Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Pixar has, for reasons best not examined too closely, returned to the world of talking race cars with Cars 3. As the most racing-heavy film of the Cars trilogy, it seemed like a good reason to return to one of the greatest depictions of fast cars that the movies have given us.

Grand Prix is a three-hour monster of mid-'60s indulgence, dated in every way: story content, visual style, editing scheme. I should hate it a lot, and in fact I love it, more or less unreservedly, for a wholly biased reason: this is the ne plus ultra of movies about Formula One racing, or probably any other form of car racing for that matter. Not merely for the excellence of the footage captured, but for the splendidly gaudy setting the footage has been jeweled into: Grand Prix was one of the last of the 70mm Cinerama epics, the most unapologetic hypertrophic of all film exhibition formats.* And even as we are now stuck watching it on our televisions (though, for God's sake, the biggest television you can manage! None of this "watch it on a table" bullshit, if you please), you can still feel the scale of it seeping through.

The film is an attempt to capture the entire span of a season of F1 racing, both the sport itself (is car racing a "sport"? I feel like it's not, but I know people define it that way), and the personal travails of four particular racers: the hotheaded American Pete Aron (James Garner), the aging Frenchman Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand), the arrogant Italian Nino Barlini (Antonio Sabàto, Sr.), and the British Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford), living in the shade of his dead brother's racing legacy, who gets in a bad accident early in the film and spends the rest of the time wracked with fear and doubt. Through several major races, we follow these men's attempts to dominate the fast-paced, dangerous competition, navigate the corporate politics that were finalising their control over the sport, and most importantly, cope with the romantic struggles their self-centered lifestyles inevitably generate. These include Sarti's increasingly sterile marriage to Monique (Geneviève Page) and his affair with American journalist Louise Frederickson (Eva Marie Saint); Stoddard's distance from his wife, Pat (Jessica Walter), sharpened by his accident, leading to her affair with Aron.

There's little doubt that Grand Prix could be cleaned up quite a bit by substantially reducing the amount of time spend on the racer's personal lives. One thinks of the other great Formula One movie, the 1971 Steve McQueen vehicle Le Mans (which was at one point in direct production competition with this film), which minimises its human characters the point that the film is more of an abstraction than a story, an automotive ballet staged for the camera eye. And Grand Prix has substantially better footage than Le Mans, captured by cinematographer Lionel Lindon and director John Frankenheimer by placing the camera to the sides of drivers (the actors mostly did their own stuntwork), on the noses of cars, behind wheels, giving us not just the overwhelming sense of incredible speed on a track that speeds by at a terrifying pace, but the necessary physical context so that we're always queasily aware of the car, and the precarious act of driving under these extreme, intense circumstances.

But paring Grand Prix down to just the racing would, simply put, not have left the film Frankenheimer found interesting: he wanted to set the world of racing against the chewy melodrama of the human stories, the better to give us a global sense of The Life of a Racer. The result is something like the Titanic of the 1960s: a melodramatic spectacle that would surely be "better" if the melodrama were diluted, but at the cost of the film's distinct, lumpy, wonderfully appealing soul. Grand Prix is one of those movies that wants to include just everything, not matter how overstuffed and overreaching that leaves it. It is a passionately earnest thing, trying to capture the whole human experience through the lens of racing, and its stumbles are more endearing than a more proficient, chilly film could achieve. Less romantically, we might simply note that the impact of every race benefits from the slow, saggy patches in between.

No, the "story" material isn't all that good, owing mostly to the trite nature of the characters, particularly the women (though this doesn't stop Walter from giving the best performance in the film by a long stretch; she's clever and hurt and too smart to let the men in the film see it directly, but she signals it to us through twitches of facial expression and body language). Montand's performance is satisfyingly autumnal and weary, but of course that would be true even in a more streamlined version of the movie. Still, the comparison with Le Mans says it all: that film is beautiful and concise, a little experiment in depicting racing that has an art film's disinterest in our opinion of it; Grand Prix is a by-God Epic, something bigger than just a movie; it is an investment and an experience, and it wouldn't have that without huge streamers of interpersonal torment to give it some human heft . It's the strategy of not just Titanic but all of the great bloody big disaster movies of the '70s, only none of them were near as good at it as Grand Prix.

Anyway, the human material is a bit of a distraction, I can't pretend otherwise. The film's life blood lies in pure sensory overload, in its depiction of cars and racing. Frankenheimer was a car buff, and you tell instantly that we're in for a movie besotted with adoration of cars: the credits start in white text on a black, then we track back to find that the black has been the inside of a tailpipe, and the next several minutes are an orgasmic celebration of the bits and piece of a car and the bits and pieces of the drivers responsible for them. Somewhere in this sequence, the most important credit in the whole movie crops up: "Visual consultant, montages, and titles: Saul Bass". Bass isn't one of the three credited editors (who won an exceptionally well-earned Oscar for their work, as did the sound editors and sound recordists), but you can see his influence in the way the races are pieced together as geometric objects, cut according to the logic of movement rather than the reality of space. You can see it even more in the film's extensive reliance on split-screens, sometimes split-screens by the dozens. Never in all of the 1960s addiction to split-screens can I think of another film that uses them so pointedly well: to show us different things happening simultaneously on the same car, to show us a memory playing out at the same time the race is happening (and here's where the sound editing and mixing become important, as well). During the credits, with its kaleidoscopic fragmentation of the frame into tiny repeated pieces, the split-screens imply the constancy of each image: one wrench tightening one nut is race prep, but a whole grid of wrenches tightening nuts plunges us right into the all-pervading importance of that action; the nut must always be tightened, infinitely, lest tragedy occurs.

The graphic pleasure of looking at parts of cars, at cars on the road, at landscapes speeding by, is the best thing Grand Prix offers; turning a high-speed death-defying stunt into a collection of beautiful pictures assembled with visceral effectiveness, whether it's in the quick cutting between steps in a driver's action, or letting the road pass by for dozens of seconds. And while that's happening, Maurice Jarre's score skips by, adding an impossible amount of depth and resonance to the film. He's basically written only one motif, which is re-orchestrated throughout the movie, and can be any number of things: a triumphant, almost militaristic march; a dreamy, soft cushion for lovers, or at the beginning, a tentative, prodding bit of tension, coiling itself up to spring into fast movement. For that's the one thing all incarnations of the score have in common: they propel the movie forward.

It would be easy to write Grand Prix off as nothing but empty-headed thrill-ride spectacle, though unfair. It is the best empty-headed thrill ride of the 1960s, and if you can make allowances for how dated it looks in the cinematography, it would stack up just fine to the vast majority of things made since. But even then, the dated quality is part of the film's charm. This is a movie profoundly of the '60s, in its look, its split-screen, and especially in its reeling sense of European glamor. For what is Formula One but the classy-as-fuck Franco-Italian version of racing, the kind that was popular at the height of the Jet Set, of art cinema, of sexual liberation? Grand Prix's global all-star cast (Adolfo Celi and Mifune Toshiro are to be found alongside those I've already named), its ardor for European landcapes, its all-encompassing sophistication, put-on or authentic or whatever, make it a prime example of '60s America's lust for '60s Europe, and one whose Continental allure remains seductive more than half of a century later.




*Actually, that title should probably be reserved for three-strip Cinerama, but only two narrative features were ever filmed in that format, and neither one of them is particularly interesting.