Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Bullitt (1968) - Peter Yates

Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen), a San Francisco police lieutenant, is given a seemingly routine assignment: protect a key witness and mob informer in an upcoming US Senate hearing on organized crime. Bullitt has been picked by Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn), an ambitious politician who sees the hearings as his ticket to higher office. When the witness is targeted by professional hitmen, Chalmers holds Bullitt responsible. With his career on the line, Bullitt suspects something else is at play and digs deeper into the case.

McQueen's mustang speeds over the streets of San Francisco.

It may not seem like it today, but Bullitt was a ground-breaking film, widely popular for its exciting chase scene. It was the film that solidified McQueen's status as perhaps Hollywood's biggest superstar. Unfortunately, after this he seemed to lose some interest in acting, turning his attentions to other pursuits. He'd make some fine films later, but there were fewer of them. It may not be his best performance, for that I'd go with The Sand Pebbles. But with Bullitt, he reached the peak of his coolness.

Like its lead actor, a cool title sequence starts the action, backed by a terrific jazz score infused with moody bass, sax, and trumpet. Four men are reflected in a metal light fixture, standing outside the glass windows of an office. Their faces are lit from below, colorless and looking grim. A man is hiding inside; he tosses a smoke grenade and escapes as the men smash through the glass, shooting. We don't know it yet, but this is Johnny Ross, who's stolen $2 million from the Chicago mob and is now on the run. We soon understand that he has agreed to appear before a Senate subcommittee on organized crime.

The film likely seems tame by today's standards for police action films, but that is one of its attractions. Director Yates and McQueen's aim for authenticity included moments of routine police procedures as they conduct the investigation, including a key moment when the main characters wait expectantly for a clunky telecopier to send them important information, ancient technology today. There's not a lot of dialog, characteristic of most McQueen films, but plenty of reactive shots of McQueen and his famous blue eyes, listening and thinking. Like Bullitt, the audience will discover that the story is not as simple as it first appears, another aspect that lifts the film above most cop films of the period and since. It takes a while to understand that there is a case of mistaken identity, orchestrated by Ross to throw the mob and the cops off his trail.

Having arrived in San Francisco, Chalmers sequesters his star witness over the weekend in a seedy hotel, under protective custody of Bullitt and his men. That night, gunmen burst in after the man unlatches the door--a seemingly inexplicable action that raises Bullitt's curiosity. Like Bullitt, the viewer's initial assumption is that the mob's behind the hit, but we can't be certain. In any case, the young cop on duty is wounded before the gunmen turn their attention on the startled witness, who is sent flying through the air from a blast in the chest from a pump-action shotgun. It's bloody and violent. Yates gives the audience a hint that something is amiss when the witness cowers backward and says "Now, wait...he told me..."just before he's shot. Bullitt arrives on the scene as an ambulance rushes both victims to the hospital. One of the hit men will try to finish the job at the hospital, which leads to a breif chase. The scene serves to introduce Bullitt to the killers.

McQueen was a keenly subtle actor. A good example is a confrontation between Bullitt and Chalmers at the hospital. The star witness' life hangs in the balance. He and Bullitt watch the medical staff work feverishly from a nearby room. Chalmers makes it clear that he's holding Bullitt responsible, saying Bullitt "blew it." The detective munches a sandwich, nonchalant and avoiding eye contact until he asks, "Who else knew where he was?" The implication is that Chalmers let someone know where Ross was sequestered because the hit men knew where to look and they used Chalmers' name to get into the room. (We never find out who divulged this information. Yates leaves that to our speculation.)

It's a wonderfully tense moment. It's clear these two characters do not like one another. It also demonstrates that the two men are of different worlds, Bullitt a blue-collar, no-nonsense cop; Chalmers smooth and used to the trappings of wealth and influence. He has friends in high places and knows how to pull strings. Bullitt says, "Look, you work your side of the street, and I'll work mine."

"Who else knew where he was?"

Vaughn, usually a limited actor, oozes slime. He's perfect as a politician lacking integrity. He'll use anyone to get ahead, including the San Francisco police department. Later, he confronts Bullitt's boss, Captain Bennett (Simon Oakland), interrupting the family on their way to church. Oakland fits his role nicely, just who you'd want in an experienced police captain: big, rough, and able to take care of himself. Bullitt has a rebellish streak about him, but Bennett is more used to politics and thus more tolerant of men like Chalmers. Still, he's loyal to his own men, and partially as a result of this confrontation the captain gives Bullitt a long leash to solve the case. When later, the victim dies and Bennett learns that Bullitt has stolen the body to prevent Chalmers from closing down the case, he protects his subordinate.

