Watching the scene, one can almost hear the crash of music that isn't there. Something wild and Wagnerian, maybe—brassy, heroic chords backed with hysterical woodwind to match the menace and tension exuded by the single black figure poised 500 feet above, on the glacier.
Around the cameras, everyone falls silent. The director shouts Azione! to the Italian crew, and a scarlet parka is fluttered high in signal. Then the lone skier pushes off with two fierce stabs at the snow and comes schussing down the mountain, arms and poles thrashing madly. He takes off from a frozen cliff, disappears in a white bomb burst, hits pure ice that rattles away from his skis in splintered chips, then hurtles straight at the cameras, waiting until the last split second before slamming into a turn that leaves him broadside and no more than a yard from the lens. Only the camera crew and the mountain guides from Cervinia have stood their ground. The latter crow with delight. "Jean-Claude!" they shout. "Bravo Jean-Claude!"
Of course. It is the old maestro, Jean-Claude Killy, 3� years and a world away from his three Olympic gold medals and World Cup triumphs, riding again almost 12,000 feet up on the Plateau Rosa under the shadow of the Matterhorn. This is that no man's land where one is never very sure whether he is in Swiss or Italian territory and where Director George Englund is currently shooting The Great Ski Caper for Warner Bros. The movie stars Killy—who now kicks off his skis and roots for a beef sandwich in the big luncheon box that has been flown up from Zermatt by helicopter.
"Look at him," Englund says, jerking a thumb at Killy as the unit takes a break, "a born movie star who happened to blunder into being the greatest skier of the decade." Film directors are prejudiced when it comes to assessing the genius of their leading actors, but Englund's verdict is seconded over and over by cooler and less involved critics. Willy Bogner, for example, who once raced on the German Olympic team and who is now working on The Great Ski Caper as a special adviser: "When I saw the first rushes," he says, "they lifted me right out of my seat. Killy is electric. If he goes on like this—if he gets the right kind of pictures—he's going to have a dazzling movie career." Expressions like "the young Clark Gable...Brando when he was starting out..." are bandied about freely. Naturally, they are not referring to the ski sequences, which Killy could manage wearing a blindfold. They are talking about the way in which his compelling personality comes across on interior shots—as a straight dramatic actor, in love scenes, in scenes where he has to convey complex emotions.
In fact, Killy's acting abilities seem surer than the movie's title. Before Warners thought up The Great Ski Caper the film was called Schuss and before it is released it may be changed again, to The Snow Job.
Now deep into his massive sandwich, squatting on the snow, Killy talks calmly about his latest success. Read cold, his words seem arrogant. But spoken, they merely reflect an absence of false modesty. "Let's assume this film is a winner," he says, in the easy English he has picked up in world travel. "Soon I will have many offers. I will then decide if I want this new career. But in any case, if I make another film, it won't be about the mountains or skiing. It will be about people."
Still, Killy did not find acting easy at first, even though The Caper was custom-built for him. He plays a ski instructor who, with his seasonal sweetheart (as the synopsis delicately puts it) and an American friend, robs a ski lodge. Wild schusses down the glacier and snow-flying leaps over crevasses are the main feature of the escape with the loot and, presumably, the raison d'�tre of the film. But Jean-Claude had to face straight acting as well, with no previous experience beyond making TV commercials for United Air Lines and Chevrolet.
"The first days were terrible," he admits. "I couldn't learn the lines properly and I had trouble getting some of the pronunciations right."
"You were okay," says Bogner, clumping through the snow to take his turn to forage in the lunch box. "Ask him how he won his golds in Grenoble in '68. No, I'll tell you. It was 90% brains, that's what it was. And now he's using his brains in filming, just like he uses them in business."
"I got better after a while," Killy concedes. "That was after I started to get interested in the way films were made. Both sides of the camera, you know? And Dani�le was there to help me. She's a professional," he said proudly.