Thursday, January 20, 2011
To Have A Soul
Bullitt buying groceries. For some reason, that’s what I always think of. In the middle of this film with one of the most celebrated car chases ever put on celluloid, as well as a few other pretty damn great sequences as well, I always find myself thinking about those tiny moments of behavior from Steve McQueen that we get to witness throughout as we do nothing more than observe the man who is Bullitt. Patting down his hair, that gesture of grateful thanks to that nurse who brings him some food and that glare in his eyes every time he stares down Robert Vaughn. And of course that way he stacks up those TV dinners in the tiny shop across the street from his apartment, not paying any attention to what they are but he knows that he’ll need to eat something when not dealing with the annoyance of the whole Johnny Ross case or dallying with Jacqueline Bisset during nights out. BULLITT director Peter Yates died at the age of 81 on January 9, 2011 and looking over the titles of the films he made reveals a genuine range and a few surprises as well, the sort of directorial craftsman who probably isn’t allowed to exist today. THE HOT ROCK, THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE, MOTHER JUGS & SPEED, BREAKING AWAY, EYEWITNESS, SUSPECT, just to name some of the others. Some people might mention KRULL, but let’s not dwell on that. One day in Grand Central way back during the Fall of 1986 I happened to witness the filming of a spectacular Hitchcockian stunt for the climax of his thriller THE HOUSE ON CARROLL STREET. Not the best film he ever made (certainly not among the worst ever made by anyone, either) but because of that memory I can’t quite dislike it.
And there was 1968’s BULLITT, a film which maybe has become a little too ubiquitous through zillions of TV airings over the years (“We now return to BULLITT, already in progress,” as Clarence Worley once put it) and I’ll always remember how it was once playing on a local station when I received just about the worst phone call I’ve ever gotten. And there was also that viewing at Grauman’s Chinese back in ’98 which remains one of my favorite afternoons ever in that theater. I’ve seen this film so many times, getting lost in the mood, lost in that car chase, lost in that Lalo Schifrin easy listening score that I probably hum in my sleep by now. The movie often gets broken down to the elements of just the chase and McQueen’s star power with the rest of it possibly getting unfairly dismissed as dull but watching it now, long past the time you’d think it would have any surprises for me, I found myself studying what Yates was doing within each scene and my opinion of it suddenly became greater than it had ever been before.
BULLLITT does have a plot (screenplay by Alan R. Trustman and Harry Kleiner, based on the novel “Mute Witness” by Robert L. Pike), all set over the course of a single weekend, it’s just usually forgotten or barely ever followed. But just for the fun of it, let’s give it a try: San Francisco police lieutenant Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) is assigned to protect a mob witness named Johnny Ross in town at the behest of powerful Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn), an ambitious politician looking to take down “the organization”. The witness is sequestered in a sleazy hotel and Bullitt sets it up so he alternates shifts with he and the men in his unit. But late that night after Bullitt goes out to dinner with girlfriend Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset) and other people, two gunmen burst into that room in an attempt to kill Ross. As he is being taken to the hospital Bullitt’s fellow officer tells him that Ross had undone the latch on the door to allow the gunmen to get in. Chalmers blames Bullitt, but Bullitt knows that there’s more going on here and when the witness Ross dies from the gunshot wounds, he arranges with the hospital to misplace the body so the investigation can continue. As Bullitt continues to avoid the arrogant Chalmers he also becomes increasingly aware that the gunmen are still after Ross and may be looking to take down Bullitt as well to put an end to things. I think I’ve got the plot down, just like I think I follow along when everything is finally explained. I think. I won’t worry about it right now.
