Friday, July 28, 2017

Bullitt (1968)

Director: Peter Yates                                         Writers: Alan Trustman & Harry Kleiner
Film Score: Lalo Schifrin                                   Cinematography: William A. Fraker
Starring: Steve McQueen, Jacqueline Bisset, Robert Vaughn and Simon Oakland

Some vital piece of the filmmaking art has been completely abandoned in the last forty years. It’s not obvious until you really take a look at films from the sixties and seventies and realize how much different they are and why. The thing that is missing from modern films is patience. Just one scene from Steve McQueen’s Bullitt will demonstrate. After McQueen’s witness has been killed in his hotel room, he orders the police on the scene to seal the room--to physically stand guard and not let anyone in. Then, it’s not until the next day, almost twenty-four hours later before he actually gets around to taking a look at the room. But that’s just the patience in the story. What is truly amazing is the scene itself, after he goes into the room. Director Peter Yates simply keeps his camera on McQueen’s face as he looks around. There are a few brief cutaways to the murder scene, but that’s hardly the point. The entire scene plays out on McQueen’s face, not the room itself. It’s difficult to imagine that we’ll see that kind of patience on film ever again. Even the chase scenes seem to unfold in a similar fashion, allowing the action itself to provide the excitement rather than the editing--and yet still winning an Academy Award for Frank Keller’s editing. For that reason alone, this would be a film worth watching. But with a terrific story and an impressive cast, there’s much more to recommend.

The film opens in Chicago, with Pat Renella making some kind of escape from an office building by using tear gas. Later, in San Francisco, he catches a cab driven by Robert Duvall, and holes up in a seedy hotel. The next morning Steve McQueen’s partner, Don Gordon, rousts him out of bed and the two detectives go to meet with district attorney Robert Vaughn. It turns out Renella is a mobster who has been skimming money and now wants to turn informant. Vaughn wants McQueen to protect him until the hearings begin on Monday. McQueen and Gordon work with another detective, Carl Reindel, and decide to switch off on eight-hour shifts, but before the first shift is over hit man Paul Genge bursts into the room, shooting Reindel in the leg and killing Renella. Georg Stanford Brown plays the surgeon who keeps Renella from dying, but only for a few hours. McQueen’s commanding officer, Simon Oakland, gives McQueen carte blanche to figure out who the hit men are. Meanwhile Vaughn blames the whole thing on McQueen, who can’t decide how complicit Vaughn is in what has happened. Genge, who is set on finishing the job, is nearly caught by McQueen in the hospital. Then later, when he decides to go after McQueen himself, the detective turns the tables on him in a car chase through the streets of San Francisco But the hit man turns out to be a dead end and McQueen must find another way to uncover the truth.

The story was based on the 1963 novel Mute Witness by the great Robert L. Fish, the author of Pursuit. Peter Yates had done primarily television work at that point in his career and worked closely with McQueen and his production company. Composer Lalo Schifrin’s distinctive jazz influenced score was not the first of its kind, having done something similar on The Liquidator three years earlier. He had also written the music for McQueen’s film The Cincinnati Kid the same year. McQueen’s performance is quite unique, in that he tends to have very little dialogue, keeping his thoughts to himself and letting his actions speak for him. Simon Oakland is also enjoyably restrained, years before he would become a caricature in Kolchak: The Night Stalker. A young Jacqueline Bisset is McQueen’s love interest, but it’s a small part and not very crucial to the plot. Of course the iconic scene in the film is the ten-minute car chase. McQueen is being tailed, which he realizes before it even starts, and he loses the tail quickly, then suddenly appears in the rearview mirror behind the hit men. It’s a nice moment. Schifrin’s music gradually builds along with the scene and overall it exudes a genuine sense of realism. But that was the intent with the entire film, real locations throughout rather than any studio work. The prominence of the city also led to a string of crime dramas set there, the most popular being the Dirty Harry series with Clint Eastwood. Ultimately Bullitt is an impressive piece of work for McQueen and everyone involved, and arguably the seminal work in pre-seventies police films.

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