When director Lee H. Katzin set forth to capture the energy of Le Mans, he knew the only way to capture such realism, such danger, would be to engage with the 24-hour race as intimately as he could. Le Mans is just that, and had we lived in a perfect world, it’d have been Steve McQueen rallying around that track in 1971 for an entire day in a black Porsche. That means nothing to those out there who are not car enthusiasts. Between you and me, I’ve not a clue what it means either. Le Mans does well to assume, that we are ignorant of the world of auto mechanics and engineering.
Ignorant we are of cars and how they work, we are not ignorant of the story and how it is utilised. Here, McQueen plays Michael Delaney, a man who may or may not be responsible for the death of his long-time racing rival. He surely believes he is to some degree. He visits the grave of his fallen enemy. His rivals’ widow, Lisa Belgetti (Elga Andersen) surely thinks he had a part to play in the grim demise of her husband. They are bonded not just by grief, but by the spectacle and event.
There is a stunningly grand scale to Le Mans, a uniformity that shows the prestige of the titular event. Hundreds upon hundreds of extras line the streets, mounting motorcycles and pushing their way through the crowds. This is merely a backdrop for the opening credits, but the irregular hustle and bustle of city living are shot with a reason. It blurs nicely into this wordless opening act. Here these people come, from all across the globe, to experience something together. All standard stuff, yet it is the high-strung jazz track that layers over the top of it, giving desperation to audience and participant alike. There is desire felt within, these people are dying to see cars shoot around a track for hours on end.
They have convened here to, as one commentator says, see racers “…put through the test of speed and sound.” That they are. McQueen grasps at the gruelling qualities of a long-term race. He barely utters a word in the build-up, because his nerves have tangled him. The calm exterior hides a burning terror for what may happen to him. He may find himself down the same route of danger as his former competitor, those early flashbacks are utilised well by Katzin to imply a level of peril to the mental state of someone who should be a cool and collected racer. Without any real, impactful dialogue spoken in this first half-hour of build-up, it is incredible to see what Katzin can do. He utilises silence. There is no fear of it in his direction, and he fills time with magnificent cuts, the growing heartbeat and the roar of the engines. Its utilisation is magnificent, it is better to see the frustration and worry than hear about it from the horse’s mouth. There is more impact in seeing the flurry of cars careening down the road than being told Delaney is frightened.
While John Sturges may have had his part to play in directing Le Mans toward its stunning first moments, it is Katzin who captures the lust for glory and high-speed intensity in the editing room. His wordless open displays the cars rampaging around the track, and with that effective early-70s camerawork utilising extreme close-ups and fast cuts, it is easy to be lost in the world of Michael Delaney and his narrow-minded vision of victory. Much of the film relies entirely on its soundtrack and the race itself, both a stunningly strong choice yet a major detractor too. With such a fixation on the eponymous endurance test, it is hard for much else to cut through. How much can we truly learn about these characters when much of their time is spent behind the wheel of a large automobile? Katzin lets the day go by, sprinkling in moments of conflict off the track. These moments aren’t all that interesting, but, unfortunately, the best moments come from the silence, rather than the presence of McQueen.