So much of the film has what seems like a relaxed, observational nature that it can be easy to miss how careful and controlled the direction always is, beginning right from the groove of the stylized main title sequence set in Chicago. Watching it this time I found myself becoming aware of how much Yates is always showing exactly what he wants you to see, whether taking in the feel of San Francisco in almost every single shot or the quiet, measured looks that characters are always giving each other in ways that tell the story more than any words ever could, like that silent glance between McQueen and doctor Georg Stanford Brown when they overhear Robert Vaughn asking for him to be replaced. The director appears to be always engaged by the environment that surrounds his film’s lead character whether watching his discomfort at being among those society ladies, observing the wide array of extras out in front of the Hotel Daniels or at the airport during the climax. And there are touches like that steady camera movement into the diagram being made up to identify a suspect as the Hotel Daniels night man describes him, bringing it closer to us just as the clarity of the case is coming into focus for Bullitt himself. When the movie kicks into gear it’s laid out beautifully—his pursuit of one of the gunmen through the hospital is like a model for how to put together this kind of sequence (Editor Frank P. Keller won the Oscar and he deserved it) and the airport climax has lost none of its power, as clear as it is how Michael Mann aped more than a little of it for the ending of HEAT. And yes, that famous chase is truly astounding, whether it has to do with correct geography through San Francisco or not. The more I watch it, the more I hear the incessant sounds of that Ford Mustang’s engine reverberating through my skull, the more I can’t possibly turn away from the screen even if I become increasingly aware of the obvious continuity errors, like the recurring appearance of a single green VW Beetle on what is probably the same stretch of street used multiple times. But, frankly, I really don’t care and things like this only manage to make me pay more attention to every single shot, every single effective edit, as I become ever more appreciative of what it achieves.
And though some of the most legendary sequences of the film are cannily played out with no music at all I just worship that score by Lalo Schifrin with its lovely AM radio-ready source tracks and super cool suspense cues as well--I still remember the audience at the Chinese beginning to applaud as “Shifting Gears”, that steady buildup to the car chase, began. I’ve bought two separate CDs of this music in the past and since Film Score Monthly has recently released a third, I’ll probably get that as well. The upbeat “On the Road to San Mateo” reminds me how truly enticing Schifrin driving music always is and the flute-heavy “A Song For Cathy,” the piece played by the jazz combo during the restaurant scene is a favorite as well. I just love this almost entirely dialogue-free section as we observe everything going on at this evening out from a distance with McQueen accidentally getting bopped by one of those menus, those glances between McQueen and Bisset as well as just the ultra-cool vibe in the air. I wish I could go to this restaurant with a girl who looks like Jacqueline Bisset. I always imagine the two of them are still relatively early in their relationship and Bullitt’s attitude towards his girlfriend in regards to his work is more than a little dismissive, saying, "It's not for you, baby," with her own job that seems to involve creating art for the world under the watchful eye of commerce (“It costs money to have a soul”) something that he obviously has no interest in. She might be somewhat frivolous in comparison as she sits at his breakfast table, but she’s clearly no dummy and was bound to be exposed to his world somehow sooner or later as it eventually happens. Some of Bisset’s dialogue during their roadside confrontation is of course a little too on the nose but the way Yates stages this saves things—the landscape no longer seems as lush and carefree as Bisset herself had been up to this point, instead replaced by a harsh landscape with a neverending traffic crawl as their argument is framed against the imposing sight of Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyards in the background. It reveals just how harsh and closed in some of what surrounds the beautiful city of San Francisco really is, how much closer that ugliness is to her than she ever realized and it can never be seen any other way ever again.
I’m not the first person to notice the obvious connections between BULLITT and DIRTY HARRY with both cop films sharing San Francisco, Schifrin and the same studio logo at the beginning but the shift in tones between the two is a little shocking considering they were only made three years apart. Any lilting peace of what we imagine the carefree 60s are that can be found in the air, however briefly, as Frank Bullitt crosses these city streets seems to have totally vanished by the time Harry Callahan turned up, in a world that has practically become one giant Altamont in comparison. It makes me wish all the more that we’d gotten a few other BULLITT films to add to the change but I guess I’ll have to just live with the daydream of Frank Bullitt and Harry Callahan eyeing each other with suspicion as they pass each other after separately being chewed out by the mayor over in city hall…maybe Bullitt would share an elevator with 5th Battalion Chief Mike O'Hallorhan of the SFFD on some other occasion as well. In the end, we probably learn as much about Frank Bullitt as McQueen’s eyes ever tell us through the course of the film, but he seems like a genuinely decent guy who chooses to do his job with as little BS as possible, knowing that following orders from those willing to kowtow to politicians isn’t ever going to do any good.
