Bullitt (1968)

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There was never a better city for crime pictures than San Francisco. Much of this reputation comes from Bullitt and the enduring cool of its hero Steve McQueen. He had many great films and he was a part of some truly epic ensembles including The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, but Bullitt is unequivocally ruled by “The King of Cool.” There is no other focal point.

Frank (McQueen) and his partner Delgetti (Don Gordon) have an authentically antagonistic relationship running deep. Because they know, without saying anything, they have each other’s backs. However, the ensuing events lay out a premise that will test them incessantly. Self-aggrandizing political hopeful Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughan) is intent on presenting his key witness Johnny Ross (Felice Orlandi) before the Senate to spearhead his clamp down on organized crime. He’s handpicked Bullitt to give his valuable asset around-the-clock protection until he’s called upon to testify. He knows the cops exploits are popular with the local press and for Chalmers, every decision is an attempt to vie for candidacy.

For Bullitt, it’s just his job and so he Delgetti and a family man named Stanton take on the assignment ready to sit it out with Ross in a two-bit hotel room feeling like sitting targets with the large windows inviting prying eyes. Even as a certain of apprehension is maintained, the police set up watch and tell Ross to get comfortable. But the status quo was not to be. Stanton’s shift gets disrupted by a brutally unsentimental hit on a hotel room.

Ross gets blown through with a shotgun by two fugitives and Stanton is left for dead as well. Things truly ignite as Bullitt looks to pursue the culprit and feels the residual heat from Chalmers who is ready to make Frank’s life a living hell. Buying time, he hides Ross’s body to keep it out of the news and goes after the men he knows will lead him to his elusive answer.

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Aside from his motorcycle riding in The Great Escape, Bullitt‘s car chase is McQueen’s finest hour as an action star. Though he shared stunt driving duties in both films with industry-pro Bud Ekins, there’s little doubt his persona was well-deserved and he plays the part well.

10 minutes bouncing and thudding through the streets of San Francisco. Epic panoramas of the chase, swerving through traffic and careening around street corners leading to a straightaway where we get to see The Dodge Charger and Mustang really fly.

The enigmatic nature is the key to the rhythms the story settles into. It’s this sense of uneasiness mixed with pavement and payphone realism as Bullitt does the heavy lifting involved with chasing leads.

The beats of the procedural feel methodical and genuinely authentic while never obscuring the fact this is a thriller with pulsating ebb and flow. Because the best action movies are exactly that: action. Not simply in the climactic moments but the mundane. They rarely get weighed down by exposition or dialogue that we have to slog through. And as a result, they are won and lost in the ambiguity.

Director Peter Yates was hand-picked for the project based on his work on Robbery from the year prior, complete with its own defining car chase. Then, screenwriter Alan R. Trustman works with Harry Kleiner to follow up The Thomas Crown Affair, his other vehicle for McQueen.

Bullitt became the standard neo-noir cop film to measure all others from William Friedkin’s French Connection, its East Coast rival, to Dirty Harry and many of the later works of David Fincher including Se7en and Zodiac.

The film is blessed with unprecedented access to San Francisco, which would be all but unheard of today. From streets being closed off, to shooting in full hospital wings, and taking over SFO airport for an evening. These authentic locations all throughout the city not only guarantee a certain degree of authenticity, they also meant Bullitt needed no sets.

Because at the time the picture was shot, S.F. was not necessarily a film mecca though films such as The Sniper, The Lineup, and of course Vertigo were shot there. But Bullitt and other equally atmospheric projects captured its shading for all posterity in the subsequent years. It became so much a part of the cultural consciousness Peter Bogdanovich would very purposely do a sendup of the chase in his neo-screwball What’s Up, Doc.

Handheld Arriflex cameras allow Yates a fluidity and a similar intimacy with the real world that all but plants us in the environment. Steve McQueen racing across the tarmac to nab his man, ducking and diving under oncoming planes taxiing out masks nothing. It feels real and fearless in a way that’s hardly for show. McQueen embodies this type of tenacity.

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In the end, it’s not much of a spoiler that we see another bloody body, this time with wounds inflicted by the police and we’re reminded how similar they look. Yes, one was committed as an act of crime, the other an attempt to maintain public safety but they both lay there horribly mangled.

