Sunday, June 07, 2009

"Bullitt" (1968) - Movie Classics

In the San Francisco Hospital, the titular character Frank Bullitt charmed by Steve McQueen watches a witness victim being treated by the team of doctors inside the operation theatre. As he walks down after visiting a wounded colleague in the attack he sees that through the small window on the door. For several minutes we see doctors requesting incision equipments and so many scissors. No music runs through. In fact except for few occasions, the sounds we hear are the natural noises and yells of the artificial traffic and the bright afternoon desolating the streets of San Francisco. And we do not see McQueen for that window of time. We go through what Bullitt sees observing and wondering whether that effort is going to bring back the guy who was under his protection as appointed by an uprising politician Chalmers, played with the classy sleaziness by Robert Vaughn.

“Bullitt” is not your average action thriller. It has a central character choosing to communicate through silence and sullen face. He is succinct and he is called upon for work by Chalmers. When Chalmers meets him, we see a considerable difference in their body language. Chalmers tries to pose enormous amount of responsibility on the assignment he is ordering Frank to do. Frank is casual but not condescending. While it is new for the politician, it is the job he does. Yet he is not modest nor is he sarcastic. However seriousness with an emotional indifference we bring to our work in the tables, similar is Frank’s reaction. The numbness though is not alone in the regular assignment of dangerous situations but towards the death and doom he endures.

Steve McQueen is a stunner in how he carries the character. He is not a zombie nor a socially inept being taking his work on his back. He has a girl friend (Jacqueline Bisset) and he shields the nastiness his line of work needs to put up. She knows it and wants to partake in that pain. He smiles and tell her to sleep. He gels very easily in a table with his friends and in it we do not hear dialogues but the ambience in the lightness on their face and the music that is played.

Bullitt has some of the craziest stunts you could imagine for the 1960s. In it we get the camera vision of the things we know is a definite danger to the camera man. And the classic car chase amongst the up and down streets of the beautiful sunshiny San Francisco is the first time you see the choreography of that stunt as an art form. As Bullitt surprises his tailing buddies spinning the table back at them by following, they take off in to the concrete mountains of the city. In that they cruise through the bushes of cars while Bullitt does the same. Of course the best part is that we are in the passenger seat when Frank is full throttle and swings the steering to break out its limits.

Director Peter Yates strips off the dramatic elements and the sudden surprising movements not in the stunts but in the characters to bare minimal. There is not funny one liners or a cool passing of comments to fill the gaps between the action. It is the closest a thriller film could come to the realism. While the action is there, we see the real danger than as an entertainment. But mainly we see that as any other job, the rest of the time is a clock work, most of the times ending with a failure quite physically down, as the death of a suspect or a witness.

But mind you, that the procedure of stripping of the amplified drama does not amputate the character study of this man. And his values are not a caravan of a politician’s speech but having it under his skin to conduct it to his best abilities. He speaks when asked by the right person and with the right question. His girl friend while giving a ride to Frank comes to see a murder scene. She is disgusted, feared and the whole future with Frank flashes through. While in other films where it would have been used as a catapult for creating more pressure on the tired Lieutenant, “Bullitt” cares it with the persona of not alone Frank but also his girl friend’s point of view. She knows the dirtiness but would like to live without its notice. That is what Frank was doing all this time.

The people in the film move as our bosses, foes and friends. A supportive boss (Simon Oakland) holding the doors from letting Chalmers and his influence buddies making them concede to their orders. And he behaves as the boss not able to withstand beyond his power. Chalmers might appear as the cinematic political villain but Robert Vaughn is subtle, as a member of the government servant. He presents in an immaculate suit and hair combed to detail delivers request and commands with a concealed token of power and bribery. He is the scheming personality coming as the man who knows how to make a deal with the devil and stand upright to attract many others on his self righteous explanation of compromises. Not to Bullitt though who throughout the film avoids speaking with him and responds only once with more than few sentences and ending with a “Bullsh*t”.

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