The first thing about this film (from 1980) is that it really is an odd duck. How many movies do you see where the outcome of the plot hinges on a piano concerto? It's hard to imagine a movie like this being made today except as an indie film -- no car chases, explosions, fights, and not even anyone you could legitimately call a villain. The world of classical music is front and center from beginning to end, as seen through the progress of the six finalists in an ultra-prestigious competition for young pianists, held in San Francisco. The story concentrates on Paul (Richard Dreyfuss) and Heidi (Amy Irving), but we get intriguing looks at the other four finalists too through briefer vignettes. The time spent on those others probably does take away from a fuller development of the growing relationship between the two main characters, and it leaves a bit of a messy overall structure, but I think it's worth it -- everything adds usefully to the context so that we get a picture of how all their different personalities fit in and what their different goals are. We get to see the total exhilaration of nailing a performance, as well as the crushing loss for the ones who didn't make it through.
Not surprisingly, Richard Dreyfuss plays Paul with wild ups and downs, mixing male ego, fragility, and generosity unpredictably. Though Heidi's a bit younger, she's steadier, more self-confident, and the control voice in their relationship. They go through three or four cycles of Paul messing up and then finding ways to apologize, which continues right up to the final scene. (The first time around, he meekly asks Heidi 'Can we talk?' and Heidi replies icily 'So far there's no evidence of that.' If he wants her he'll have to work a bit harder.)
The actors in the cast who are most successful at getting this unique world right may be the veterans Lee Remick (playing a former concert pianist herself and now Heidi's stern, worldly-wise teacher) and Sam Wanamaker (the egotistical and somewhat overbearing conductor). They're great. The dialog is quirky, at times leaving the impression that every second line is missing, or that the actors were given first drafts of a script that never quite got polished. The flip side is that it's often unpredictable -- they say or do things you weren't expecting to happen. The biggest examples are the final performances themselves: under incredible pressure knowing this might be his last chance, Paul delivers the performance of his life with the Beethoven Emperor Concerto. It's the culmination of his whole career and in a normal feel-good plot, victory seems like it's lock. But the next night, Heidi goes out and gives the performance of *her* life with the Prokofiev concerto -- and it's better.
There are lots of other little gems, such as the scene where Paul and Heidi are walking on the San Francisco wharf arguing intensely, but run randomly into three French sailors (why sailors? why French?? who knows.). Paul angrily starts a disorganized scuffle with them, but then Heidi shouts "Paul! Open your hands!" realizing that if he slugs one of them he'll damage his fingers. Then to defuse things she tells the sailors (in mangled French) that her 'fiance' is terminally ill. And near the end, after the competition is all over and the celebrations have begun, we see Remick quietly go off alone and leap for joy, experiencing the unique type of victory that only a teacher can feel.
Most of all, there's the music. Lots of it: Liszt, Saint-Saens, Chopin, Beethoven, Brahms, Prokofiev, Mozart. Other reviewers have described how the actors trained hard to hand-sync with the music to make their playing look like the real thing as much as possible. Irving is the most successful at this. Her performance of the Prokofiev (which really is ferociously difficult) is amazing, and for me this sequence is the high point of the film. It's worth saying too that all the characters, from the conductor and teachers on through the competitors, are shown as totally respecting the music itself and the process of performing, even though personality clashes and maneuvering go on behind the scenes.
There aren't many films this one can be compared with. There is "Rhapsody" from 1954, "Counterpoint" (1967), "Shine" (1996), "A Late Quartet" (2012), and of course "Amadeus" (1984). Some of these were better-done and higher-profile movies, but they all use classical music mainly as a setting for character interaction. "The Competition" focuses more purely on the music itself and the process of performance, and that's its main strength.
Thankfully, you can get this on DVD now.