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!

Soda Pop Cops: THE SEVEN-UPS (20th Century Fox 1973)

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Theater screens of the 70’s were awash in blue as the “tough guy cop” film put a chokehold on Hollywood. DIRTY HARRY Callahan took on punks in a series of action flicks, SERPICO took down corruption in New York, and L.A. detective Joseph Wambaugh’s novels were adapted into big (and small) screen features.  Producer Philip D’Antoni helped usher in this modern take on film noir with 1968’s BULLITT starring Steve McQueen, followed by the Oscar-winning THE FRENCH CONNECTION , with Gene Hackman as brutal cop Popeye Doyle.

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D’Antoni decided to direct his next effort, 1973’s THE SEVEN-UPS. CONNECTION costar Roy Scheider gets his first top-billed role as Buddy Manucci, head of an elite “dirty tricks” squad that takes down perps whose felonies will land them seven years and up in jail (hence the title; it has nothing to do with the lemon-lime soda!). Manucci’s childhood pal Vito Lucia (Tony LoBianco) is an informer giving Buddy tips on criminal activities in The Big Apple. Mobster Max Kallish is a target, until he’s kidnapped and ransomed for $100g’s. When a second gangland figure is snatched, Buddy senses something’s going down in the streets. What he doesn’t sense is his friend Vito’s the mastermind behind the mob kidnappings, playing both ends against the middle.

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This sets the stage for action, double-crosses, and one of D’Antoni’s signature car chases through the streets of New York that almost (but not quite) matches THE FRENCH CONNECTION in intensity. Staged by ace stunt driver Bill Hickman (who also plays one of Vito’s thuggish partners-in-crime), it takes us on a ten minute joyride through Manhattan, across the George Washington Bridge, down New Jersey’s Palisades International Parkway, and ends on Tacoima State Parkway with Buddy’s car smashing into the rear of a semi, tearing the top off and almost decapitating him ala Jayne Mansfield!

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Scheider was Gene Hackman’s costar in FRENCH CONNECTION, and takes the lead here as Buddy. Two years later, he’d star in the shark shocker JAWS, followed by hits like MARATHON MAN, ALL THAT JAZZ (a personal favorite), BLUE THUNDER, 2010, and 52 PICK-UP. LoBianco is probably best known for the cult chiller THE HONEYMOON KILLERS. Richard Lynch plays Moon, Vito’s other goon, and was the villain in scores of 70’s and 80’s films. Other in the cast were Larry Haines, Ken Kercheval (of TV’s DALLAS), Victor Arnold, and real-life NYC homicide detective Jerry Leon.

Sonny Grosso, another real NY cop, wrote the story based on true life incidents. Grosso was the basis for Scheider’s character in FRENCH CONNECTION. Jazzman Don Ellis once again provides the score, and DP Urs Furrer (SHAFT) captures the grittiness of early 70’s New York. As for Philip D’Antoni, he moved to the small screen after THE SEVEN-UPS, producing the series MOVIN’ ON, about a pair of cross-country truckers (Claude Aikins, Frank Converse) and their exploits on the road. D’Antoni never directed again, and that’s a shame, because THE SEVEN-UPS is a well-paced thriller. It may not be as fondly remembered as BULLITT or THE FRENCH CONNECTION, but the movie doesn’t disappoint in the action department, and is worth a look for genre fans.