Though it had surprisingly lavish production values (mostly thanks to shooting on several European locations) for an AIP quickie, this is among Roger Corman’s least-known films as a director. It is probably in the reference books mostly as the movie Corman was making when he gave his assistant Francis Coppola (who has a tiny role) a shot at directing with Dementia 13 (which uses several of the stars who appear here), made in Ireland around the fringes of this production.
The high concept is a drama set in the world of European sports car racing, opening with a rally in Monte Carlo and closing at a British Grand Prix, and the plot is vaguely a sex-change riff on All About Eve (Patrick Magee gets the Addison DeWitt role), though it plays out differently. Arrogant, brutal champion Joe Machin (William Campbell) is married to faithful, poised, aristocratic Sesia (Marie Versini), but uses and tosses aside groupies at every race. His latest throwaway (Beatrice Altariba) is the ex-fiancee of writer Stephen Children (Mark Damon), who witnesses the dumping from across a piazza, but never even talks to the girl, who disappears from the film completely. Children vows to get even by a) taking a junior driver’s position on Machin’s team (fortunately or coincidentally, he’s a talented driver with a track record) and b) writing a book about what a bastard Machin is. As the two men get together, Children realises Machin is a more complex fellow than he thought, and the champion starts having doubts which affect his performance on the track.
It’s a rare film about car-racing which doesn’t hinge on a protagonist winning a big race at the end*, which lends it a certain arty, existential Dolce Vita feel: Machin, almost a precursor to Corman’s von Richtofen in his goggles, ultimately sacrifices his car and career chances in order not to kill Children after a crash on the track, and can’t carry on (Corman is a rare filmmaker who can get away with a finale in which the protagonist gives up – cf: The Wild Angels). R. Wright Campbell’s script strains mightily in the chat department and the lead actors (except Luana Anders as Children’s doting secretary and, oddly, Campbell himself as Machin’s resentful, dependent brother) aren’t good enough to play the nuances given them (the talk may be arch, but the relationships and characters are all more complicated than you expect). Damon is supposedly dubbed by William Shatner, but more noticeable is the replacement of Magee’s distinctive tones with a plummy English voice (surely, dissatisfaction with the performance couldn’t be behind this – it’s more likely that original takes were ruined by engine drone).
It has a bright, colourful, sparkly look – with beautiful girls and smart cars, lovely locations and a feel for cosmopolitan rootlessness. Terence Fisher (Mask of Dust) and David Cronenberg (Fast Company) also made films about motor-racing; The Young Racers is more interesting than either of those, but like them it counts among its director’s least characteristic movies.
*I asked Roger about this – and he explained that the reason is that he wanted to make a film about motor-racing in Europe, and had a script about bullfighting rewritten for the different dangerous spectator sport.