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Thursday, August 08, 2019

1968's Fastest Chase

Bullitt Sets a Lone Cop Standard

Got Milk? McQueen Sets a Good Example for Youthful Following
I'm listening to the CD soundtrack as I write this. Lalo Schiffrin's music could accompany a film released tomorrow and be as fresh. Bullitt played likeably then and as much so now, a 60's ideal man no less so fifty years later. You can gauge changing ways by movie hats, or lack of them. Bullitt saw this and other male habits out. Like wearing pajamas. Even Steve McQueen couldn't re-popularize those, but iconoclast that he is, he'll wear them to bed with Jacqueline Bisset, her willing to take him however way she can. And these are goofy pajamas, woolly and odd-patterned like something he kept from home and mother. It may be a screen’s best endorsement for a man just being himself, which to that add McQueen having a full glass of milk with his sandwich. He also buys asparagus when he markets, a healthy choice before it became fashionable to make healthy choices. McQueen doing the un-cool rendered it cool (then why was he so insecure --- lack of formal education?). We all might profitably put on pajamas and have milk and asparagus for supper. And too, who’d not trade Masters, Doctorates, what not, to be Steve McQueen?

There was a college-era bar where televisions played silent for atmosphere. One crowded night, November 1, 1973 (CBS premiere), saw imbibers transfixed as the Bullitt chase began on multiple 22" screens before us. Everyone stopped, held glasses, looking no longer at each other but at the tube. Imagination provided its own engine sounds, or maybe we remembered Bullitt screech and roar from theatres and would not need them now. It was a memorable moment for knowing what the right movie could do to a crowd otherwise distracted, Bullitt's chase hypnotic even on a night out-and-away from TV glare. To further transition, note seat belts as needed accessory where pursuit gets hot. Even the heavies use them, if nothing else than to announce a rugged drive ahead, so buckle up, and with leather gloves. We'd soon use belts for Sunday driving as well as car chasing, or ought to. It's become law in most states. Did folks disdain the precaution because it made them feel less like free spirits? Perhaps Bullitt contributed to safety straps as cool accessory, if not a necessary one. Who knows, maybe it saved some lives.

It Got Shown Lots in '68, and Now It's a Blu-Ray Extra
Bullitt was not about the counterculture. Neither was Steve McQueen, until he bit the apple that was drugs and unsightly fashion that let down fans in the 70’s. SMc was the great leading man who tossed it all away. He did Bullitt and we thought, bring on more Bullitts, at least further cop thrillers. Today there'd be four or five of them in as many years. I reviewed Bullitt for a local newspaper in 1968. My column was mostly about the chase, which as I look back on it, was what everyone at the time talked about. It would be the same a few years later with The French Connection. The Mustang McQueen drove (weren’t there two of them?) was rescued decades later from a Mexican junkyard, or so I hear. There are hours devoted to all this at You Tube. Would it be the most valued movie-used car in history? Runner-ups might include the Batmobile, or James Bond’s Aston-Martin, maybe the hot rod Herman Munster drove. Even relics from Fireball 500 are prized, so skies must be the limit.

Steve Wanted it Real, So Insisted Bullitt Be Made in Frisco

Solar's Boss Calls Bullitt Shots
There was a short subject Warner-commissioned to show McQueen's driving talent, it being for us to know that he was behind wheels for fastest action, a point of pride not unlike Harold Lloyd doing his own building climb in silent days. What I note of SMcQ motorist skill is smooth way he parallel parks, a skill too few have. Then there is McQueen locking his car door with a key. Now there is retro. Movies from the 50's forward are charmingly quaint when they address miracles of an emerging computer age. Bullitt has a telecopier that spits out carbon paper and makes noise like Forbidden Planet while everyone stands by impressed, a scene evoking 1947's Call Northside 777, where such device is also utilized to solve crime.

A Herald That Was Inserted Into Participating Newspapers

McQueen produced Bullitt and ran all aspects of the show, casting friends (Don Gordon, Robert Vaughn), and cutting his own dialogue to quick. He picked Peter Yates to direct after being impressed with the British Robbery (1967). McQueen to his credit also insisted on San Francisco location filming. The city still had flakes of glamour left from Vertigo's visit in 1958, but look behind Bullitt players and there is preview of squalor to come, for instance McQueen and cast driving past adult book stores that surely weren't there when Jim Stewart shadowed Kim Novak in Hitchcock's thriller. Arresting too are initial minutes of McQueen following quarry over Frisco hills, prior to break-out of the chase, lots like Stewart doing the same in Vertigo. Singular thrill is this calm morphing into This Is Cinerama on Frisco roller coaster, our driver POV a close ally to sensation had when three-panels got going.

