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.”

THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR (1968)

By Marc S. Sanders

My father always loved how the ultra-wealthy lived on screen.  James Bond’s encounters with villains hiding out in the most elaborate estates, or the social class stabbings of the women in All About Eve were the fantasies that he wanted to live among.  Dad also appreciated the way billionaire playboy Thomas Crown lived.  Though I doubt Dad would ever suffer from a mild case of boredom like Tommy Crown did. 

The original, 1968 version of The Thomas Crown Affair begins with an elaborately planned bank robbery. Then begins the chess match between Steve McQueen as the title character and a beautiful insurance investigator who is trying to pin the entrepreneur for the crime, Vicki Anderson played by Faye Dunaway. 

The film, directed by Norman Jewison, is a caper adventure during its first thirty minutes.  Thomas Crown assembles a crew of five men to don hats and sunglasses.  He coordinates what time they should arrive in Boston, either by plane, train or automobile.  They enter a particular elevator in a bank located in the center of downtown Boston, hold some people hostage and simply walk out the door with over two and half million dollars in cash.  Afterwards, Mr. Crown will take over and make sure the monies are deposited in a Swiss bank account. 

This film is quite outdated by now.  There’s a lot of easy-very easy-conveniences that work for the heist to successfully come off.  Yet, that does not interfere with enjoying The Thomas Crown Affair.  With film editing from Hal Ashby, Jewison directs the heist in rapid split screens.  It manipulates you into thinking the mechanics behind the robbery is more elaborate than it really is.  Thomas Crown orchestrates everything from his luxurious office across the street.  His crew simply hold folks at gun point with one of them driving away with the money.  It’s the pacing of the split screens in halves, thirds and sometimes fourths that keep you alert as the crew arrives at the scene of the crime from all different points. 

After the robbery is successfully committed, the insurance investigators for the bank show up.  Paul Burke is the frustrated one in charge with the loose tie and wrinkled shirt.  He allows Vicki to enter Thomas Crown’s life when she miraculously suspects that he must be the kingpin behind the theft.  Thomas knows what Vicki suspects and then the pair fall in love while trying to hide each other’s hand.  At times, one is playing cat.  At other times, one is playing mouse.

As I said, the robbery is the most exciting part of The Thomas Crown Affair.  Afterwards, the film seems to turn into a picture album or an episode of Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous.  McQueen doesn’t offer up much dialogue.  We get to see him play polo, take a flight in his hang glider and play golf.  Dunaway has occasional conversations with Burke trying to figure out how to prove that Crown is the master thief, wearing the most beautifully trendy outfits of the time.  You can’t not pay attention to how sensational Faye Dunaway looks in this picture.  When Dunaway and McQueen share the screen it’s simply an album of romance and escapist adventure.  Tommy takes Vicki in his custom-made dune buggy (personally customized by McQueen himself) along the wind-swept beaches.  They allegorically engage in the sexiest chess match to appear on film.  They tease one another with their suspicions of each other.  Yet, the movie never advances beyond any of that.  Norman Jewison simply wanted to go on a luxuriously scenic New England vacation while shooting this picture. 

I can appreciate the internal dilemma of Tommy Crown.  A bored, isolated and very wealthy man who has everything, and cannot get thrilled with what to do next except to become a moonlighting criminal for one opportunity.  One character trait that I liked was that Tommy will place bets on shooting a golf ball out of a sand trap, and lose not once but twice.  He’ll play chess with the alluring woman who’s pursuing him as well.  Yet, she gets his king in check.  The only challenge he wins at is the one that nobody is legally permitted to play.  It’s a dimension for the character, even if it is not explored with too much depth. 

The Thomas Crown Affair is not the greatest film.  I have seen it a few times as a personal means to stay in touch with my father who has passed now.  He loved to watch how the wealthy lived within the confines of their mansions with their brandy sifters and pocket watches.  When Tommy sits at his grand office desk, I hear Dad saying, “Wow, what an office.”  Dad talks to me when I watch Sean Connery as James Bond or Steve McQueen as Thomas Crown.

The movie features Dad’s most favorite song, the Oscar winning The Windmills Of Your Mind which opens the picture to feature the credits.  Honestly, this is my most favorite part of the movie.  It’s a magnificent song that I could listen to on replay.  The lyrics and haunting melody seem to tease the introduction of a man of mystery.  Yet, Thomas Crown doesn’t turn out to be all that enigmatic.  He’s a quiet fellow who only finds amusement when he comes up with the audacity to pull off what many of us would never dream to carry out.  Yet, once that is over, what is there left to do?  Fall in love with Faye Dunaway?  Well, there could be worse things in life.

Footnote: I share this portion from the eulogy I wrote for dad in September, 2019:

Dad’s favorite song was The Windmills Of Your Mind from one of dad’s favorite movies The Thomas Crown Affair, featuring Steve McQueen as the title character with Faye Dunaway about a man bored with his wealth who seeks adventure by orchestrating a complex robbery simply for the fun of it all.  As dad never slept and was always active, I consider this lyric from the song.

