Bullitt ★★★

I love movies where you're just thrown in and haven't a clue what's going on from the jump. You’re just fighting your way out of a paper bag along with the characters themselves. The opening credits sequence here - the fonts, the editing, the murmured conspiratorial tones are simply some of the best in history. The camera itself is a character for the first 20 minutes of the film - darting, watching, hiding, waiting. 

When the movie star finally gets out of his funky pajamas and enters the movie for real, the camera gives him a royal movie star entrance shot from the floor-level view of some prudish ladies legs. It's almost as if the camera is saying, "this is not for you...you're gonna have to work for it this time." This is 1968 and nobody shoots this way anymore. Fervent yet pensive angles, interesting two shots, playful foreground/background shots. The plot is meaningless from the get go, but you don't care. You just want to get to know this weird fucker and hang out in this odd, violent prehistoric world.

As I wrote earlier in my universally acclaimed review of Spirited, when I began listening to Tarantino's Cinema Speculation on Audible last week I was immediately smitten with the chapter on Bullitt. I said it made me want to stomp through the night and find a copy of the film post haste. Put simply, Tarantino's breakdown of the film is one of the most awe-inspiring cinematic appraisals I've ever heard (the Dirty Harry chapter isn't too shabby either). So here I am, I found a copy of the film. A triple feature Blu which also includes two other McQueen pictures I've always wanted to get around to (Peckinpah's The Getaway and The Cincinnati Kid).

Right away I can see so many Tarantino signposts that it's hard for me to hate it. The car chase is basically the same in his film Death Proof, the long building of suspense to the point of audience annoyance before a big blast of violence (Inglorious Basterds), and especially the cool cars just languidly driving around town with a view from the back seat (Once Upon A Time in Hollywood). The problem I seemed to have with this film is that it's clearly more of an "art" film than anything QT has made. There are long and I mean loooooong stretches of wordless mood building with no dialogue (which is the polar opposite of a QT romper). It looks cool as hell for a '60s movie, but watching late at night I felt myself dozing off for 2-3 minutes at a time until being jolted awake when something actually happens. Then I would freak out and rewind, only to find out I hadn't missed a thing.

When McQueen mysteriously tells his lady friend "Time starts now.", the film acts like a trippy foreign art film has been injected into a garden variety police procedural. Except the police procedural didn't exist yet. As QT dutifully explains in his book, this film launched a million cop shows and movies in the 70s. However, Director Peter Yates seems to not realize what the hell he even has here. He's frequently reveling in what is now considered mundane like a puppy in new fallen snow. I watched the airplane tarmac sequence 3 times trying to figure out what he was trying to say with the long drawn out suspense of people deboarding an airplane. Does it make the ultra-violence pop more in the finale? Yes. Is it a prototype to the end showdown in Michael Mann's Heat? Perhaps. But what the hell is with the endless scene of a plane's nose moseying towards the camera like Shamu the Killer Whale that seems to last for 15 and a half minutes?

If I take anything away from this film is that it is definitely one of those "you had to be there or you won't understand" moments in cinematic history. QT basically says as much in his book. For me I'll probably only rewatch it for the car chase scene, which I would put in my top 5 of all time along with the highway chase in Matrix Reloaded, Friedkin's chase sequence in To Live and Die in L.A., The Blues Brothers destroying a shopping mall and of course the undoing of QT's Stuntman Mike in my beloved Death Proof. This movie also has the best and most subtle "changing of gears" from moody potboiler to high octane actioner and back again. It happens so seamlessly you almost feel cheated in some ways. Wait…what? Where did that dude burning alive in an overturned car come from?

As McQueen so artfully states in the film "You work your side of the street, I'll work mine." I thought about Tarantino's recent rip of Marvel movies and I can see where he is coming from much more than when Scorsese or others of "the old guard" have whined about the "comic bookiszation" of film these days. He's right, there will never be another McQueen. Restraint is weakness in modern cinema...being cool as a cucumber holds very little merit in the world of Captain America. 

QT believes there are no more movie stars. Thor, Hulk, Batman, etc. are the stars...not the actors themselves. In our current cinematic universe you're either a Superhero or a schlub. There is very little drawing outside the lines anymore unless you are some sort of bombastic mustache-twirling villain. That is why I so cherish Pitt and DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. This is why I love aging loons like Nic Cage. They are creating archetypes, not interpreting them. They are like McQueen, looking forward and backward at the same time. I am eager to dive into McQueen's filmography a bit more. Bullitt is more of a sketch than something that is fully formed. There is both beauty and frustration in that, and it leaves me wanting more.

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