From P. Kael:
Personal Best is a celebration of modern American women’s long-legged bodies. It’s also a coming-of-age movie that shows what most us go through–the painful experiences that later on we like to see as comedy. The surprise of this film–written, produced, and directed by the celebrated screenwriter Robert Towne (The Last Detail, Chinatown, Shampoo)–is that most of the story is told non-verbally, and character is revealed in movement. This is perhaps the first directing debut by a writer that buries motivation and minimizes the importance of words. Towne may have had to cut a couple of strings off his fiddle, but he plays a great lush, romantic tune. He bears down only on sensory experience, and he uses the actors, who are in fact athletes, as dancers. He presents a physical world that few of us know much about–the world of women athletes–and when he shows the adolescent Chris Cahill (Mariel Hemingway) preparing for the start of a race by hammering a block into the ground it’s like Melville doing a how-to-chapter. This is a very smart and super-subtle movie, in which the authenticity of the details draws us in (as it does in Melville); Towne cares enough tot get them right, and he cares about the physical world in a reverent, fanatic way. When he shows Chris and the other heroine arm-wrestling, he concentrates on their throbbing veins and their sinews and how the muscles play off one another. He breaks down athletic events into specific details; you watch the athletes’ calves or some other part of them, and you get an exact sense of how their bodies work–it’s sensual and sexual, and it’s informative, too. This film celebrates women’s bodies without turning them into objects; it turns them into bodies. There’s an undercurrent of flabbergasted awe. Everything in the movie is physically charged…Watching this movie, you feel that you really can learn something essential about girls from looking at their thighs.
Feb 22, 1982
From Michael Sragow, here’s Robert Towne on The 39 Steps:
“I think it’s interesting,” he said, “Because most ‘pure’ movie thrillers, especially when you think of Hitchcock, are either fantasies fulfilled or anxieties purged. ‘The 39 Steps’ is one of the few, if not the only one, that does both at the same time. He puts you into this paranoid fantasy of being accused of murder and being shackled to a beautiful girl—of escaping from all kinds of harm, and at the same time trying to save your country, really. A Hitchcock film like ‘Psycho’ is strictly an anxiety purge. ‘The 39 Steps’ gives you that and the fantasy fulfilled. It’s kind of a neat trick, really.”
Speaking of Robert Towne, I’m also a fan of his L.A. noir, “Tequila Sunrise.” Another love triangle. Friendship, loyalty, double-crossing.
And more crackling dialogue like this bit between Mel Gibson and Michelle Pfieffer:
Dale McKussic: Nobody wants me to quit. You know, don’t quit. Don’t get caught. Stay on top long enough for us to knock you off. I mean, that’s the motto around here. Nobody wants me to quit. The cops want to bust me. The Colombians want my connections. My wife, she wants my money. Her lawyer agrees and mine likes getting paid to argue with him. Nobody wants me to quit. I haven’t even mentioned my customers here. You know they don’t want me to quit.
Jo Ann: That is completely paranoid.
Dale McKussic: Hey, I’m just talking here. I’m not trying to convince you of a goddamn thing. And I may be paranoid, but then again nobody wants me to quit.
The Kurt Russell role was reportedly written with Pat Riley in mind. Alec Baldwin was considered for the part too before it went to Russell.
Here’s P. Kael’s blurb from the New Yorker:
You have to be able to enjoy trashy shamelessness to enjoy old Hollywood and to enjoy this picture. Robert Towne, who wrote and directed, is soaked in the perfume of 30s and 40s Hollywood romanticism. This is a lusciously silly movie; it has an amorous shine. The three talented stars are smashing: Mel Gibson is a former drug dealer who longs for a decent, respectable life and is trying to succeed in the irrigation business. Kurt Russell is his friend who’s the head of the narcotics squad in LA County. And Michelle Pfeiffer is the woman they both love. The crime plot often seems to be stalled, and by rational standards the stars’ triangular shuffle is flimsy and stupid, but by romantic standards the whole thing is delectable. With Raul Julia, who has a big, likable, rumbling presence as a scoundrel, J.T. Walsh as a quintessential flatfoot, Ann Magnuson, Arliss Howard, Ayre Gross, and, in a bit as a judge, Budd Boetticher. The golden cinematography is by Conrad Hall; the aggressively offensive score is by Dave Grusin. Warners.
Man, this was Pfieffer at her peak.
Gibson too. And the movie features one of the all-time cameos by Raul Julia. Damn was he ever good.
Fine work–as usual–from J.T. Walsh as the putz, and Arliss Howard as the snake.
Conrad Hall was the dp:
While Hall wanted the night scenes to be black and dark he wanted at the same time for the daylight scenes to be blindingly bright, like California beaches… ‘We wanted California to look hot so that the audience could feel the glow of light that the beach creates,’ Hall maintained. ‘I felt at first that the colors were too bright for the California beaches. By overexposing them some more in the printing, I was able to pale them out. I’m not sure that California will look as hot as I might have liked, but at the same time I know that it won’t look so clean and well saturated either.’ 
When the pair recced the coastal locations, Hall said,
“The whole area down there is unclipped. It was very beautiful yet unattractive at the same time. It comes from people not mowing their lawns. I’m talking about things like weeds growing through the cracks in the sidewalk. That kind of thing. The people down there concentrate on other things they find more important. They aren’t concerned with forcing something to look beautiful.” 
Hall explains the rationale behind the decision to employ the Color Contrast Enhancement process in American Cinematographer as follows :
“The CCE process is wonderful because it allowed us to see into the shadows. By putting black into the picture, it gave the print more contrast without destroying the clarity. By picking up the silver iodides, the process eliminates whatever grey coating there is over the shadows. You can now see whatever was visible in the black before it was covered over by the grey. We did a lot of tests with the CCE process and found that it could correct things that we couldn’t do in the timing. For example, the ending of the picture takes place at night in the fog. Unfortunately we found out that fog turns out to be sort of a blue color at night. If you take the blue out of it in the timing you are liable to hurt the skin tones. I wanted the fog to look romantic and this meant it needed to be white. The tests we did with the CCE process were absolutely stunning because the fog came out white –exactly what we wanted. For me, the CCE process improved the visual impact of the film at least 30 per cent.”
One of my favorite movies is also one of the better sports movies–Robert Towne’s directorial debut, “Personal Best.” It is a coming-of-age story about a young runner (Mariel Hemingway), a love triangle between the runner, a veteran jock (Patrice Donnelly), and their hard-ass coach (Scott Glenn).
It is an old story well told. Towne’s dialogue is as sharp as always and he is generous with his actors, especially the athletes who were untrained actors.
Michael Chapman’s cinematography is gorgeous. The movie was released in 1982 but has a late ’70s feel. Also, nice use of Billy Joel’s “Rosalinda’s Eyes:”
Well worth your time if you’ve never seen it before. Man, I’d love to see it on a big screen some day.