Round like a circle in a spiral/Like a wheel within a wheel/Never ending or beginning/On an ever-spinning wheel/Like a snowball down a mountain/Or a carnival balloon/Like a carousel that’s turning/Running rings around the moon.

Dad could never memorize the lyrics exactly but I recall him humming the tune endlessly when I was growing up.  Dad’s life was never ending.  In a spiral, in a circle, always moving and going on and on.  Just 3 months ago we were at the Tony Awards together.  Just this past summer he was reading with Julia.  Just this year he was making plans with Adrienne for Julia’s upcoming Bat Mitzvah.  Just this year he was accompanying Brian to the shooting range for time together. Just this year he was planning another party at his home for his clients, friends and fellow congregants.  Just five weeks ago, he was driving his Aston Martin, named after the Bond girl from the film Goldfinger. I dare not repeat that name here.

While in the hospital this last month, the nurses would ask him with surprise “You still work?” and dad’s reply was “Yeah.  Don’t you?”  He refused to ever retire.  He said he would never do it because then what would he do with himself.  He never stopped.  He never ever stopped, and I imagine he hasn’t stopped since he reunited with Linda and my grandmother Helen this past Thursday evening.  He is truly a windmill of the mind.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD

By Marc S. Sanders

There’s no question that George A. Romero’s 1968 classic Night Of The Living Dead is a pioneering film in horror and suspense. Without it, we don’t get The Walking Dead or World War Z or Pride & Prejudice & Zombies or endless shoot em up gore filled video games that turn our minds to mush.

Romero’s film is not a favorite of mine but I can’t deny its importance or the merits that got the film into the National Film Registry.

A young couple approach a grave to pay respect and leave flowers. In the background is a man walking oddly who then unleashes a terrorizing pursuit of them. One of them manages to get away and eventually take refuge with others in a nearby isolated house.

The leader of this group known as Ben, manages to board up every door and window. Fortunately, the television works and newscasts inform us of a government response to an epidemic of mass killings from “flesh eating ghouls” otherwise known as the dead coming back to life. The word “zombie” is never used in this film (though I do recall a dame calling The Three Stooges zombies in one of their classic shorts). Debates then arise as to whether these survivors make a run for it, stay put or hide in the basement.

Romero really could care less about any of his characters. He cares most about his new invention of monster; not a vampire or a mummy or even a creature from the black lagoon. The most developing dimension he offers is to go from showing one ghoul to showing 50 ghouls all at once with the barriers of the house coming apart and the attempts at escape unexpectedly coming undone.

He also doesn’t much care for explaining the science of this horror. Sure the ghouls eat flesh but did you know what else they do? They pick up rocks to break windows and stab their prey with gardening tools. Go figure!

It all works, especially with the government news footage set against a Washington DC backdrop. Look! The Capital! Put an actor in a military uniform, carrying a briefcase and have him get in and out of a black sedan, and now you’re convinced this is some serious shit you’re dealing with here.

I imagine it especially worked more effectively in 1968 amid the fears of a nuclear apocalypse and presidential assassinations, along with men in space and on the moon covered by monotone news reports. Then again, maybe this was just drive in movie escapism spoof from all that serious stuff. If Romero had the unlimited funds, he might have coaxed Walter Cronkite to headline the intermittent news stories and updates. Cronkite would have advised us best on how to dispatch an undead marauder. “A single shot to the head is what the General advises,” Cronkite would have emphasized.

For film aficionados and students, Night Of The Living Dead is necessary material to cover. Much of fear and suspense is simply covered by crowding a caption with people in dirty, loose fitting clothes (monster makeup was too expensive for Romero’s budget). Since it’s a black and white film, go with chocolate sauce for blood like Hitchcock did, and have your monster chomp on a turkey leg. Yup! The audience will buy that is an elbow or a knee, perhaps.

Night Of The Living Dead is also a significant piece for its main protagonist, Ben, played by Duane Jones, one of the first African American heroes to lead a film. Race is never acknowledged here which is hard to believe amid the prominent racial tensions of the sixties. Yet here is a character (albeit two dimensional like everyone else in the film) that audiences of the time accepted without any consideration for his appearance despite being the only black character in the film. The zombie plague seems to have only affected the white populace of Pennsylvania. It’s refreshing to see Jones carry through with the role. He takes it all seriously, and you pay attention to his commitment even if he’s just hammering a nail into a board.

The other surprise to me is that I’d never heard a mention of the ending to this film. It comes out of nowhere and is certainly never implied and yet your jaw drops. You’re either gonna die laughing at it, or maybe you’ll think it’s tragic, or maybe you’ll hate it. One thing for sure it reminds me again that Romero loves his flesh eating ghouls much more than he ever cared for his heroes.