|HD DVD Action-Adventure|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Friday, 01 June 2007|
“Bullitt” was a medium-budget studio movie, basically a standard police thriller—but what it was about is not as important as its style, and that amazing car chase, still one of the best in movie history. It set precedents that many producers and directors have tried to top—and though many have succeeded (from “The French Connection” to “The Bourne Supremacy”), this blistering, beautifully-edited sequence in “Bullitt” is still the one everything else is compared to.
Furthermore, McQueen cut such a stylish figure as the San Francisco police detective with the ludicrous name of Frank Bullitt that he established a new style for cops and their behavior. There wouldn’t have been a “Dirty Harry” or any Lethal Weapons without Frank Bullitt—or without Steve McQueen. He sometimes isn’t given his due as an actor, but he burned a hole in the screen—his sheer presence was electrifying and memorable. But like most such figures in movie history, his star quality has obscured the fact that he was generally a very good actor, as he is here. There’s a scene between McQueen and his adversary Robert Vaughn in which you just can’t look away: both of these actors are at the top of their form, and their duel is mesmerizing. It’s very likely that it was also entertaining to do—certainly Vaughn suggests this in the excellent documentary on McQueen that accompanies “Bullitt” on this high-definition DVD.
Vaughn also says that he initially turned down the script—he thought it was terrible, made no sense. But he also laughingly admits that it became a lot more acceptable the more money he was offered. Director Peter Yates, whose best film this is, also says the script (initially set in Los Angeles) left a lot to be desired. He was approached by McQueen, whose company was producing the film for Warner Bros., after McQueen saw Yates’ very good “Robbery.” “Bullitt” was the first American movie of the British Yates, who turned it down at first—but McQueen was persistent.
The location was changed to San Francisco, a car chase was added, and the movie became something much greater than the sum of its parts—though some of those parts were sensational. It is still hard to follow the story—why DOES the guy unlock the door?—and it’s not until a second, or even third, viewing that you realize who all those people are behind the credits.
The car chase made “Bullitt” famous, but Steve McQueen made it stylish. He was the essence of cool, unusual for a blond man with blue eyes; he had a sensitive face that’s minimally expressive—but it’s exactly the right amount of expression. As rendered in high definition, the many closeups in “Bullitt” are remarkable in their eloquence; McQueen’s face was already seamed at this time, and the very texture of his skin is almost tangible in hi-def. Alan Ladd, another blonde, blue-eyed lead whose talents were too often underestimated, once responded to a friend’s question as to whether he’d done a good performance at the studio that day by saying he had done a great look. And that’s the kind of actor McQueen was; it was only when he tried to emote, as in his misfired, late-in-his-career “An Enemy of the People,” that he failed as an actor. When he played his cards close to the chest, reigned himself in, his natural grace—just watch the man WALK—and subtly expressive face did all the work.
In that documentary, his long-time friend Don Gordon, who’s in “Bullitt,” says McQueen kept telling Yates “give those lines to Don.” Richard Attenborough, an unlikely but close friend of McQueen’s, said that McQueen was always trying to reduce his lines, to use his body and face to tell the tale instead. And he did that.
In “Bullitt,” he’s a tough cop (McQueen based him in part on David Toschi of “Zodiac” fame), but he’s a good cop; he’s not the plays-by-his-own-rules type like Harry Callahan, but he also isn’t inclined to take orders from people he doesn’t respect. And he is dogged about learning what’s really going on. In this case, he’s instructed by San Francisco politician Walter Chalmers (Vaughn) to safeguard an important witness in a case that might bring down “the organization” (1968-ese for The Mafia). The guy is housed in a fleabag hotel near the freeway, and only Bullitt, Chalmers and the other cops guarding the guy know where he is—but two gunmen show up. They shoot the cop and the witness, then leave, but they don’t go far away.
At the hospital, one of the gunmen arrives and Bullitt chases him through the hotel basement. When the witness dies, he instructs a sharp young doctor (Georg Stanford Brown) to keep this a secret; he hopes the gunmen will try again. And they do: they follow Bullitt in his dark green Mustang (they’re famously driving a Dodge Charger), but he fastens his seat belt—rare in those days, and a cue to the audience that something’s going to happen—and ends up following them. The driver (Bill Hickman, who really drove the chase) fastens his belt—and zowie, the chase is on. No music, just the sounds of the cars as they shoot up and down those many hills, finally breaking out onto a freeway where the chase (about 11 minutes long) comes to a fiery finish. But the movie goes on.
