Friday, 14 December 2018

Bullitt (1968)

After a screening of Bullitt (Peter Yates 1968) my students spent some time discussing who exactly Chalmers was (the character played by Robert Vaughn) and what exactly had happened. Who was killed in the hotel room and who was shot at the airport? I find it exhilarating that the film is so oblique. Those who made it were not deliberately trying to be confusing but there is hardly any exposition. Since everybody in the film know each other and are on the same page they do not spend time telling each other things they already know but that might be beneficial for us. The film is patient, meticulous and meandering, so it is not impossible to follow what is happening, but in order to grasp the significance of what is happening and where the police investigation of that first murder takes us, you need to pay attention. The film is not giving anything away for free and does not provide summaries or explanations. I think the approach of Yates and scriptwriters Alan R. Trustman and Harry Kleiner shows a level of trust in the audience, a belief in our attention span and cognitive abilities. Such respect is frequently lacking among filmmakers of mainstream hits today, where characters often provide a running commentary on all that is happening, has happened and will happen.

McQueen and Vaughn

Bullitt, which I have seen many times, has more good things to offer besides this trust. It is for example one of the great films of San Francisco and uses the locations to utmost effect, not only in the celebrated car chase. The cinematography by William A. Fraker is overall very good and the film combines stylish, moody shots with raw, naturalistic shots, all helping to create the mood and style of a film both artful and real. That most of the film is without a score adds to this feeling. It is only in a few instances that Lalo Schifrin's jazzy score appears, and then quickly disappears again.

Clearly I am very fond of Bullitt, including the nice scene where Bullitt/McQueen goes shopping for groceries in a small corner shop, but I am also interested by the history behind the production of it, and its transitional place in Hollywood cinema. It was made just as what is frequently, and often confusingly, labelled "New Hollywood" is said to have begun, although Bullitt is rarely spoken off in relation to films such as Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn 1967) or The Graduate (Mike Nichols 1967). But it is as interesting (and as a film better) as those two, and several others. It was also made the same year as Madigan (Don Siegel 1968), with which it has some similarities but also important differences.

Jacqueline Bisset with McQueen

Steve McQueen had just started his own production company, Solar Productions, with Robert E. Relyea, and, with Solar having cut a deal with Warner Bros.-Seven Arts, McQueen had almost full control over the making of Bullitt. Its producer was Philip D'Antoni, whose focus was also on gritty naturalism, but McQueen had the script, hired the writers, oversaw the casting and hired the director, and made sure everything stayed true to how he envisioned the film. But he and the director, Yates, seem to have had the same idea, of making it as true to life as possible. McQueen wanted Yates after having seen his film from 1967, Robbery, and Bullitt would be Yates's first American film. The films are not particularly similar except for the emphasis on real locations and as little exposition as possible. But what seems to primarily have caught McQueen's interest was the car chase that opens Robbery, through the streets of London. A car chase is also what Bullitt is most famous for, here on the streets of San Francisco. The emphasis is again on naturalism, with McQueen partly driving himself and instead of music there is only the sounds of engines and tyres. It is a powerful effect, and it gives the chase a peculiar feeling. The shooting of it keeps the cars in their context, so you are very aware of where they are in relation to each other, to other cars, other buildings and in San Francisco. It is the opposite of car chases in for example The Bourne Supremacy (Paul Greengrass 2004) in which everything is fragmented and dislocational.

But already three years after Bullitt, William Friedkin staged the car chase in French Connection (1971, also produced by D'Antoni) in a distinctly more chaotic way than Bullitt and with more emphasis on cutting than long takes. A development which could be seen as an example of what David Bordwell refers to as "intensified continuity". The look of French Connection overall is also rougher than Bullitt, which feels smoother or warmer (I am not sure which words are most helpful). Another way of putting it is that cinematographer Owen Roizman's style of shooting and lighting French Connection is not the same as Fraker's on Bullitt, and the style of shooting and lighting in the 1960s differs, on average, from the 1970s. A combination of different artistic choices and larger historical trends.

After French Connection, Philip D'Antoni made The Seven-Ups (1973) as an unacknowledged sequel, this time as director as well as producer. It too has an elaborate car chase but for each film they seem to lose something. Yates is a better director than both Friedkin and D'Antoni. Another person who needs to be mentioned is the stunt driver Bill Hickman, who played a part in designing the chase of Bullitt. He also plays the hitman who drives the car McQueen is pursuing, and he also drove the car in the chase in French Connection as well as a car in The Seven-Ups.

Hickman in Bullitt

Siegel's Madigan, mentioned above, is similar in structure to Bullitt (a few days during which two weary cops look for a killer) and while Siegel also aimed for realism and verisimilitude, he was unable to convince the producers to shoot it all in actual locations and it shows. It does diminish the film, however good Richard Widmark is in the title role, and however excellent the staging of individual scenes is. It is also a plot-heavy film, with several parallel stories unfolding, which is an important difference from Bullitt too. A similarity though is the unpredictability of them. It is part of the appeal of these police thrillers from this time that you do not know whether the main character will get killed or not in the end. Sometimes they die, sometimes they live. Even when re-watching one of them I sometimes catch myself wondering how it will end this time.

Another point of comparison is with Siegel's earlier thriller The Lineup (1958). It has a very different plot (two contract killers clearing up after a failed drug delivery) but it is shot on location in San Francisco and it has a good car chase. It is one of Siegel's very best films, and while it cannot be said to be an inspiration for Bullitt, it is a reminder that the latter was not the first car chase through San Francisco. But the sequence in Bullitt is significantly longer, more complex and advanced. It is something new.

The Lineup

Bullitt was a key film in McQueen's career, and one of his biggest successes at the box office. It is also a key film in Yates's career. Yates made three great police thrillers, Robbery, Bullitt and The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) but despite his obvious skills it is probably right to say that on Bullitt it was McQueen who was the most influential person on set.



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By Yates I can also recommend, for example, Murphy's War (1971), a British war film with Peter O'Toole; The Hot Rock (1972), scripted by William Goldman; and Breaking Away (1979), his first cooperation with writer Steve Tesich.

Having too much exposition and dialogue directed to the audience rather than to any character in the film is obviously not a new thing. A film like On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan 1954) is not exactly subtle or oblique, and it has all kinds of speeches for our benefit rather than for the benefits of the characters. This is common enough in films. But then it at least serves some narrative or thematic purpose. Today it often feels like there is exposition for the sake of exposition. Maybe there is a fear of people being distracted by their mobile phones and therefore losing track of the story, or maybe a fear of being accused of plot holes. As a general rule, people who complain about plot holes have just not been paying enough attention. They would not like Yates's films.

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