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.

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