Offbeat and Engaging Ad Copy a Hallmark of Warner 60's Selling

Steve About To Say a Cuss Word That Will Shock (?) His Family Audience

Harsh Crime Scene Reality as Part-Basis for Bullitt's "M" Rating 
Bullitt was an early arrival to diminished coherence school of screen storytelling. In this case it was called a good thing, set-pieces in place of narrative. The blueprint would be rolled out again and more so as plot became less important and 70's sensibility was applied. We'd seen enough TV cops by then to realize that sense mattered less than visceral appeal. Steve McQueen was the lone cop alternative to team players on television, his more the Glenn Ford model from 1953's The Big Heat. To keep simple his message, McQueen dropped too-tough words from dialogue, like "nomenclature," as spoken by Robert Vaughn, which was changed to "parlance" (SMcQ probably wasn't entirely happy with that), the idea being that people who go see Steve McQueen wouldn't know the definition of  nomenclature any more than he did. But would that many more of them be aware of what parlance means? McQueen uses the word “bulls—t” in Bullitt, a surprising vulgarism in 1968. He in fact hesitated, feeling it might betray what he still regarded as his family audience. Bullitt had an “M” rating at dawn of that system that saw the old Production Code out, and I’d guess it was the profanity (actually an only instance of rough language in the film), plus some crime scene gore, that raised the “mature” flag.


Blogger Dave K said...

Pajamas! Glass of milk! Asparagus! Parallel parking! Wonderful, just wonderful observations in this post! What a keen eye you have, John, for the revealing details. Had to reread this piece two more times while having morning coffee, enjoying both so much!

10:19 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

I always loved this film and Lalo Schiffrin's music. There is an RCA Victor LP in which he performs the main theme of the film with most of his original jazz band that was recorded live in a theater in Argentina. It is in YouTube.

1:39 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dave K --- So much appreciate your generous response. As it happens, BULLITT is my very favorite 60's film.

Radiotelefonia --- There is a wonderful CD of ALL Schiffrin's BULLITT score from Film Score Monthly. Highly recommended!

2:37 PM  
Blogger Tommie Hicks said...

My Dad wanted to see BULLITT for our payday movie but the "M" rating put the kibosh on that. Once we went to see a double feature at the drive-in and the second film was MCKENNA'S GOLD. The rating M was shown before the opening credits and Mom said 'Home, James." My Dad and I were disappointed.

9:04 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

In my book, NO ONE defined the term "cool" better then Steve McQueen and Dean Martin.

They didn't try to be cool, they just were.

7:31 AM  
Blogger MikeD said...

I was recently watching "The Seven-Ups" on TCM and thought the baddie driver looked familiar so I looked him up. Turns out it was the same guy being chased by Steve McQueen in "Bullit",Bill Hickman. And if IMDB is to be believed, he also did the driving in "The French Connection". His passenger in "Bullit" with the shotgun was Tom Steele from Republic's "The Masked Marvel" who besides playing the title character, shows up a couple of times as bad guy fodder.
Really entertaining blog today John! I look forward to starting the day with your entries, and if there's not a new one, I hit the archives. Even the comments are a lot of fun!

8:50 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks, MikeD. Very glad to know that the archive is being enjoyed. I keep the indexes updated to make searching easier. 2177 columns at Greenbriar since 2005.

9:36 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

As I recall -- and you can correct me -- the chase scene relied on sound effects without a note of music. Today, it would be wall to wall score, as if mistrusting the action onscreen.

McQueen wasn't a great actor, but he was definitely a 24-karat star, the likes of which are becoming increasingly rare.

1:52 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Great post. However the illustration at the top is tops. THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI just can't be topped. Not by anyone.

2:03 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

Here is a rarity from Lalo Schiffrin from 12 years before that is unknown to English speakers.

3:05 PM  
Blogger coolcatdaddy said...

In my home theater, when I have friends over, I do a "pre-show" - movie theater ads and snipes, an older documentary short, trailers, and a music video.

One night, I snuck in this - the prelude to the famous car chase with only the soundtrack music and no effects track. It makes for a perfect little music video.

3:33 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Mr. KK --
Au Contaire! He was a great FILM actor, his special talent was showing what he was thinking with his eyes. Often, people on set would not see what he was doing until the rushes came back.

7:25 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

"His special talent was showing what he was thinking with his eyes."

That goes right back to D. W. Griffith. The movies are all about acting with the eyes.

Watched this yesterday for the first time in years (as a result of this post). Except for the car chase I had forgotten it completely. I expected Robert Vaughan to be unmasked as a puppet of the"organization" at the end. He wasn't but I still think he was up to no good.

I think McQueen's character was set up to be a fall guy.

6:28 AM  
Blogger Lionel Braithwaite said...

The release of the newly revived Ford Mustang here in Canada (fourth generation [1994–2004]) was accompanied by a showing of Bullitt on CTV (our second national TV network) sponsored by Ford of Canada in 1994, focusing on a new Ford Mustang in the same colors as shown in the film.

Much recently, there's been fan art of the chase from the movie, but as done if the cars shown in the chase were like characters from the movie Cars:

4:33 PM  

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