Thursday, August 11, 2011

Review – Bullitt

August 11, 2011

Bullitt – U.S., 1968

For years, all I heard about Peter Yates’ Bullitt was that it had a car chase that simply had to be seen to be believed. However, I never had the impulse to actually watch the film. Why would I? Watch any montage of the great work that stunt men and cameramen do during award show telecasts, and you’re bound to see at least a brief clip of Bullitt’s most famous scene. That’s how I first saw it, and I’ll admit right now that it indeed looked impressive. In fact, it was still impressive the second and third time I saw it. Here’s my problem. In none of these broadcasts was anything ever said about the plot of the film or the performances of its cast. In fact, one news telecast that looked back at Bullitt included a brief remark about how the film had lost its sting over the years and was now considered somewhat dated. Ahh, but the car chase, the reporter explained, that still impresses years later.

It is rarely a good thing for a film to be primarily known for a single scene, for the implication is that the rest of the film is not worth watching. It’s even worse when you consider that the scene Bullitt is most known for turns out to be rather insignificant to the overall story. It yields absolutely no leads for the protagonist, and – perhaps more importantly – it comes dangerously close to being unintended comedy. For one, in what other movie does a villain buckle up before leading the hero on a wild ride? In what other movie do three people go at breakneck speed down conveniently empty city streets while remaining perfectly silent? I can’t think of any. I suppose it’s in keeping with the lead character’s personality that he doesn’t respond emotionally during the scene, but for those he is pursuing to remain silent was a bit of a stretch. Didn’t they at least want to discuss a strategy?

The central character in Bullitt is Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen), a cop who has seen a lot in his career and in the process become somewhat desensitized to it. He still performs his job to the best of his abilities; he just doesn’t respond to it emotionally anymore. In one scene, he comes across the body of a murdered woman and reports the death to his superior with less emotion than one usually has when one is ordering pizza. Towards the beginning of the film, he is asked by a local politician named Chalmers (Robert Vaughn) to protect a mob informant named Johnny Ross. Chalmers wants to make a splash at an upcoming government hearing on organized crime, and Ross has agreed to testify against a group of criminals from Chicago called the Organization. All Bullitt has to do is keep Ross safe for forty hours. Naturally, things go terribly wrong, but not for the reasons one might expect. In an unexpected twist, it is Ross who allows his enemies to enter the room, and after being allowed to do so, they proceed to shoot both the officer on duty and Ross. Before they do, though, Ross can be heard saying something that implies this was not what he thought would happen. Clearly, someone has been double-crossed, and it’s up to Bullitt to find out who and why.

Like other films of this genre, the criminal case turns out to be much less interesting than the person investigating it. We don’t learn a lot about the Organization, and much of Bullitt’s investigation yields few if any real clues. He simply lucks out that a cab driver that drove Ross around the previous day not only has an impressive memory but also pays close attention to rather minute details. The cab driver (Robert Duvall) recalls Ross making two phone calls at a pay phone, one of them long distance. He knows this because Ross pressed a lot of buttons. It’s an important clue, but did getting it really require Bullitt to ride along the same route that Ross took and to twice get out of the cab and use the very phone that Ross used? I posed that question to a co-worker of mine who used to be a police officer, and it seemed a little strange to him as well.

More interesting is Bullitt’s relationship with his girlfriend Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset). He finds a degree of peace when he is with her, and perhaps because of that, he wants to keep her away from his job. In one scene, she inquires about the case he is working on, and he refuses to talk about it. It’s not for you, he explains. The scenes they share are sweet, and it’s clear that they care a lot for each other. It’s a bit odd then that she accompanies him to a hotel during a key part of the investigation. It’s obvious that the film is setting up an important conversation between the two of them. However, when it comes, it seems forced. It also doesn’t help that the lines Bisset and McQueen are asked to recite are some of the most awkwardly written ones in the film. I suppose I shouldn’t grip too much. At least they’re talking.

The film has its share of interesting characters. Chief among them is Bullitt, who remans impressive and deserves to be talked about in the same breath as other legendary cinematic cops who had their own way of doing things – characters like Popeye Doyle from 1971’s The French Connection and Serpico. In addition, I liked the slight creepiness that Vaughn gives Chalmers, which allows viewers to entertain the notion that he is somehow involved in Ross’s shooting. I also enjoyed the rapport between Bullitt and his right-hand man Delgetti (Don Gordon) even though the beginning of the film is purposely misleading about which of the two of them is more powerful. Simon Oakland is also impressive as Captain Bennet, who feeds Bullitt the standard line about playing it by the book, yet a moment later lets him know that he has his support if he has to throw the book away from time to time.

Bullitt is a good film that would have been better had it given its central character a more important case to work on. Ross is not an international terrorist or the head of a crime family, and neither his arrest nor his escape would likely have much of an impact on society, and because of this, the film lacks a realistic sense of urgency. I’m aware that the same could be said about movies like The Thin Man. Sometimes the characters are just more interesting than the case they are solving, and that doesn’t automatically weaken a film. This is true, but at least you get to laugh during The Thin Man. All I got to do during Bullitt was look at my watch a few times and wonder why a man with a gun was running away from a man without one. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

3 stars

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