“Bullitt” is like McQueen: easy to underestimate, easy to overestimate for the wrong things. Yes, the car chase is sensationally good, and it’s never looked better (except in theaters in freshly-struck prints) than it does on this high-definition disc. But the whole film is sleekly stylish; McQueen dresses very well in turtlenecks and overcoats; we see lots of San Francisco—like “Vertigo” and “Dirty Harry,” this is one of the great San Francisco movies—and it all looks polished and coolly elegant. It’s just before the Summer of Love, and the streets never looked so inviting.
A lot of this is due to the outstanding photography of William A. Fraker. In those days, film stocks and lenses didn’t allow as sharp detail as in later years; lots of lights had to be used, for example, but you can’t tell here. Yates and Fraker use a lot of closeups, beautifully modeled by extremely skilled lighting. Neither McQueen nor Vaughn ever looked better.
Frank P. Keller won the Oscar for his editing here, probably mostly because of the amazing car chase (during which, notoriously, the Charger loses five hubcaps, several from the same wheel), but the whole film is smooth, sleek and burnished. Every shot is exactly the right length from exactly the right angle, including in the climax at the airport, out on the runways with jets taxiing by.
This is an especially good DVD package. Not only is this sharp, elegant film presented in high definition, but there are two outstanding documentaries. One, “Steve McQueen: The Essence of Cool,” was made for Turner Classic Movies by the Greif company, who recently did “Brando” for the cable channel. It’s a thorough examination of the career and personality of Steve McQueen, highly watchable, entertaining and informative. Many people in and out of movies who knew him well are interviewed: his first wife, Neile Adams, but also Robert Vaughn, Don Gordon, Robert Culp, Suzanne Pleshette, his manager Hilly Elkins, Martin Landau, his publicist Dvid Foster, producer Walter Mirisch, Eli Wallach, Richard Attenborough, stuntman Bud Ekins (who drove for McQueen in some “Bullitt” shots and did that motorcycle jump in “The Great Escape;” McQueen was especially well liked by stuntmen, as pointed out also by Loren James and William Claxton), Norman Jewison, Peter Yates, Haskell Wexler, long-time friend Mario Iscovich and McQueen’s son Chad, who resembles his father. It’s surprising that Ali MacGraw isn’t among those interviewed. If you liked McQueen, his early death will once again seem a loss—but can you imagine an OLD Steve McQueen? I can’t.
The other excellent documentary is on film editing, although why it was included here and not elsewhere is puzzling, as little is said about “Bullitt.” Among those heard from are editor Walter Murch, seen cutting “Cold Mountain,” Martin Scorsese, Rob Cohen, Quentin Tarantino James Cameron, and many editors, including Mark Goldblatt, Kevin Trent and Thelma Schoonmaker. This is only about a quarter of the heads we see talking. The history of film editing, how it developed as a natural outgrowth of movie storytelling, is made very clear.
But it’s surprising that the most obvious way of demonstrating the power of editing isn’t used: to show the same footage as cut by two or more different editors. That would have been far more illustrative than all these people simply telling us how important editing is—but on that level, it’s a very good documentary.
Peter Yates’ commentary track isn’t bad, but he pauses too long, too often. As a director, he’s had a very spotty career, with “Bullitt” being his best by far. He’s still out there plugging away, but mostly on British television these days. I wish he said more about Robert Duvall; he’s fairly high in the cast list, but has only a couple of scenes as a cab driver. Yates mentions that initially he had more to do—but WHAT?
“Bullitt” is especially helped by high-definition since so much of it takes place at night. On the other hand, the car chase is so engrossing, so riveting, that it really doesn’t matter how sharp the image is—you’re not looking at the hood ornaments or the passing scenery, you’re viscerally involved in those two powerful cars roaring along the streets. Make that THREE powerful cars—the camera car keeps pace with the other two.
There’s something economical about “Bullitt,” and not just in McQueen’s movements, not in the budget. It’s a lean, direct film; it has its (confusing) story to tell, and does so in cool, elegant images. This is an especially good package for the high-def connoisseur.