BULLITT (1968)

By Marc S. Sanders

The car chase with the movie attached to it is Bullitt from 1968, directed by Peter Yates, featuring Steve McQueen in the title role.  Why do I phrase it that way?  Well, as far as I can tell in the three or four times that I’ve seen the movie, the main attraction is the well-known, and pioneering, car chase at the crux of the film.  Otherwise, the plot is very thin, with characters that have next to no complexity or dimension.

Frank Bullitt has been summoned on a Friday afternoon to the home of a prosecutor/politician named Chalmers (Robert Vaughn).  He’s been requested to guard a key witness over the weekend ahead of giving a deposition on Monday morning that will expose “The Organization.”  Frank lays out the shift schedule with his precinct partners, and soon after the witness is gunned down and sent to the hospital with life threatening injuries.  Now it’s up to Frank to find out how the organization located the witness and who is behind the conspiracy. 

Bullitt moves at a slow pace.  There are some foot chases through the hospital.  Chalmers gives the standard frustration with how the protection assignment has fouled up, and plenty of close ups are given to the marquee actor, McQueen.  For some sex appeal, Jacqueline Bisset appears as Bullitt’s girlfriend offering up a speech that shows resentment for his occupation amid a world of death and violence.  A better monologue of this sort would come later in Michael Mann’s Heat with Diane Vinora expressing her disdain for Al Pacino’s determination as an obsessed detective.

Nevertheless, Bullitt is an important film to watch, if for nothing else then to see what it has inspired since its time.  The legendary car chase between Bullitt’s dark green Ford Mustang and the silent villains’ black Dodge Charger is nearly ten minutes long, and still holds as one of the greatest ever filmed.  The fact that the film takes place in San Francisco only lends to the scene.  The best car chases take place among the sloping streets of San Francisco.  Fortunately, the chase is not accompanied by music, but rather by well timed sound editing of burning rubber and screeching tires, revved up engines, side swipe banging and chassis slams on the hilly pavements. Yates also includes good close ups of McQueen and the villains in the Charger.  They were not always driving the cars.  There were stunt doubles, but I’m not seeing the difference while I’m watching.  I might see the cars pass by the same green VW Beetle three times, but the editing is so perfectly assembled here that it is fair to argue this is one of the greatest scenes in film history. 

In later years, directors would pull moments from Bullitt to use in their own films like the Dirty Harry pictures, The Seven-Ups, and Heat.  One moment during a foot chase in an airport seemingly inspired moments for later films like The Fugitive and Skyfall.  The hero is looking amidst a sea of crowds for the antagonist.  Peter Yates films bystanders in this moment going from one walking face to another.  He cuts back to McQueen moving his eyes from left to right and back again, looking and looking.  The bad guy that Bullitt is trying to find is just an ordinary white guy with brown hair; no discernable features like you might notice in an Alfred Hitchcock movie or a James Bond entry.  So how do you find the guy who just looks like everyone else?

Bullitt sets up a twist or two.  Honestly though, I can’t recall where those moments are resolved.  The witness being protected undoes the chain lock on the door just before he’s gunned down.  Why?  What was the exact purpose to do that?  As well, who exactly gave away the secret location of the witness, and again, why?  These questions weigh on my mind after watching the film.  Bullitt is not a confusing or multi-layered movie.  It’s pretty simple with very minimal dialogue and works like a showpiece for scenes.  So, I have yet to uncover where I got lost or what I missed that could answer those questions.

Best I can say is that if you’re a film buff seeking out where certain standards started, it’s best to watch Bullitt.  After you watch Nicholas Cage supposedly drive a yellow Ferrari through the streets of San Francisco in The Rock, you’ll at least say, “Uh uh.  Bullitt did it better the first time.”

SUSPECT

By Marc S. Sanders

Okay. Fair Warning. I am going to spoil this movie with my review. Why? Well, if you haven’t seen Suspect, directed by Peter Yates, then I’m telling you that you absolutely do not ever need to see Suspect directed by Peter Yates.

