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2012/08/05

Bullitt

By Jav Rivera

Because Steve McQueen is "The King of Cool".  That's all that should be needed to get people to watch the spectacular, and award-winning, Bullitt.  But as time moves, more and more (possibly younger) people are forgetting what an impact McQueen had on film and society.


Bullitt's introduction immediately grabs the audience with William A. Fraker's innovative lighting and camera work, Lalo Schifrin's sly music, Frank P. Keller's editing, and Pablo Ferro's amazing titles.  Most of all, it creates a mood that prepares you for the next one hundred and ten minutes of brilliant filmmaking.


Oddly enough, McQueen doubted his skills as an actor, but no other film proves his abilities more than his portrayal of the titular character in Peter Yates' first American film, Bullitt. Both McQueen and Director Yates were in perfect tune to the project's power of reality, something in which McQueen had an inherent gift.  The pair also focused on a "show don't tell" style of filming.  (The style basically uses a character's body language rather than dialogue.)  Throughout the film, McQueen tells so much more through his eyes than his words, a practice that has proven to be one of the film's most powerful techniques.

Steve McQueen as "Det. Lt. Frank Bullitt" with his 1967 Ford Mustang GT
As explained during the director's commentary (found on the bonus-heavy Bluray disc, which also includes several featurettes about McQueen), Yates describes the amount of effort the pair made on making things realistic, including the use of real people (doctors, police officers, etc.) as well as real locations. (This was one the first feature films to be shot in San Francisco.)

The commentary, well worth listening to, also gives great insight into the humble excitement of Yates towards a film that he still hails as one of his best experiences.  Through his explanations of key moments, especially ones highlighting McQueen's astonishingly detailed acting, it's easy to hear the professionalism and childlike wonderment of the director.

McQueen and Director Peter Yates
Yates goes on to describe Bullitt as a western.  After hearing this, it's easy to find the many similarities: the quiet man with morals surrounded by shady characters, the safety of his female counterpart, and even the stability of his Mustang (in place of a horse).

The screenplay (written by Alan Trustman and Harry Kleiner) is unique for the fact that the main storyline (the actual case being investigated) is used as a secondary story, and switched for the main character's story.  In other words, without great announcement, the story of Bullitt becomes more important than the actual case.  This, at the time, was unusual, and has since become commonplace by today's standards.


Then there's that infamous car chase.  McQueen was adamant that he do all his own stunt driving, most of which remained in the final cut.  The 1967 Ford Mustang GT, which was featured prominently during this scene, has become a collector's dream.  The scene begins in San Francisco's hilly streets and moves onto the freeway.  It's dangerous, thrilling, and beyond words.  In fact, it's best to leave the details of this scene in the hands of the film.  Trying to put words to something as visually impressive as this is somewhat pointless.  After viewing, it should be easy to imagine the scene being used as a prime example for stunt drivers, as well as for editors.  What can be said, however, is the use of music during the scene, or, better described as a lack of music.  Despite some introductory music to establish the mood, the scene loses all unnecessary sounds and focuses on the vehicles.  It was another way to keep the scene as realistic as possible.  The sounds of the engines and tires were music enough to keep the audience at the edge of their seat.

"That" car chase.
The car may have become one of the film's most iconic images, but McQueen was also surrounded by an amazing supporting cast.  Simon Oakland's sympathetic captain gave great presence and believability as someone who could command an actor as well-known as McQueen.  Don Gordon (a close friend to McQueen) played dutifully as his partner, "Delgetti".  The magnificent Robert Vaughn played sleazy, yet polite, lawyer, "Chalmers".  "Cathy", though used mostly to show the softer side of "Bullitt", was played gracefully by the lovely Jacqueline Bisset.

(left) Robert Vaughn   -   (right) Jacqueline Bisset
It has become somewhat of an inside joke to the cast and crew of Bullitt that many of the supporting actors were given more dialogue to make up for McQueen's insistence to say less.  He wasn't trying to work less; if anything, he was doing more with his facial reactions.  And it helped intensify the power of his dialogue, adding more weight to his words by only speaking when necessary.

L-R: Norman Fell, Simon Oakland, Don Gordon, and McQueen
Bullitt stands the test of time.  Beyond that groundbreaking car chase, the film's heart lies within its portrayal of real life.  And McQueen's stoic hero with morals is a perfect example of underplaying a character.  McQueen makes even the smallest of tasks (e.g. stealing a newspaper) shockingly entertaining.  Any smart actor would use this as a study in film acting.  And any smart director would use this as a study in the use of great character and realistic filmmaking.


For more information on Bullitt visit IMDb: www.imdb.com/title/tt0062765

TRIVIA: Steve McQueen based his character on San Francisco Homicide Inspector Dave Toschi, made famous for his work on the Zodiac killings. McQueen had a copy made of Toschi's custom fast-draw shoulder holster. This is referenced by Jake Gyllenhaal's character in David Fincher's 2007 film Zodiac.

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