Entry from August 1, 2007

This summer, on eight successive Tuesday evenings, I am presenting a series called The American Movie Hero (go to www.americanmoviehero.com) at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. The seventh film in the series, Peter Yates’s Bullitt with Steve McQueen, screened on Tuesday, July 31st. Before showing the film, I spoke as follows:

This week we’re going to watch the third of our three examples of the cool hero, Steve McQueen in Peter Yates’s film of 1968, Bullitt — a film as slick and polished as Fistful of Dollars was cheesy, but made by another foreigner. Mr Yates was a Briton and a protégé of Tony Richardson, and he got his start directing commercials. When Steve McQueen saw his film, Robbery, which had a realistic looking car-chase in it, he brought him to America to direct Bullitt.

McQueen’s great career-forming role — at least as the cool hero he was most celebrated for being — had come five years earlier in the World War II P.O.W. drama The Great Escape. But just as the American cast members introduced to make the movie more commercial stole the story away from the British, who had been the only escapers in the historical episode on which it was based, McQueen stole it from everybody. As the untamable Captain Virgil Hilts who refused to knuckle under to the Nazi authorities no matter how severely he was punished, he was really one of the prototypes of the cool hero — along with Humphrey Bogart and Clint Eastwood, whom we’ve been watching in the last two films in the series.

We might also mention in this connection Paul Newman’s title character in Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke, which came out the year before Bullitt and, like it, has gone on to achieve what nowadays we call "iconic" status as a cultural landmark. In Cool Hand Luke, as in The Great Escape, the setting in a prison helps to make several essential points about the cool hero. He is, like Bogart in The Big Sleep, a lone wolf, a maverick who acts only according to an inward imperative and who refuses to be reined in by any authority. He also defies manners and all kind of social conventions. The German prison commandant in The Great Escape asks McQueen’s character, "Are all American officers as ill-mannered as you are?"

"Yeah, pretty much 99 per cent of them," he says with a grin. We can be pretty sure, however, that this is just another bit of bad manners, since no American we see is nearly as ill-mannered as he is. Also like Bogart, these cool heroes are smarter than the people around them — smarter, especially, than those who persecute them for being "smart" in the extended sense of the smart-alec and the smart-mouth. Their defiance of authority, their insubordination and refusal to follow any rules or orders naturally makes them into victims in such a setting.

In fact, all of these aspects of the cool are quite easy to show in prison, but Bullitt’s challenge to Peter Yates was to take these glamorous outlaw qualities and give them to, of all people, a cop. I think you’ll agree when you see the film that, between them, Messrs Yates and McQueen are remarkably successful in what must have been a very difficult task. Their success is mainly owing to two things. The first is the introduction of the character of Walter Chalmers, played by Robert Vaughn, as Bullitt’s foil. Chalmers is an aspiring politician who wants to make a name for himself by holding a public hearing featuring a star witness billed as a renegade from a mafia-type organization called, um, "The Organization." McQueen’s Frank Bullitt is the lowly police lieutenant called in to keep the witness safe until it’s time for him to testify.

A few years later, Hollywood would have made Chalmers corrupt — on the take at the least and probably up to his neck in criminal activities himself. But this was before the cynicism of the ‘70s took hold, and in this film he is only an ambitious hypocrite. The trouble with this is that, instead of being the hero’s dangerous foe, he is a rather ridiculous, impotent figure not a sinister villain but a feckless politician who doesn’t know (unlike the cool hero) what’s what and who is led not by his evil nature but by his ambition and naiveté into complicity in a criminal plot. This Bullitt finally demonstrates to him after he has been mistakenly set to guard the wrong man. All this makes Chalmers look ridiculous.

So does the fact that he is unable to intimidate anybody — least of all Bullitt. "Castrate him," he says to Simon Oakland’s Captain Bennett after one instance of Bullitt’s insubordination. But this becomes a comic line when nothing happens — as it always does after Chalmers’s empty threats. Earlier, when told by Chalmers that there was another captain, played by Norman Fell, who wanted to speak to him on the phone, Bullitt hung up on him. Castration presumably seems like an appropriate punishment for such manly independence — or crucifixion, which Chalmers also mentions. But it’s all just bluster. Even Chalmers’s laughably — and unsubtly — subtle attempt to bribe the good Captain Bennett by mentioning the cost of college for his sons is rebuffed with scorn. Like Bullitt himself, he seems to be among those who can respond to Chalmers’s menaces simply by saying "Excuse me," and walking away.

