Monday, December 27, 2010

“Integrity is something you sell to the public.”

1968, a year before Michael Caine and 3 Cooper Minis went on a merry chase through Torino in The Italian Job, Steve McQueen took his Ford Mustang through the streets of San Francisco in Bullitt. You bet your ass its time for the greatest car chase in cinema history.

Lieutenant Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) is a tough detective, a man who’s known to get results, even if he is a bit of a loose cannon at times. That reputation for results at any cost is what brings him to the attention of ambitious District At tourney Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughan), a man looking for dependable cops to protect a key witness against the mob, a key witness who also happened to run off with a large chunk of said mob’s money. Bullitt and his team are put on babysitting duty, and then it all goes to hell. The witness ends up dead and one of Bullitt’s men is in the hospital. Frank…doesn’t take it well, and he makes it his personal mission to find the guys who killed the witness and along the way uncovers a few interesting twists and turns. Bullitt is clearly a cowboy cop, but this isn’t an action movie. There’s a lot of investigation, a lot of angry scowling, and a lot of really thick tension as we watch Bullitt blur the line between doing his job and going rogue.

Directed by Peter Yates, the obvious thing to talk about is the almost ten minute long car chase ¾ of the way through. In it, McQueen (who did his own driving in the scene) chases after a Dodge with two shotgun toting hitmen in it. It lacks the flash and busy editing of modern car chases, but more than makes up for it in narrative punch and character moments. Yes, a car chase with no dialogue and not much music is able to tell a self-contained story of cat & mouse between two cars while still being exciting. It starts off slow, builds and ultimately explodes onto the freeway. It sounds kind of silly to always look to Bullitt as the best car chase ever, but after having seen it (and in the context of the movie), I’m inclined to agree. Yes, its an impressive set piece, but its also building tension and moving the plot forward without words. There should be a “Car Chases 101” class for this kind of storytelling.

And that’s really something the movie does well. It escalates tension in a methodical and deliberate way. This isn’t a “blink and you’ll miss it” action movie. Some scenes, like a chase through a hospital, seem to go on for a very long time, but its all tightly calculated to keep you guessing and wondering.

Screenplay by Alan R. Trustman and Harry Kleiner. Based on the novel “Mute Witness” by Robert L. Pike. The story is full of interesting details, and much like real police work, the majority of it involves investigation and a lot of boring legwork occasionally peppered by violence. The medical scenes (a lot of the movie takes place in a hospital) are also quite interesting to watch, since you get a decent look at medical practice in the late 60s. And yeah, there’s a really interesting twist along the way.

Original music by Lalo Schifrin, and my only complaint is that there wasn’t enough of it. Seriously, Schifrin was an awesome composer, but there really wasn’t a lot of music in the movie. It is surprisingly quiet and restrained.

Bullitt has a well deserved reputation for having one of, if not THE best car chases in movie history, but that same reputation works against it, since it makes you think its an action movie. It is not. In a lot of ways it’s an early Neo Noir where you have a deeply flawed protagonist finding himself falling deeper and deeper into an ugly situation where there’s no easy way out of. Taken with that mindset, the movie is an incredibly taut thriller and totally recommended.

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