The Elements of Style: Steve McQueen in BULLITT (Warner Brothers 1968)

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Steve McQueen was the personification of 60’s screen cool in BULLITT, a stylish action film directed by Peter Yates. It’s the first of producer Philip D’Antoni’s cop trilogy, both of which (THE FRENCH CONNECTION and THE SEVEN-UPS) I’ve previously covered. Unlike those two films, the grittiness of New York City is replaced by the California charm of San Francisco, and the City by the Bay almost becomes a character itself, especially in the groundbreaking ten minute car chase between McQueen’s Mustang and the bad guy’s Dodge Charger.

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Style permeates the film from the get-go, with the snappy opening credits montage by Pablo Ferro. Then we get right into the story, as San Francisco detective Frank Bullitt is assigned to guard mob witness John Ross, scheduled to testify before a Senate Subcommitte on crime. Hot shot politician Walt Chalmers wants Bullitt because of his reputation and PR value with the papers. Things go awry when Ross is attacked in the seedy hotel room he’s being hidden in, causing the death of a cop. Ross survives, barely, and another attempt is made at the hospital. When he succumbs to his injuries, Bullitt and partner Delgatti stash the body in the morgue, and begin their investigation. Chalmers demands to know where Ross is, thinking him still alive, but Bullitt won’t give in until he completes his search for the truth.

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Frank Bullitt is the prototype for D’Antoni’s “Maverick Cop”. Cool as a cucumber, always butting heads with authority, breaking the rules, and of course driving like a maniac! McQueen’s just right for the part, with his ice-blue eyes revealing nothing and his naturalistic acting style. His iconic dark blue turtleneck, tweed jacket with elbow patches, and desert boots set a style trend among men who wanted to be like Steve, but there’s only one Steve McQueen!

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And that car chase set the style for literally dozens of cop films to come. Bullitt’s green ’68 Mustang GT goes up against a ’68 Dodge Charger in one of the wildest chase scenes ever filmed. McQueen drove in the close-ups (he was a race driver of note), but the heavy lifting was done mostly by stuntman Carey Lofton and motorcycle racing champ Bud Ekins (who also doubled for McQueen in THE GREAT ESCAPE). Bill Hickman, stunt driver extraordinaire, was behind the wheel of the Charger,  and choreographed most of the sequence. The action takes us from Fisherman’s Wharf, through Midtown, and ends just outside San Francisco on Guadalupe Canyon Parkway. Frank P. Keller deservedly won the Oscar for best editing that year largely due to this exciting chase.

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The cast features Robert Vaughn (THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E) as Chalmers, as grandstanding politician (is there any other kind?). Vaughn had costarred with McQueen in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, and the two men work well together here. I love this bit of dialog- Chalmers:  “Frank, we must all compromise”. Bullitt: “Bullshit”. Vintage McQueen! Jacqueline Bisset’s on hand in the role of Bullitt’s sensitive artist girlfriend (“With you, violence is a way of life, violence and death”, she tells him). Don Gordon plays Bullitt’s partner Delgatti; the two were friends offscreen and appeared together in PAPILLION and THE TOWERING INFERNO. Simon Oakland is Bullitt’s tough boss, like he was Darren McGavin’s tough boss in THE NIGHT STALKER (both the movie and TV show). George Stanford Brown (THE ROOKIES), Norman Fell (THREE’S COMPANY), Vic Tayback (ALICE), Felicia Orlandi, Ed Peck, and Al Checco are also among the supporting cast, as is young Robert Duvall in a small role as a cab driver.

Director Peter Yates was recommended by McQueen after the star saw his British film ROBBERY, which also involved a car chase. Yates would go on to make interesting films, including THE HOT ROCK (based on a Donald Westlake novel), THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE (an underrated crime drama starring Robert Mitchum), THE DEEP, the bicycle racing saga BREAKING AWAY, EYEWITNESS (another underrated film), THE DRESSER, and SUSPECT. William A. Fraker’s cinematography is stunning, and Lalo Schifrin adds another solid jazz score to his resume.

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Everything works together to make BULLITT (along with BONNIE AND CLYDE) one of the most stylish American films of the 1960’s, and one that holds up well today. I only wish Philip D’Antoni had made a few more; with BULLITT, I’ve completed covering his cop trilogy. That’s alright, though. Now I can watch them again without taking notes, and just enjoy them as a fan!

Fast & Furious: Bruce Lee in ENTER THE DRAGON (Warner Brothers 1973)

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Haai-ya! The Seventies was the era of kung-fu cinema, and nobody did ’em better than the great Bruce Lee. Probably the biggest martial arts star ever, Lee came to prominence in the USA as Kato in the 60’s series THE GREEN HORNET. He acted and trained Hollywood stars in the art of kung fu, including James Coburn and Steve McQueen. When the kung fu craze hit the screens, Lee’s Hong Kong films THE BIG BOSS and FISTS OF FURY were released here to packed houses. ENTER THE DRAGON was Lee’s first American starring film, and unfortunately his last due to his untimely death shortly after the films’ release.

