Leslie Gallant III, “The Great Leslie” (Tony Curtis), is a wealthy daredevil and showman who is famed for such things as setting speed records and performing escape feats worthy of Harry Houdini. Deliciously devilish Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon) is Leslie's nemesis, whose own daredevil shows usually end in failure or at least embarrassment. Leslie has the respect and admiration of businessmen and the media, while Fate sulks behind the walls of his dark mansion and is not taken seriously in general; hence, he bears an eternal grudge against his white-suited rival. On several occasions, Fate attempts to sabotage Leslie's stunts, but each attempt backfires and he ends up a victim of his own scheme instead.

Leslie proposes that the Webber Motor Company promote its brand-new open-top car by sponsoring, entering and (hopefully) winning a race from New York to Paris. Fate is at pains not only to build his own supercar, the Hannibal Twin-8, but also to sabotage Leslie's preparations. Meanwhile, the editor of New York City's most prominent newspaper, The Sentinel, is cajoled by Maggie DuBois (Natalie Wood), a young female photojournalist and suffragette, into entering a car with her as the driver, since her previous attempts to insinuate herself into either Leslie's or Fate's car have failed.

As the race begins, Fate's sidekick Maximilian Meen (Peter Falk) carries out his master's instructions to sabotage all the other cars except the Leslie Special (and DuBois' car, since she was late to the starting grid). Fate's motivation is for the race to be a one-on-one standup-fight between him and Leslie. Max mistakenly sabotages their vehicle as well, but eventually takes the lead on the road. Fate antagonizes the officials of Buracho, a small western-frontier town where the racers stop to refuel. DuBois' car breaks down in the desert, and Leslie gives her a ride. She continues the race as a passenger, continually declaring her equality (or superiority) to the male racers while demanding special treatment as "a lady", and opportunistically switches teams several times throughout. Fate steals the fuel he needs and sets the rest on fire, consigning Leslie to a long delay. Yet, in due course, this is erased when both cars reach Alaska and park side-by-side in the snowbound middle-of-nowhere.

DuBois has conned Leslie so she can remain in his car, at the expense of his loyal mechanic Hezekiah Sturdy (Keenan Wynn). As the two cars sit out a snowstorm, Leslie begins his first real efforts to break down Maggie's supposed resistance. But with both cars parked alongside each other in the snowstorm, a few mishaps compel all four (Leslie, DuBois, Fate and Max) to sleep in Leslie's car. They awake to find themselves adrift on a small iceberg no bigger than their two cars. Fortunately as the iceberg melts close to the point of submergence, they drift right into their intended Russian port. There Hezekiah is waiting. To avoid her being left behind ("She is his Achilles-heel! She is our ace-in-the-hole! She must not be left behind!"), DuBois is snatched by Fate who drives off in the lead.

After an uneventful trip across Asia, both racers enter the small European kingdom of Carpania whose Crown Prince Hapnick (also played by Lemmon) is a lookalike of Fate. Rebels under the leadership of Baron Rolf von Stuppe (Ross Martin) and General Kuhster (George Macready) kidnap the Prince. They hold Maggie and Max prisoner, forcing Fate to masquerade as the Prince during the coronation so that the Baron and the General can gain control of the kingdom. The plot is foiled after Max escapes and convinces Leslie to attempt a rescue. Leslie bests von Stuppe in a swordfight, and the main characters go through a massive pie fight.

Oscar
5 Nominations
1 Award
Best Sound Effects

Golden Globes
4 Nominations
0 Awards
As the five escape with Maggie now back in Leslie's car, it becomes a straight road race to Paris. Within the city of Paris itself, Leslie and Maggie have a raging argument over the relationships and roles between men and women. The argument ends when Leslie stops his car, just meters from the finish line under the Eiffel Tower, to prove his love for Maggie by sacrificing the race. Fate drives past to claim the winner's mantle, but after a brief triumph becomes indignant that Leslie let him win. Fate, wanting to win "on his terms" demands a rematch, in the shape of a race back to New York. After the newly wed Leslie and Maggie leave the starting line, Fate attempts to cheat already by firing his cannon, and actually brings down the Eiffel Tower.
“The Great Race” is Blake Edwards' loving tribute to the slapstick movies of old. Dedicated to "Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy", it owes more to the style of earlier silent comedies with a dastardly villain, a spotless hero and outrageous and thrilling stunts. Part parody and part farce, the movie is based on an actual automobile competition that took place in 1908. But the real race was nothing like this. This one has old-time heroes to cheer and old-time villains to hiss. The movie was not without its problems, though. The weather halted filming in Salzburg raining day after day while the film went spectacularly over budget. The producers fired Edwards twice and once had him arrested for trespassing when he returned to the set. Eventually, they realized that he would have to finish the movie. And boy did he ever!

Natalie Wood is gorgeous and radiant as the suffragette reporter. Although at times, Maggie’s ranting about women’s rights and equality can be annoying, she plays the role beautifully. Her constant costume changes are tolerable only by the sheer beauty of Wood in the exquisite costumes designed by Edith Head. Originally, Natalie wanted nothing to do with Tony Curtis and insisted that her new husband Robert Wagner be given the part of the Great Leslie. The producers insisted they had to have a big name. Curtis and Lemmon had teamed up with Marilyn Monroe 6 years earlier in “Some Like It Hot”, so Curtis got the part. They wanted to recapture the lighting that had struck previously and Wood was furious.

There was no traditional cast party after the filming was done. Supposedly when the topic was brought up, Edwards said: "What shall we do for entertainment? Watch Tony kill Natalie, or watch Natalie kill Tony?"

Tony Curtis plays the hero, Leslie Gallant III, "The Great Leslie" to the public, and he's a daredevil entertainer, part aviator, part aerialist, part speed racer. He wows the crowds with his hair-raising antics. The Great Leslie is so pure his teeth sparkle. He dresses in all white; even his accessories and baggage are white. Curtis plays him with such flair and parodies himself wonderfully.

But the real reason the movie works so great is Jack Lemmon. He goes totally over the top in both his roles (Professor Fate and Prince Hoepnick), and his manic energy makes them both more amusing than they might have been. As his faithful sidekick, Peter Falk is hilarious as the bumbling idiot Maximillian Meen. The two have such chemistry, that it is hard to imagine that the role of Professor Fate originally went to Charleton Heston, who turned it down. And thank goodness he did. The movie never would have been the same.

While I have never been a fan of slapstick, this movie is nothing but. However, it is handled so well at the hands of Blake Edwards and with a perfect cast, this movie is nothing short of hilarious and fun. This is a perfect movie for the entire family. The old saying is true: “They just don’t make ‘em like this, anymore!”