Wednesday, May 20, 2020


Steve McQueen on the set

McQueen with actress Jacquelyn Bisset


McQueen with director Peter Yates (left)

Highland Green 1968 Ford Mustang GT fastback used in the film

BULLITT           A                
USA  (114 mi)  1968  d:  Peter Yates

An early example of sophisticated cool, where it remains, along with Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924) and Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), among the finest films shot in San Francisco, perhaps setting the standard for the 70’s paranoia films like Alan J. Pakula’s Klute (1971) and The Parallax View (1974), Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), Roman Polanski’s CHINATOWN (1974), Sydney Pollack’s THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975), films that rose from the ashes of the 1960’s assassinations and the Vietnam War, exhibiting a rebellious streak where authority is not to be trusted, paving the way for later directors like Michael Mann in films like Thief (1981) and HEAT (1995), or William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in LA (1985), using a jazzy score by Lalo Schifron, shooting on locations in San Francisco, accentuating the consummate professionalism and “in vogue” stylishness of actor Steve McQueen, displaying a self-assured, imperturbable manner where less is better, allowing his actions to speak for him.  His understated demeanor fits him perfectly, not making a lot of friends, keeping things to himself, but he’s all business, never losing his cool, with a hot, artistically inclined girlfriend in Jacquelyn Bisset, who can actually be seen wearing a flower in her hair, somehow keeping the cruel perversions of the street out of their relationship, yet his persistence in solving crimes as a dogged police detective are second to none.  McQueen personally chose British director Peter Yates after being impressed by his masterful execution skills in ROBBERY (1967), featuring an extended car chase through the streets of London, maintaining that same sophisticated stylishness in a police procedural, going on to make such quietly different films as JOHN AND MARY (1969) and BREAKING AWAY(1979), where this film is an accumulation of small details, with a baffling plot, becoming a tense, action thriller, featuring a legendary car chase that is arguably the greatest Hollywood car chase of all time, filmed at full speed, where the musical score heard at the outset quickly gives way to the raw sound of engines revving and gears shifting, though it pales in comparison to the absolute thrilling audio/visual experience of watching Claude Lelouch’s RENDEZVOUS (1976), The truth about the movie Rendez-vous in Paris (1976) - Gran ... YouTube (8:28), an unsanctioned and illegal ride of a sports car racing live through the streets of Paris early one Sunday morning, where no streets were closed, as Lelouch was unable to obtain a permit, routinely running red lights, somehow avoiding pedestrians, with speeds reaching nearly 140 mph in some stretches.  Lelouch was promptly arrested when the film screened publicly, recently acknowledging that he was the man behind the wheel.  Adapted from the 1963 crime novel Mute Witness written by Robert L. Fish, though under a pseudonym of Robert L. Pike, the story was altered, much of the dialogue eliminated, retaining a sleek and contemporary look even after the passing of time, a movie where cars are the stars and characters are continually running to pay phones on the street to make calls, all done with a casual swagger.  McQueen, notorious for turning down roles, refused offers to make a sequel of the film, opening an avenue for Clint Eastwood to step in with his Dirty Harry film series, all similarly set in San Francisco.