The seminal chase scene is the film's most memorable sequence. At more than nine minutes, it seems shorter. For shear excitement, it was surpassed just three years later by The French Connection, but at the time, it was as thrilling a chase as had ever been filmed, particularly given the hilly terrain of San Francisco. The editing is magnificent and, more than any other sequence, likely secured Frank Keller the film's only Oscar.

Bullitt, driving a green Ford Mustang, notices he is being tailed by two men in a Dodge Charger. Figuring they are ones who struck at the hotel--they don't know their target is dead and hope that Bullitt leads them to the man--he drives normally into a residential section of the city. Anyone familiar with San Francisco will notice certain landmarks, such as Coit Tower, but the ensuing chase takes place in more than one area. The best moment in the film occurs here: the hit men, having lost sight of Bullitt, drive slowly over a hill, looking up side streets as they head down the other side. When the driver glances to his rear-view mirror, Bullitt's car comes over the hill behind--the hunter has become the hunted. The Charger stops at an intersection and the camera cuts to the driver's waist; he buckles his seat belt and you know he's about to put the pedal to metal.

Squealing and smoking his tires, he takes off with Bullitt in hot pursuit. Suddenly, both cars are soaring over hills, catching air with all four tires, sliding dangerously through intersections, and laying rubber around the turns. Here Yates made a great decision to dispense with any musical score. The sounds of the revving engines and the cars flying at speeds in excess of 100 miles an hour provide more than enough drama. Yates also uses plenty of closeups to show the tension on the face of the drivers. If there are no near misses quite as close as The French Connection and the baby carriage, there is still some fine stunt driving involved where the two cars narrowly dodge around oncoming traffic. The significance of the sequence is that it showed film-makers it was possible to stage such a high-speed race in the middle of a city. McQueen reportedly did most of his own driving.

Eventually the two cars hit the highway; they careen and swerve into one another at excessive speed; Bullitt dodges a few shotgun blasts; and the bad guys lose control of their vehicle and crash into a roadside gas station to ignite a thoroughly satisfying fireball. The chase caught the attention of the male audience of the day. Chargers and Mustangs were now the car to own.

Jacqueline Bisset has a few scenes as Bullitt's girlfriend to give the detective a human side. She fears his work will desensitize him and strip him of emotion. If her presence isn't necessary for the film, it doesn't detract from it. Besides, she's extremely attractive. There's also an interesting moment when Bullitt stops into a small grocery and grabs six TV dinners. I like these little throw-away scenes, which help give the character depth.

Bullitt consoles his girlfriend after she sees a murder victim.

After some dogged detective work, Bullitt figures out that Ross hired an impostor to pose as himself -- the man killed in the hotel attack. A search of that man's luggage reveals that airline tickets to Rome are missing. Bullitt hurries to the airport to confront the real Ross. There's another confrontation with Chalmers, who still wants Ross to testify. He condescendingly says to Bullitt, "Come on, now. Don't be naive, Lieutenant. We both know how careers are made. Integrity is something you sell the public." Bullitt responds with disgust: "You sell whatever you want, but don't sell it here tonight." Chalmers urges him to compromise. Bullitt, angry that Ross was responsible for getting his man shot, utters the film's signature line: "Bullshit."

Yates and McQueen stage a suspenseful foot chase, where McQueen runs beneath jet liners as they taxi down the runway. It looks dangerous and the camera makes sure that you know it's really McQueen. There's a brief gun battle as Ross tries to escape, and Bullitt finally gets his man.

Far superior to the Dirty Harry franchise, which started just three years later, Bullitt reflects Peter Yates' considerable talent to bring realism to film. Frank Bullitt is a real cop, dedicated but not infallible. Harry Callahan is almost a superman. Yates would direct another realistic crime film, the terrific The Friends of Eddie Coyle, in 1973. Not as well known as Bullitt, it contains Robert Mitchum's finest late career performance. Told from the perspective of Mitchum's character, a man who gets in over his head, it is a gritty and uncompromising portrayal of the desperate life of a small time hood. No complaints, as Mitchum is great, but I would have loved to have seen McQueen in the role.

1 comment:

  1. Frozen dinner scene stood out for me too. Here's a guy who puts so much time into his job that there's not much time for anything else. Bullitt has a great cast. What a pleasant surprise to see Norman Fell before Three's Company.