If the film began with an unsentimental gut punch then it’s safe to assume it would not change and thankfully it does not. Bullitt is the quintessential police film with grit and violence, forged through by a cop who’s willing to go rogue and stand in the face of powerful men to uphold his responsibility. He’s not looking to make a name for himself. Even as he pushes back against the establishment, he’s reined in by his own moral compass. It’s what guides him.

Jacqueline Bisset is enchanting as his girlfriend though she isn’t given much of a purpose in the film except for providing him someone to go home to. She is a much-needed person to draw out the more sensitive side of his normally guarded self. But she’s also the one to put into question his line of work: “Do you let anything reach you? I mean, really reach you? Or are you so used to it by now that nothing really touches you? You’re living in a sewer, Frank.”

Here is the conflict I imagine within most any police officer. This internal tug-of-war between wading through the refuse to clean up the streets and becoming one with it. Of becoming so used to evil, you’re soon callous and cynical toward all good. When the only way to fight violence is with violence in an equal and opposite direction.

At the very least it spells a compromise of integrity and morals and of a belief system. If that’s getting a little too moralistic, know Bullitt is just about the best police procedural we ever had. It certainly holds a well-deserved place in the pantheon of crime genre archetypes. With or without morals.

4.5/5 Stars

Day for Night (1973)

dayfornightposter10 years prior Jean-Luc Godard made his own film about movie-making entitled Contempt (1963). It too delved into what it looked like to make films, as well as the individuals behind the camera because their relationships undoubtedly affect what is revealed in front of it. His colleague Francois Truffaut came out with his own meta-film about film, but Godard was open with his criticism. In fact, their long friendship suffered because Godard accused his longtime collaborator of selling out and telling a lie.

However, if we look at Day for Night today, that feels a little harsh, because while Truffaut’s film is engrossing and different than his earlier New Wave work, he is, in general, a more accessible director on the whole than Godard. That should certainly not take away from what he gifted to his audience. What he does is color the lines between film and real life. Because, while one mirrors reality, it can never quite replicate it and things get messy when the two begin to get in the way of each other.

Immediately we are thrown into a street scene only to learn minutes later that it’s only a set; these commonplace people only extras filling up a cinematic space. It’s the perfect entry point into the meta nature of the film. Ferrand (Truffaut himself) is the director flooded with all your typical problems, setbacks, and deadlines. He must work around his stars, navigating the drama that comes about with so many personalities all gathered together. Severine is a has-been starlet with troubles remembering her lines. Alexandre is her love interest, a fading star in his own right who is aging gracefully. Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Leaud) is the young heartthrob, who secured a script girl position for his girlfriend, but their playful romance is not without bumps. All the while everyone waits with baited breath for the arrival of transcontinental star Julie Baker (Jacqueline Bisset), who has recently recovered from a nervous breakdown followed by a marriage to a distinguished doctor.

We are privy to series of takes, rushes, and all the decisions that are going on behind the scenes. It is in many ways far fuller and more in-depth than the picture Godard gives, but Truffaut maintains the same respect for his heroes. He goes so far as name dropping: Hitchcock, Hawks, Bresson, Godard himself, Bergman, Rossellini, Lubitsch, Bunuel, Jean Vigo, Jean Cocteau, not to mention an initial dedication to the Gish sisters. Even Citizen Kane and The Godfather, two of cinema’s landmark achievements, are both alluded to in passing.

But adding an exclamation point to everything is the drama of death, romantic affairs, and even a pregnancy, suggesting that life is a lot messier than a moving picture. All the strips of celluloid get tied together in a nice bow. They can be explained away by a plot point. They can be completely discarded on the cutting room floor. Or a double can be hired as an easy fix for any discrepancy. In this, there is a falseness that fails to perfectly align with reality. There is no perfect way to convey the truth, because everything, even a documentary, can never be complete subjective reality. A mirror image is only a reflection of what is real. That is part of what Truffaut is getting at and that is part of the irony of his row with Godard.

You only have to look at its title, because Day for Night points to the inherent artificiality of cinema, but Hollywood films especially.  So, far from telling a lie, Truffaut seems to riddle the film industry with all sort of holes, pointing out the difficulties that come with such a business. Life and film may meet and overlap, but they can never truly reconcile their differences because there is bound to be contention along the way that cannot be perfectly remedied by even the greatest director.

But far from condemning the art form, it’s important to realize Truffaut is pronouncing his undying affection for the medium. He was the one who famously asserted, “I have always preferred the reflection of life to life itself.” This man unquestionably loved movies and it shows.

4.5/5 Stars