With a clever introductory credits sequence, one needs to pay attention to what’s happening behind the scenes, Bullitt Opening Credits YouTube (3:45), offering an abstract intro to the story, as Chicago mob boss Johnny Ross (Felice Orlandi) flees Chicago on Friday night, with the help of his brother Pete, after allegedly stealing $2 million dollars from the organized crime Outfit, who immediately go in full search mode.  By morning, U.S. Senator Walter Chalmers, Robert Vaughn from the highly popular television series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964 – 1968), has the witness under protective custody, calling him an informant, assigning McQueen as Lt. Frank Bullitt to keep him alive until he can testify before a Monday morning Senate subcommittee hearing on organized crime, claiming he’s currently in hiding at a cheap hotel in Embarcadero.  Bullitt, and his partners Delgetti and Stanton (Don Gordon, never better, and Carl Reindel), arrive on the scene, each taking a shift, but due to mysterious circumstances, Ross is shot by a strong-armed duo tipped off to their location, shooting both Ross and Stanton with a sawed-off shotgun, both clinging to life afterwards.  Sent to the hospital, the police are on alert, as they get a tip the killers are in the building to finish the job.  Graphically realistic, shown with meticulous detail, these highly suspenseful scenes are something of a revelation, as seen today, they are amazingly similar to Francis Ford Coppola’s hospital sequences in THE GODFATHER (1972), as both are among the better realized and more breathtakingly dramatic sequences in each film, where credit must be given to the dynamic stylishness of Peter Yates.  Part of the effectiveness of this film is shooting on location, where no sets were built for this film, a required element insisted upon by McQueen (made by his own production company), shot by cinematographer William A. Fraker using a new lightweight Arriflex handheld camera, giving it a grittier and more realistic cinèma vèritè style, notoriously violent for its time, where his character is modelled after San Francisco police Inspector Dave Toschi, including the lightweight shoulder holster, regularly working with him prior to filming.  Toschi became infamous as one of the lead detectives assigned to the Zodiac Killer, whose killings began shortly after the release of the film.  While slightly over budgeted at $5.5 million, the film grossed over $42 million dollars, making it the 5th highest-grossing film of 1968, yet it has had longlasting reverberations with its iconic status, as McQueen’s brown tweed jacket worn in the film was auctioned in 2013 and reportedly sold for $720,000, while the original Highland Green 1968 Ford Mustang GT fastback driven by McQueen in the film recently sold in January 2020 for $3.74 million dollars, 'Mona Lisa of Mustangs,' Raced in 'Bullitt,' Sets Auction Record.  

Bullitt quickly finds himself followed by two hit men in a black 1968 Dodge Charger 440 R/T, and the race is on, exquisitely choreographed by Carey Loftin, considered the best live action coordinator, extended beyond ten minutes, [HD] Greatest Hollywood Car Chase of All Time - Bullitt (1968 ... YouTube (10:18), where Bullitt quickly gets the jump on them, where their roles are reversed and the hunted becomes the hunter, putting the pressure on exacting driving skills, barreling through city traffic, running through stop signs, sideswiping trucks and barricades with squealing tires while losing hubcaps on the turns, where the hilly terrain of Chestnut Street, a block away and parallel to Lombard Street, makes it even more vividly exciting, as the cars literally leap off the ground with jarring landings, reaching speeds of over 110 mph, holding viewers continually on edge, where McQueen was the personification of cool behind the wheel, though an initial rehearsal accident nearly broke his neck, causing them to use stunt driver Bud Ekins, Bill Hickman drove the Charger, while a third vehicle, a stripped down Corvette camera car, was driven by Pat Houstis.  Permits were not granted to film on the Golden Gate Bridge, so that remained off limits.  Actually, the permitted areas were very miniscule, restricted to only a few city blocks, but Yates got his money’s worth with what was available, filming an exhilarating chase scene that set the precedents for Friedkin’s THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971), Richard Sarafian’s VANISHING POINT (1971), Philip D’Antoni’s THE SEVEN-UPS (1973), and Walter Hill’s THE DRIVER (1978), where this sequence alone likely won the Film Editing Award for Frank P. Keller.  Curiously, this scene comes just after the halfway point, an odd choice, as most directors would make that the climax of the film, but Yates has another card up his sleeve, pitting the manipulative grandstanding of Chalmers against a skeptical and mistrusting Bullitt, with the Senator continually trying to manhandle the case in a blatant attempt to grab headlines.  Made during the heart of the Vietnam War, there is no reference to it in the film, but the depiction of a disingenuous United States Senator browbeating a conscientious police detective and his entire police chain of command reflects the distasteful view of politicians from that era, with Bullitt standing up to him, telling him pointedly, “You work your side of the street, and I’ll work mine.”  The extended climactic sequence is shot at the San Francisco International Airport, actually shutting it down one night to allow filming, which is simply unheard of and could never happen today, yet the emphasis on realism makes it appear lifelike, filled with crowded passenger terminals, making full use of the grounds out on the tarmac at night with moving airplanes on runways, covering plenty of territory, with an exquisite sound design that includes the high-pitched whine of jet turbines, literally immersing viewers in an authentically recreated atmosphere, replicated years later by Michael Mann in HEAT (1995).  While the plot may be the weakest element of the movie, it’s also a complex character study, where what stands out is the quintessentially cool demeanor of Bullitt himself and his existential mindset, a man alone, exerting his independence and integrity, tested by the most grisly circumstances, an unending stream of death, sordid criminality, and mindboggling corruption, yet having his values and principles intact, which is really what the 60’s were all about. 

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