the end of any experience that is vastly exhilarating. Some dramatic convention should have been employed to play out the specator so he does not let down — on the film’s completion — exactly as the older, more experienced drivers do. Part of this is due to the honesty of the film; the hero does not win the race, or as far as can be told, the one girl around.
The competition throughout is keenest between McQueen in a Porsche and Siegfried Rauch in a Ferrari. When McQueen’s own car conks out near the end, he is put back in the race by the Porsche captain in another car of the same make. Almost by the fluke it seems — but how often competitions are so determined! — the race is won by a third driver, neither McQueen nor Rauch. McQueen is second. And he drifts off the track as the winning driver and his crew indulge in the typical horseplay and bacchanalia; posing for pictures with beautiful girls, drinking from magnums of champagne and shaking the bottles like pop to squirt it in great, foamy streams on each other and the spectators.
The film opens with a kind of prelude of disaster; a fatal accident of the year before. It is useful for making clear that this is a sport hazardous unto death, and for such plot as there is. Within 25 minutes of this hour and 46 minute movie the race begins and until the last 15 minutes or so, the film details nothing but the race. In this area it is extremely skillful. It creates and maintains a real competition, and it highlights the nature of the race with some of the most specacular crashes ever recorded on film.
There is almost no popular spectator sport in the world that does not have as a potential injury and death. That is the nature of things. So it is possible to be immune from car racing in general, and still be lifted out of one’s seat by the mishaps. They have been photographed, staged and edited so the last drop of drama is extracted. It is difficult to assign credit: director Lee H. Katzin, photographers Robert B. Hauser and Rene Guissart; editors Donald W. Ernst, John M. Woodcock, Ghislaine Desjonqueres. To whomever, credit should be given. Producer Jack N. Reddish was also a second unit director.
McQueen’s performance is laconic; he can’t have more than ten lines of dialogue that may be considered revealing. It is a role that demands a star’s aura otherwise interest goes by default to the machines. At that, it is a contest, which gives the film a kind of inner dynamics. Siegfried Rauch is attractive as his chief rival. Elga Anderson, as the widow of the racer killed the previous year, is restricted almost entirely to wordless, moody scenes. She might have been given more to do. As a ghost of the past she is useful, a reminder of what these men do to those who love them. But she tends to be used or to become almost purely atmospheric, and for that she is not well-known enough or (here) interesting enough.
As noted, the direction, photography and editing are first rate, in many areas the best ever done on this kind of action film. Michel Legrand’s music, sparingly employed, is generally useful. The thought occurs that music might have been used better or differently at the end to give the film the coda it needs. Of course that decision was not necessarily Legrand’s. — James Powers, originally published on June 15, 1971