What is Suspect worthy of 33 years later? Nothing beyond my personal allowance to spoil the film for you. I know! It goes against my principals as a film critic, but I choose, for YOU, MY READERS, to fall on my sword.

Scripts of any variation whether they be stage plays, television episodes or feature films should always show the unusual. If it’s mundane, it should never be made. You don’t want to watch two hours of someone brushing their teeth. You want to watch epic films like Malcolm X or witness a man that flies in Superman: The Movie or the murderous ways a person will devote his affection for his mother in Psycho. Unusual and special stories make the best stories. Unusual! Not utterly preposterous!

Now, I’m sure in the annals of trial law there had to have been a handful of cases where a defense attorney got involved socially and/or romantically with a member of the jury. Otherwise, we’d never hear of the term “jury tampering.” So, there’s something unusual to sink our teeth into. Preposterous though (AND I WARNED YOU) is that within this very same trial, you know the one where the defense attorney and jury member are getting some from each other on the side, that one, the presiding judge turns out to be the killer. Okay. Now Mr. and Mr. Filmmaker, you’re no longer using your imagination. You’re just throwing spaghetti at the wall, hoping it’ll all stick.

Cher plays a public defense attorney named Kathleen Riley. Dennis Quaid is a handsome DC lobbyist named Eddie Sanger serving on the jury. Liam Neeson is the deaf mute title character who is a vagrant homeless person, and John Mahoney is the presiding judge aka the actual killer revealed at the end. Lawyer and juror meet up outside of court to find clues and eventually make out. The judge is the killer. People please!!!! Washington DC is not this effed up, is it? (Maybe don’t answer that.)

Frankly, Kathleen is not a very good attorney. She’s not aggressive enough with her objections and I don’t think she applies herself well enough to win her case. In fact, without Eddie’s self motivation to dig into the case himself and help her out, then this suspect (Neeson) doesn’t have a chance in hell of being exonerated. The victim, a political staff member, had her throat slashed. Kathleen doesn’t even consider if the killer is right or left handed? Really? Eddie did at least. Still, I’m okay with watching an inept lawyer in a movie. Too often, movies show us lawyers that are too brilliant and quick on their toes. They’re almost too brainy. So, okay yeah, I’ll accept a lawyer whose not the sharpest crayon in the box for a change of pace.

On the other hand, Mahoney, the actual killer, is easy to predict when he voluntarily takes this case and then rules against literally every objection that Kathleen brings up. Every single one! Plus it stands to follow Roger Ebert’s economy of characters. There’s only so many characters in your multiple choice of cast members to consider as the killer. I can’t fathom Quaid, the juror, as the killer, nor Cher the defense attorney. So either Neeson, the suspect on trial, is the killer (not likely because then why have a movie) or it’s the judge. Nah! It couldn’t be the judge. Could it? Hmmmm.

Washington DC makes for a great setting for legal thrillers or courtroom dramas. It’s full of secrets and government and dealings and politics. A million and a half motivations and any one of its residents could find a reason to kill. The script for Suspect, written by Eric Roth, never cares to try that hard though. We are treated to a wasteful side story of Eddie doing some lobbying for milk (I’m sorry. MILK? LIKE DAIRY MILK????) when he’s not in court. He sleeps with a congresswoman to get her vote…and why am I seeing any of this?

There’s no build up in the murder trial either. The few expert witnesses called to the stand are forgettable. Nor do they foreshadow anything. Cher’s character doesn’t seem to work hard enough in questioning a witness. Instead, this dumb lawyer relies on a juror she shouldn’t ever be talking to.

Once again, normally, it’s against my policy to spoil a film. After 40 years, I won’t even spoil The Empire Strikes Back, cuz someone out there still hasn’t seen it. However, this film is ridiculous. This would even be too ridiculous for a Maury Povich episode or a Lifetime TV movie. How absurd must one murder trial be?

Think about it. All in one movie. One murder trial. One case. The defense attorney is involved with a juror AND the judge is the killer????? There are odds….and then there are gazillion to one shots.