Bullitt

I once wrote a post on this joint called Being Steve McQueen. The whole idea of it was that as blokes he’s the sort of character we look up to and aspire to be. That’s a big call. Fuck, we all know that’s not going to happen, but a little whimsical dreaming isn’t going to do much harm.

Like every cool person McQueen was cool without trying. That was the essence of it really. It was undemonstrative attitude. He didn’t care much what anyone thought about him, but didn’t care about it enough to make an issue of it. He went his own way and that was it.

Off screen he dated and married beautiful actresses and drove racing cars. On screen he was always composed and in control. A squint of the eyes, a tight, quickly flashed smile were pretty much the only things he gave away. No wonder men all over the place wanted to be him. He was it, the man’s man, hardy, tough, daring, stoic, and popular with the girls.

I was thinking about him last night as I watched another of his classic performances. He might have set the die in the early ’60’s with The Great Escape, but it was a run of big movies from the mid ’60’s to the early ’70’s that really cemented the image of the tough dude of few words but lots of action.

The Sand Pebbles. The Thomas Crown Affair, Bullitt, The Getaway, and Papillion are all great movies. Last night I watched Bullitt again for the umpteenth time, with my nephew – the movie buff – sitting beside me watching for the very first time. (A sidenote – I watched this movie with his dad about a dozen years ago in Yarck, both of us staying up late to watch it while everyone else was in bed. He’s no longer around.)

I reckon I’ve watched Bullitt 7 or 8 times, at about 3-4 year intervals. It’s a classic crime movie, spare and stylish, and contains what is possibly the greatest ever car chase filmed, up and down the hilly streets of San Francisco.

I enjoyed it all over again. I know it pretty well by now (including reading the book one year in KL – which is a bit different), but the gap between viewings is sufficient that I’m still gripped by the twists and turns of the plot. And Steve McQueen is an alluring character.

This is one of those movies you hope they never re-make (like the original Getaway, remade into a much inferior version in the nineties). The original is just right. Besides having McQueen star in it there are plenty of other reasons. For a start it’s hard to imagine a better backdrop than San Francisco in the late sixties. It’s a beautifully shot, beautifully directed movie. The director is Peter Yates, one of the good director’s of the era. He tells the story with style meshed with a kind of bare-boned simplicity. The music is by a sixties icon, Lalo Schifrin, but it’s used sparingly. The car chase scene is a great example. It’s shot great, but the only thing we hear for 3-4 minutes of its duration is the roar of the engines – particularly the throaty Mustang – and the screech of the wheels on the road. It makes for a visceral experience. There’s no need for artificial excitement.

On top of all that Yates lets the action and the characters tell the story. He doesn’t try to boost it. He’s got the biggest movie star in the world in the lead role, a great script, and set in one of the most happening cities on the globe. He didn’t need to embellish.

See, that’s where I would think it would fall down these days. There are directors who might be restrained enough to do a good job of it, but the predominate theme these days is to go bigger, louder, more extreme. A movie like this would be made flashier, and Frank Bullitt himself transformed from an understated cop doing his job, muscular but human, to the kind of invincible hero of the streets Hollywood now specialises in. Less is more in the original Bullitt, but these days mostly, more is more.

Anyway, no need to make again. The perfect version has been filmed. Leave it at that.

 

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