The cop movie formula is still being developed here and in some ways Robert Vaughn’s Chalmers is more of a villain than the person Bullitt ultimately has to gun down—Chalmers isn’t corrupt, he’s just more interested in money and power than actually chasing down justice, which is made clear from the last thing we ever see him doing and he’s the kind of suit who makes an offer of possible success and an absolute threat sound like the exact same thing. The bad guys the police have to go after are taken as a given in this world but the politician behind it all is looking to crack the Ross case for no reason other than his own glory and, not knowing why this working-class cop wouldn’t want some of that as well, is willing to obstruct his job however possible all while driving around with a “Support Your Local Police” sticker on his bumper. It’s up to Bullitt to get the job done however it needs to be done even if in the end, staring himself in the mirror, he knows that he can’t possibly answer what the purpose of that job really is in the end. At least Jacqueline Bisset is nearby, asleep in the next room, so we’re able to leave the character with that small piece of hope.
There’s no getting around it: Steve McQueen is just about the coolest guy there ever was, ultra-confident in every move he makes wearing that turtleneck and that stare he gives makes you certain that he knows what he’s doing every step of the way as murky as the plotting seems at times. He dismisses Vaughn and various other superiors around him who want him to just step in line, to do his job to the best of his abilities as long as it’s on their terms, but I couldn’t help but notice how he’s nothing but absolutely courteous to just about everyone he meets who has nothing whatsoever to do with this scummy world he works in and reading up some things on McQueen, that sounds a little like how the actor behaved when it came to studio execs versus every day people as well. Jacqueline Bisset, coyly eating that shredded wheat for breakfast, is absolutely beguiling (certainly her appearance in THE DEEP, the other film she starred in for Peter Yates, is somewhat legendary as well) and while she of course gets the one scene which really is kind of preachy in a writerly way, her genuine charm always comes through. Robert Vaughn is legendary here, adding a level of slime to a line like, “In your parlance, you blew it,” in a way that has never been heard before and every single nasty gesture he makes is a little fascinating. The familiar faces like Simon Oakland and Vic Tayback are the dependable stoic types we always want them to be, although I can’t help but think that Norman Fell is a little upstaged by how thin his tie is. Turning up pre-stardom, Robert Duvall’s brief screentime as a cab driver who helps Bullitt piece together the case is now slightly distracting and it’s also a little weird that he’s fifth billed but I always like how he says, “Take care, Lieutenant,” to McQueen the last time the film’s star gets out of his cab. Don Gordon, also by McQueen’s side in THE TOWERING INFERNO, is partner Delgetti and by this point I can’t think of anyone else who I’d want to see standing next to Bullitt during this investigation. I once saw Don Gordon at Nate ‘n Al’s sitting just a table away from me having breakfast with people and seeming like he was having the greatest time in the world. Goddamn it, I wish I’d said something to him.
Peter Yates was, at his best, a very good director who made some films that won acclaim—BREAKING AWAY—a few decent programmers—I always kind of liked SUSPECT—and several 70s titles that deserve to be better known now than they are—come on, go put THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE, THE HOT ROCK and MOTHER, JUGS AND SPEED on your Netflix queue, you’ll be happy you did. But BULLITT, for me at least, is one where everything seemed to click and is the rare film that I can honestly say is gaining in resonance for me as the years go on and I find myself understanding its lead character a little more. Maybe this is just a personal response to the world and era it portrays, even if it is a sort of easy-listening car chase fantasy land of the late 60s in a beautiful city. And it’s a type of filmmaking that I respond to more and more as I get older, even if it is very much a Hollywood-infused carryover of New Wave elements that place it in the time it was made. But I love how this movie that I’ve seen so many times still has things in it for me to discover, each new viewing giving me a greater understanding of why its hero is who he is and how he gets things to work in the world around him in spite of every obstacle placed in front of him. That has to be the sign of a great film right there, directed by somebody who knew how to give it the right kind of staying power, to give this film something that causes it to continually play in some back corner of my mind as I continually return to it, already in progress.
“Time starts now.”