But one function that Chalmers performs is to show us how the police in general and not just Bullitt in particular are cut off from the power structure of a society that depends on them. This was what, in the 1960s, they called "The Establishment" — which sounds a bit like "The Organization," a point which The Godfather would make four years later. Policemen at the mercy of corrupt or unsympathetic courts or politicians was also the theme of Dirty Harry three years later. In Bullitt, however, the Establishment is more ridiculous than corrupt. We get a look at it early on in the scene in which we’re introduced to Chalmers. He’s working the crowd, exclusively female, at what is probably a fund-raiser at his swanky San Francisco mansion when Bullitt comes to meet him and get his assignment to guard the witness. Yates’s camera, wielded by his director of photography, William Fraker, does a brilliant job of isolating Bullitt from his surroundings.

Later on, Bullitt’s girlfriend, played by Jacqueline Bisset, will accuse him of living in a different world from hers and everybody’s she knows, and here we see the image of it as he stands alone and grim-faced in the middle of these wealthy matrons talking about their rose bushes. Here is also an example of the second way in which the film does such a good job of turning the representative of civil authority, the policeman, into an outsider and a rebel, and that is in its emphasis on images. Indeed, Bullitt is almost a silent film, so overwhelmingly is it weighted towards the visual and away from the verbal, rational and ratiocinative faculties. That, by the way, is another reason why McQueen wanted Yates to direct: they were on the same wave-length when it came to cutting dialogue to the bone.

All the big set pieces of the film are chases — the chase through the hospital basement, the now-famous car chase that has set the standard for movie car-chases ever since, and McQueen’s pursuit of the bad guy through the airport at the climax. All of them take place over several minutes during which not a word is spoken. Except for a brief telephone conversation at the beginning, we never hear the bad guys speak a word throughout the film. They’re apparently as detached from any social context as Bullitt himself is. The relationship between Frank and Cathy is also established wordlessly when we see them enjoying dinner together as a jazz combo plays on the sound-track, their faces doing all the work, and later back in Bullitt’s apartment when the camera at first coyly withholds from us the information that she is, still rather shockingly in 1968, in bed with him.

Even when the more dramatic bits are being set up, there is very little conversation. Whenever possible, Peter Yates does everything with his camera. I wonder if there has been a film since the introduction of sound into the movies in which the leading man has had fewer lines. But that was the kind of thing you could get away with when you had a hero with the ice-blue eyes of Steve McQueen. The absence of dialogue and the presence, cinematically speaking, of those eyes are corollaries of each other. Notice especially the reaction shots in the scene in which Chalmers scolds Bullitt in the hospital — "In your parlance, you ‘blew it’, lieutenant" — and again when Bullitt visits the scene of the crime for the first time, alone, and wordlessly takes in all the baffling details, seemingly but silently making sense of them. Above all, notice the scene in the airport in which he surveys the crowd into which the bad guy has seemingly melted away.

All of these scenes are, in various ways, the movie version of intelligence tests. The camera cuts back and forth between the searching eyes of Frank Bullitt and what he sees — and we are meant to see that he sees much more deeply into it than we do. In the airport scene, especially, we are playing his game of "Where’s Waldo?" along with him, even though we know in advance that we haven’t got a chance of spotting Waldo before he does. Perhaps the most memorable visual representation of intelligence in the movie is at the beginning of the car chase when the bad guys in the Dodge Charger who have been following Bullitt in his Mustang fastback are seen from behind, going down a hill, when suddenly we see in their rear-view mirror the Mustang cresting the hill behind them. The tables are turned, the pursuers are now the pursued, and McQueen’s outsmarting them tells us even before the chase begins how it is going to come out.

And yet, the film also goes out of its way to qualify its hero’s intelligence. Near the beginning, he visits Miss Bisset’s Cathy at the office where she works as an engineer. She asks him to help her by making a simple calculation with the help of a table and he either can’t or won’t do it. "I lost my place," he says, half-jokingly. "Nobody’s perfect." I think that this is the film’s way of doing two things. One is that it establishes the difference between regular intelligence, official intelligence as we might call it, of the sort that Cathy has, and what we have since learned to call "street smarts." The other is that it shows us the nature of the relationship between Frank and Cathy. For although she is working in a traditionally masculine profession, it’s as if she, too, were staying at home and growing roses like the society matrons at the beginning. Her work seems artificially protected from the big bad world that Frank inhabits and therefore less important.

