Le Mans isn't the best auto racing film ever made--that spot belongs to the offbeat Talladega Nights ("I like to think of Jesus as a figure skater who wears like a white outfit and he does interpretive ice dances of my life's journey"). But as an auto racing film, Le Mans is more powerful and rewatchable than either the soapy and overstuffed Grand Prix--if John Frankenheimer pared that film down to just the excellently shot racing sequences, it would have been an action masterpiece--or Quentin Tarantino's favorite racing film, the similarly soapy Days of Thunder, Don Simpson's 107-minute love letter to his own coke-fueled self. The power and rewatchability of Le Mans are mostly because of what Le Mans doesn't show and what it doesn't have the characters say.
The subplot about Michael Delaney, McQueen's racer character, and his tentative friendship with the widow (Elga Andersen) of a racing rival who died during one of Delaney's racing accidents barely qualifies as a love story, but the minimal dialogue between McQueen and Andersen and the details their scenes leave out (did Delaney and the widow sleep together in his trailer?) automatically cause their subplot to be far more intriguing as off-the-race-track material than any of the off-the-track Grand Prix scenes that don't feature a hot Françoise Hardy or an equally hot Jessica Walter. I love how all the exposition in Le Mans is delivered by a barely audible PA announcer and the film--several decades before the invention of the closed captioning option on Blu-rays and DVDs would have made it easier--deliberately makes the audience work hard to understand what the announcer's saying.
I don't even like auto racing, yet Le Mans somehow comes up with many effective ways to make me give a shit about it, whether it's keeping the dialogue to a minimum, staging the racing sequences so that they're not the "disorienting, incoherent blur of mindless action" Nathan Rabin complained about in his Dissolve reassessment of Days of Thunder or capturing remarkable footage of either the actual 24-hour Le Mans race or the onlookers that would be impossible to capture today, perhaps for insurance reasons or simply because it's not 1970. It's hard to dislike a sports flick that comes up with a shot of a spectator like my favorite shot: a young lady is too passed out from drinking to bother to pay attention to Delaney's pit crew springing into action and assisting Delaney out of his Porsche at the end of his latest shift behind the wheel.
Behind the scenes, Le Mans was such a difficult film to make: it started filming without a script; the enigmatic McQueen was at his worst behavior and was at odds with everyone from studio execs to Le Mans' original director, John Sturges, who directed McQueen in The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape; McQueen and his then-wife were cheating on each other; and a stunt driver had to have his leg amputated after an actual car crash on the set. The Le Mans shoot's endless troubles have been the subject of both a 1999 book (Michael Keyser's A French Kiss with Death) and now a documentary, Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans, which hit select theaters last Friday.
The Daily Beast calls directors Gabriel Clarke and John McKenna's new McQueen doc "a warts-and-all portrait of a man at an unstable time in his life" and is appreciative of how the doc "doesn't look away from the people who were hurt by McQueen's actions." But the Beast isn't as enamored with the doc's overexplanatory nature, in comparison to Le Mans' not-so-explanatory nature ("We don't need to hear someone tell us that McQueen cared about where the camera was, or what shots he was going to be in, because to look at scenes from Le Mans is to immediately understand the artist's curiosity to capture action in images").
The best thing to come out of Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans has taken place outside the movie. That would be the bonus tracks on the Varèse Sarabande release of Jim Copperthwaite's ultra-solemn score to Clarke and McKenna's doc. The bonuses are highlights from Michel Legrand's occasionally treacly but otherwise vibrant and effective jazz score to Le Mans.
In 2007, Legrand's Le Mans score--it's basically Legrand in froufrou Thomas Crown Affair mode--was reissued with additional tracks by Universal France, but Varèse's treatment of the Le Mans cues isn't too shabby either. Fortunately, in this incarnation, the Le Mans cues are without the Le Mans race track sound FX that were edited into the music on the 1971 Columbia Records LP release of the Le Mans soundtrack (and then were mostly omitted by Universal France, to the delight of film score music fans who don't like hearing sound clips from movies during those movies' score albums).
"The Race, Final Laps" was cut out of the 1971 film, but it's the best and most energetic of the cues Legrand wrote for Le Mans and Varèse added to the Man & Le Mans album, and it's currently in rotation on "AFOS Prime." It best captures Delaney's intense drive to get his team to the top, even when he himself isn't in first place, as well as the very subject of The Man & Le Mans: McQueen's ambition and desperation to make Le Mans the way he wanted, even at the cost of several friendships, a marriage, a guy's leg and perhaps his own sanity.