LeMans is, essentially, about racing. But as a film in the American narrative style, it must have at least some back story and, in this case, that story is romantic. As a safeguard against terminal mushiness, the back story is duplexed into a pair of similar boy/girl situations, thereby keeping each from acquiring excessive density while satisfying the needs of the form. In one, a European driver and his tres charmant, preternaturally understanding wife, work through to a conclusion that it is time for him to walk away while he is still able. The other focuses on the hesitating and mutual attraction between McQueen's American racing star and the widow of an Italian driver who died in the previous year's LeMans race. The night-time accident that claimed her husband also involved McQueen's character; a no-fault event. It was just racing. The lady, who still misses her late husband but is ready to move on, desperately needs someone to talk to, someone who fully understands the nature of her loss and who might possibly, to some discernible degree, justify it. Steve McQueen thrived on characters who required no external validation, from women or men, but who were never arrogant about it. He was the real deal. Few of us have the courage or motivation to be as authentic, or to weather the storms that can result from being so, though I think we should still try. McQueen's racing driver carries this same authenticity and he sutures the widow's aching heart with it during a meal break (LeMans cars were driven around the clock by two-driver teams) while sitting across the table from the lady. She is resisting a strong desire to run and protect herself from her own feelings. But McQueen's character is so self-effacing and contained, yet so completely and unthreateningly there, that she cannot pull away from him. Only part of the dialog is audible. The rest of the scene is viewed from outside the dining area as the camera pulls back through its window. It's a brief scene but excellently acted, adding itself into the film's humanity, a quality that is never lost against the backdrop of hurtling cars and screaming engines.
The racing sequences are beautifully staged. The final seconds before the race starts, drivers in the cars, fidgeting with shifters, one by one switching ignitions on as the countdown closes against a stethoscopic heartbeat sound, puts you right in the cockpits. At-speed scenes were driven by actual racing luminaries of the time, including McQueen himself, and they go as fast camera mounts will allow. A couple of spectacular crashes take place, both filmed in an interwoven stop-action style that lets you watch every rivet pop as the cars unpeel like grapes. Near the end, entirely plausible circumstance pits McQueen and his main rival, a great German driver in a gripping last-lap duel. (the German driver, played by Sigfried Rauch, also played the wily Wehrmacht Sergeant in Sam Fuller's The Big Red One.) These two characters meet briefly during mutual down-time early in the race and establish the obvious respect and fraternal affection they hold for one another. The camaraderie established here underpins the entire film from that point and also transforms their last-lap duel into pure contest. And the cars. open-class LeMans machines of this period still sourced much of the sinuous design style of the preceding decade and they are gorgeous to the appreciative eye, especially McQueen's ride, the Gulf Porsche 917, possibly the most charismatic car ever raced. Interestingly, one of the cars used in the film (a Lola as I recall) was recently discovered languishing in a German barn, sans motor and transmission. Both had been loaned by Porsche for the production.
Fire up LeMans on a system with decent audio capabilities, EQ a bit toward the bass to compensate for accurate but slightly raspy 70's recording technology, and crank it up. You may not feel the burn, but you'll definitely hear it. Only the somewhat too Rat-Pack score detracts from this super little film and that only slightly. Otherwise it's as time-proof as one of those molded spoons you get in Chinese restaurants. Any true fan of the sport, certainly as it was in the film's time-set, should collect it. If you appreciate the compact, character-driven, semi-documentary style, try Downhill Racer. Released the year before LeMans, it's about skiing. Robert Redford's Kiss-My-Ass ski god isn't remotely noble but is entirely believable, as are Gene Hackman and Dabney Coleman as his coaches. It was one of the late John Simon's favorite films, and for good reason.