Sunday, February 19, 2017

Bullitt Approaching 50: Badassery, Beauteous Bisset

By Steve Evans

Let me tell you a story. When I was 10 years old all my buddies wanted to be superheroes or astronauts. I wanted to be Steve McQueen. Cool as ice. Solid as the V-8 Mustang Fastback he drove through the streets of San Francisco at heart-stopping speeds in Bullitt (1968). It’s not just one of the best action-mystery films of the ‘60s, oh no. It’s part of the great American film canon.

A beautifully constructed film, the few technical weaknesses in Bullitt can be discerned only by careful repeat viewings by film obsessives (“hello,” he said). More on that in a moment. But little things like continuity errors, to me, are irrelevant when Jacqueline Bisset shows up periodically to love on McQueen and express concern for his professional life – as a quietly bad-ass police detective who’s no less hip than the hippies haunting the Haight at the time. She plants a kiss on McQueen just to get the party started and I feel lightning crackle through my mind. Hot damn; that’s quality acting. McQueen's last scene in the film, staring wearily in the mirror, speaks volumes about his inner turmoil, whether he can give up being a cop to make a life with Bisset, because by then it's become pretty damn clear that the options are mutually exclusive. The film ends on an ambivalent note for McQueen's detective. Sometimes you wonder what happens to the characters after the movie ends. I always root for him to choose Bisset as the credits roll. That's his essential dilemma: commit to a woman who deeply loves him or drive around like a wild fool and shoot bad guys who desperately need to be shot. Not many men get to confront such an intriguing choice against the backdrop of a crackling murder mystery (Bullitt won the Edgar award for best screenplay).

Listening to the original score playing over the opening credits, I thought the tone and jazz rhythms sounded familiar and Dirty Harry (1971) came to mind. Hooray for Google: as it happens, composer Lalo Schifrin wrote the score for both films. He created that intense theme for Mission: Impossible, too.

Schifrin’s collaboration with director Peter Yates was one of many in Bullitt that sculpt the feel of the film. There’s never a lull, not one unnecessary scene. Look fast and you'll see Robert Duvall in a small but important role as a cabbie who provides crucial information. Truly, this film could be improved only with more Jackie Bisset.

The justly famous car chase in Bullitt lasts barely 10 minutes, but that’s enough. Few can withstand the jolting rush of adrenaline longer than that. McQueen did much, not all, of his own stunt driving in that growling Mustang, occasionally reaching speeds a tick above 110 mph. It’s a complex chase sequence that by the necessity of the plot covers impossible geography, as anyone familiar with San Francisco will recognize. For instance, you can’t drive past Coit Tower and two blocks over hop on the freeway. Using multiple takes shot at different angles, the sequence betrays a few other amusing mistakes, like, McQueen’s Mustang and the bad guys’ Dodge Charger pass the same green VW Bug three times. In watching the film for the umpteenth time last night, I also noticed that the Dodge loses six hubcaps during the course of the chase. These slight imperfections are obscured by the Oscar-winning editing.

And there are other wonderful distractions, whether you're 10 years old or flying down the freeway in a hunter-green Mustang at some older and more reckless age, full of vinegar, piss and testosterone. That's right: Jackie Bisset’s in it.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

By Steve Evans
Netflix is producing an adaptation of the one Stephen King novel I've long considered unfilmable -- Gerald's Game, published in 1992. It's my favorite of King's books, although in truth I've plowed through less than a dozen of his 54 novels so maybe I'm missing out. This one, though, is a psychological doozy.

Lots of people are looking forward to the upcoming big-budget adaptation of It, King 's five pound door jam of a novel. But news of this quiet little production from Netflix has got me cautiously hopeful that it might turn out interesting.


That's because film adaptation
s of King's books are a mixed bag. David Cronenberg's adaptation of The Dead Zone (1983), Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (the 1980 film that King reportedly hated) and Brian De Palma's Carrie (1976) are riveting. Others, like Firestarter, Christine and Pet Sematary, are just silly.

I admire the producers for even trying to film the twisted tale that is Gerald's Game. Most of the story is confined to a bedroom in an isolated cabin in the woods. Briefly, the tale recounts a trophy wife handcuffed to the bed by her kinky husband for sex games. When he suddenly drops dead, she's trapped without food or water and not a soul within 100 miles...well...at least no one you'd want to meet under such circumstances.

This book really got under my skin. Shuddering even now in recollection of a couple key scenes.

T
he film just finished principal photography with a cast of mostly unknowns. No streaming date announced yet, though we can expect it this year.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Fear "The Unknown"

By Steve Evans

A 23-year-old Joan Crawford stares down the immortal Lon Chaney in The Unknown (1927). Marvelous rainy-day film directed by horror specialist Tod Browning, who made 10 films with Chaney and transitioned into talkies with Dracula (1931) and the legendary Freaks (1932), an oft-misunderstood film greeted with such outrage on initial release that it effectively ended his career.

Here, Chaney plays an armless knife thrower in a Spanish carnival, in love with the owner's daughter. Except he's actually hiding his arms, wrapped tightly beneath his shirt, because he's a criminal fugitive who can be identified by the double-thumb on his left hand. Murders, double-crosses and a shocking (for its day) twist ending make The Unknown one of the great surviving silent films. The performances are uniformly astounding, with the consensus being this is Chaney's best work for Browning. It's certainly his most twisted.

The Unknown was considered a lost film until 1968 when a print was found in the archives of the Cinémathèque Française in Paris. The delay in discovery was because the print had been stored among hundreds of other film canisters labeled "L'inconnu" ("Unknown" in French).

I'm thinking of bringing back the gypsy look.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Beware Dr. Mabuse

By Steve Evans

Meet criminal mastermind Dr. Mabuse. (Mah-boo-zaa) Not someone you'd want to see climbing through your bedroom window at night with a knife in his teeth.

Image from the great 1933 Fritz Lang film, Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse. Hitler banned the film on grounds it was an "incitement to public disorder" and the Austrian-born Lang soon after fled Germany for Paris, eventually emmigrating to America in 1935. Perhaps the greatest of the German Expressionists, Lang also directed Metropolis (1927) and M (1931), widely acknowledged as his masterpiece.

Dr. Mabuse reminds me of Trump without his teevee makeup.