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The plot’s pretty simple: Shaolin martial arts master Lee is sent to thwart the evil Han, a Shaolin gone rogue, involved with the drug and white slavery trades. Han is the ruler of his own island, and he’s holding a martial-arts tournament there. Americans Roper (John Saxon) and Williams (Jim Kelly of BLACK BELT JONES ) are also among those entering the tournament. The film follows Lee’s efforts to investigate the goings-on, and winds up with a battle royal as Han unleashes his minions on Lee and Roper. Of course, Han is eventually vanquished, and the world is made safe from Han’s nefarious schemes.

In between, there’s a ton of kung fu action that comes fast and furious, with Bruce Lee at the center of it all. The cast features cult actor John Saxon (JOE KIDD, NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET) and karate champ Jim Kelly (BLACK BELT JONES ) in his film debut. The evil Han is Hong Kong actor Shih Kien, whose voice was dubbed by Charlie Chan’s Number Son, Keye Luke.

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The film is a visual delight as directed by Robert Clouse. Clouse was primarily an action director (DARKER THAN AMBER, BLACK BELT JONES, THE BIG BRAWL) and there’s a reason for that- he was deaf! Particularly stunning is the final showdown between Lee and Han, a Hall of Mirrors scene reminiscent of Orson Welles’ THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI. Lalo Schifrin’s score keeps things moving along at a brisk clip.

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Bruce Lee is credited as fight choreographer, and his style is like a well orchestrated dance. Lee was working on directing and starring in GAME OF DEATH when he died of cerebral edema, and Clouse was brought in to complete the film, released posthumously after Lee’s death. ENTER THE DRAGON stands as final tribute to his legacy, an all-out assault you won’t want to miss. (I can’t help thinking of the “Fistful of Yen” segment from THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE  though, a perfect parody of martial arts movies, especially this one! “Totaw consetwation!” )

Spies Like Us: THE VENETIAN AFFAIR (MGM 1967)

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Robert Vaughn played superspy Napoleon Solo on TV’s THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. from 1964 to 1968. The series was inspired by the James Bond craze, filled with outlandish gadgets and evil supervillains. Vaughn’s popularity led to a starring role in THE VENETIAN AFFAIR, a Cold War spy thriller with a much more adult theme. Here, he plays Bill Fenner, ex-CIA agent, now a hard-drinking reporter who gets caught up in international intrigue.

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Fenner is sent to Venice after a U.S. diplomat supposedly sets off a bomb at an international nuclear disarmament conference. He soon learns the assignment was arranged by his former CIA boss, “Rosey” Rosenfeld (Edward Asner). Rosey wants to use Fenner to smoke out old flame Sandra Fane (Elke Sommer), a Communist agent with a mysterious link to the bombing. Fenner’s odyssey takes him through double-and-triple crosses in the world of international espionage he once left behind.

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Boris Karloff is on hand in his last non-horror role as Dr. Vaugiraud, whose report holds the key to the mystery. Karloff, looking every bit the scientist, does well with the part, giving a very understated performance. German actor Karl Boehm (PEEPING TOM) plays the main villain, Wohl. The rest of the cast includes Roger C. Carmel (STAR TREK’s Harry Mudd), Felicia Farr (wife of Jack Lemmon), Luciana Paluzzi (Bond girl Fiona in THUNDERBALL), and Joe DeSantis (THE PROFESSIONALS, COLD WIND IN AUGUST). Director Jerry Thorpe handles the film with restraint, keeping things realistic. He was best known for his television work, having won an Emmy for the series KUNG FU. DP Milton Krasner had long been a top Hollywood camera ace, lensing everything from THE BANK DICK to GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, SCARLET STREET to ALL ABOUT EVE, THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN (Oscar winner) to THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH, HOW THE WEST WAS WON to THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE, to his last, BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES. Lalo Schifrin’s score is sufficiently moody enough for the shadowy goings-on. Schifrin of course is remembered for composing the theme for another 60’s TV spy show, MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE.

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THE VENETIAN AFFAIR is closer to THE IPCRESS FILE or THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD than any James Bond or Man from U.N.C.L.E. shenanigans. It’s a taut, well paced Cold War thriller, with gorgeous location scenery. While it may not be the best or gaudiest of spy thrillers, it’s certainly worth a look (especially for Boris Karloff buffs). It’s one of those movies that’s not bad, not great, but  pretty entertaining. And who could ask for anything more?