That’s why, when he takes the phone call in bed and she wants to know about it, he warns her off, saying "It’s not for you, baby." Piqued, perhaps, by his telling her in effect not to worry her pretty little head about it, she tells him that "Everything you do is part of me." But as we find out later — after she goes in search of Frank and finds him at another crime scene where the body of a woman who has just been strangled to death lies on the floor — she can’t handle that part of him. This important fact comes out in the key bit of dialogue in the movie, from a scene that, tellingly, Peter Yates also wanted to do without dialogue. He thought all that was necessary could be conveyed by the visual set up — which consisted of Frank and Cathy in long focus and therefore inaudible, having an unheard heart-to-heart among the reeds by a marshy lake or estuary framed by a busy freeway on one side of them and industrial cranes in the distance.

Fortunately, he was prevailed upon instead to include the following bit of dialogue. "I thought I knew you," says Cathy, "but I’m not so sure anymore. 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, day after day."

"That’s where half of it is," he replies. "You can’t walk away from it."

"I know it’s there, but I don’t have to be reminded of the whole thing, the ugliness around us. With you, violence is a way of life, living with violence and death. How can you become part of it without becoming more and more callous? Your world is so far from the one I know."

This is one thing, then, that Bullitt has in common with a virtuous hero like John Wayne in The Searchers: he takes on himself all the burden of the terrible knowledge life’s horrors that other people in the picture want to look away from. Cathy is like Robert Vaughn’s Chalmers in this respect. He has the power of the Establishment — and the grunt-work of people like Bullitt — to keep him at arm’s length from life’s seamier side. The film makes this point when Chalmers ducks out of the autopsy that Bullitt is closely observing.

That scene brings up another interesting feature of the movie, which is its interest in how things work. It’s constantly taking us behind the scenes, so that we see the operations of the hospital, the police station, the airport, the morgue with the eyes of the people who work there. Thus it contrasts the honest jobs that the doctors and nurses and policemen and other workers do with the careerism of a Chalmers. Indeed, the word "career" comes up twice in the film, both times in the mouth of Chalmers. In the first, he tells Bullitt that his hearings will be "a way of catapulting everyone involved into the public eye, with consequent effects on one’s career. It would be a pleasure to have you along," he says with a typically clumsy attempt to ingratiate himself. Later, after their relationship has deterioriated, he says, "Don''t be naive, Lieutenant. We both know how careers are made. Integrity is something you sell the public."

"You sell whatever you want," Bullitt replies, "but don''t sell it here tonight."

"Frank, we must all compromise," he says.

"Bullshit," says Frank.

That’s the only instance of bad language in the picture, by the way. When you think of the language of the streets as the movies imagine it today, it almost seems as if this film is protecting us from the unpleasantness of reality the way Frank tries to protect Cathy. But in this as in other things the cool hero is merely being fashionable. In 1968 — though not for very much longer — vulgarisms still sounded vulgar. But if the cool hero lives by fashion, he also dies by fashion. There are a whole host of outdated things in this movie — from defunct brand names like PanAm or S & H Green Stamps to the hero’s muscle car, his paisley pajamas, his turtleneck and hush-puppies — things that may once have been cool but now are rather comically uncool just because they are old.

The film is in no way more fashionable and so representative of its times than in its contempt for "careers" and "compromise." Careers are what you find in The Wall Street Journal, which the film makes a point of showing Chalmers reading — in the back of a limousine sporting a bumper sticker with the words "Support Your Local Police" on it — in the film’s penultimate scene. "Compromise" is what the Establishment expects of you. All this dates the film as precisely as Hillary Clinton’s letter to a friend at about the same time in which she wrote: "God, I feel so divorced from Park Ridge, parents, home, the entire unreality of middle class America" — a sentiment in which, by the way, Frank Bullitt and Peter Yates seem to have shared.

At the end of the key bit of dialogue I mentioned earlier, Cathy asks Frank: "What will become of us in time?"

"Time," says Steve McQueen, "starts now."

As an answer to the question, this makes no sense, but as a statement of what it means to be cool, you can’t beat it. Like Clint Eastwood in the spaghetti Westerns, this is a man without a past. He’s also a man without a future whose silly name tells us about what he does rather than what or who he is. He has no parents — and, by the way, the real-life Steve McQueen hadn’t any either — or other family or social context apart from his work to define him. All this is part of how he is able to live entirely in the present. It also helps to explain what then seemed like the novel idea of his purely sexual, uncommitted relationship with Cathy. He’s not completely unlike the virtuous hero, but taken out of the web of normal social relations and estranged from the civil authorities who employ him, he has nothing but his personal authenticity and integrity to fight for.

It’s not enough — as we’ll see when we get to the cartoon hero in our eighth and final film next week. Meanwhile, let’s enjoy the cool hero while we can, in imagination at least, before he slips beneath fashion’s horizon.


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