Bullitt (1968)

Let’s cut away all the fluffiness and cut right to the bone. Steve McQueen is maybe the coolest actor to ever work in Hollywood. An underrated actor who had an incredible on-screen presence, he had his biggest success and popularity in the late 1960s. The Cincinnati Kid, Nevada Smith, Thomas Crown Affair, The Sand Pebbles, all excellent parts in good to great films. Nowhere was McQueen more at his coolest than 1968’s Bullitt.

A respected and hard-edged San Francisco detective, Frank Bullitt (McQueen) has been tasked with a somewhat dull but essential task from ambitious politician Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn). Prepping for a Senate hearing about a Mafia takedown, Chalmers has enlisted a key witness (Felice Orlandi), and Bullitt and two other detectives must babysit him over a weekend until the hearing. Instead, the witness is killed by two assassins, forcing Bullitt to find out what’s going on. Something doesn’t fit together as he examines the clues and evidence, but the pressure is on. Chalmers needs a scapegoat, and Bullitt seems like the perfect target to take the fall. Knowing he’s been backed into a corner, Bullitt has an extremely limited window to find out exactly what’s going on.

The late 1960s were one of the most influential periods in Hollywood history, changing the way films were made and more importantly, the stories that were told. From director Peter Yates, ‘Bullitt’ is a police/cop movie like none before it. It is a smart, stylish cop drama/thriller that gets better with each viewing. For starters, it was filmed in San Francisco, setting the stage for Dirty Harry, McQ and a whole cop genre to move into the city. It is an ideal backdrop for the story; a polished, good-looking city that is nonetheless hiding secrets. The score from Lalo Schifrin is a good mix of quiet, soothing jazz and faster-paced, more traditional yet still exciting musical cues (listen HERE). The style in an almost documentary-like fashion reflects some of the French crime thrillers that I’ve really come to appreciate, giving ‘Bullitt’ a different edge more than just the same old, same old cops and robbers story.

That starts with Steve McQueen as Detective Frank Bullitt, a veteran cop who always gets the job done but usually how he wants to do it, not how he should do it. That basic write-up is as cliched as the countless cop movie stereotypes that have been done to death in the years since, but McQueen gives the lead performance a different edge. Never one for huge dialogue scenes, McQueen’s Bullitt is a huge presence whenever he’s on-screen. He does more with a look here or there than many actors could do with an entire monologue with the camera trained on them. There’s a self-assured confidence in the part, a quietness about it too. Bullitt is an expert at what he does, but he’s not interested in fame or accolades. He does it because he’s really good, so good that he’s become almost desensitized to the violence he sees on a daily basis. McQueen = cool.

Okay, so we’ve talked about the plot, Steve McQueen’s badass-ness (is that a word?), and hhhmmm, what else? Oh, right, the cars. Some 45 years since its release, ‘Bullitt’ is still remembered fondly for an infamous car chase that opened the door for countless knockoffs, remakes and retries. Driving his 1968 Ford Mustang, McQueen pursues two assassins (driver Bill Hickman, killer Paul Genge) in, around and through San Fran, two muscle cars going at it for everything they’re worth. Schifrin’s soundtrack is left by the wayside, just the sounds of the two engines doing battle providing all the soundtrack that’s needed. Looking back on it now, it isn’t a flashy sequence, but it is clear how much it has influenced just about every movie car chase since. It is an extended sequence that runs about 10  minutes total (near the film’s halfway point), one that will definitely get the adrenaline pumping.

Now sometimes at the expense of the film’s style is the film’s story. It took me 3 or 4 viewings to really get everything down just right. Not to throw this out there as a cop-out, but an understanding of the story isn’t a must here. You watch for the style. Some reviewers/critics have an issue with the pacing, some point-blank stating that it’s a boring movie. It isn’t an action-packed movie, that’s for sure. ‘Bullitt’ takes its time but always knows where it wants to go. A chase through a hospital is subtle and underplayed but incredibly full of tension, as is the finale at the San Francisco airport as Bullitt chases a suspect across runways in use. We see little departures into San Fran with Bullitt’s girlfriend, Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset), on dates and at work, to Bullitt’s apartment, to follow up with witnesses. It’s rarely flashy, but there’s something charming just the same about that assured style.

Backing McQueen up, Vaughn does what he does best; gentlemanly slimy to perfection. His Chalmers is smooth and suave, but he’s really a snake waiting in the grass to strike. Don Gordon (a longtime, close friend of McQueen) is nicely cast as Delgetti, Bullitt’s longtime partner with Simon Oakland and Norman Fell as their superiors. Also look for Robert Duvall in a small but key (and effective) part as a cab driver whose help Bullitt enlists as he tries to figure everything out.

One of my favorites, an iconic flick from the 1960s, and one of Steve McQueen’s all-time bests. Haven’t seen it? What’s wrong with you?!? Highly recommended.

Bullitt (1968): ****/****

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Cannon for Cordoba (1970)

cannoncoverI have three movie genres I claim as my favorites; westerns, war movies and heist flicks. Westerns are my favorites pretty much across the board, but there’s a unifier among the trio, a sub-genre of sorts that stretches across countless bigger genres. What is it exactly? A little thing I call ‘Men on a Mission’ movies. Stick around, and you’ll see plenty of them. Today’s entry? From 1970, Cannon for Cordoba.

It’s 1912 in the midst of the Mexican Revolution and U.S. Army General John “Black Jack” Pershing (John Russell) has been tasked with defending the U.S.-Mexico border. Bandits and revolutionaries are raiding across the border, including one power-hungry “general,” Hector Cordoba (Raf Vallone). Cordoba has stolen six heavy artillery pieces from Pershing’s forces and retreated to his mountaintop fortress deep into the Mexican desert. With no other options available, Pershing is forced to take desperate measures. He tasks one of his officers, Captain Rod Douglas (George Peppard), to assemble a small team of men, ride into Mexico, infiltrate the fortress, destroy the cannon and hopefully bring Cordoba out alive. Simple, right?

It took me years to track this western down, first watching it via rental on Amazon, and this time via MGM-HD on TV. ‘Cannon’ follows the men-on-a-mission formula to a T. Introduce your leader, give him an impossible mission, let him assemble his team, and light the fuse to the mission hijinks. ‘Cannon’ has touches of The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen, The Professionals, The Guns of Navarone and plenty others. It isn’t the most original idea, but it’s a lot of fun.

From director Paul Wendkos, ‘Cannon’ came along at one of my favorite times in westerns, the late 1960s, early 1970s. Influenced by spaghetti westerns, the American westerns became more violent, dirtier, sweatier, and far-more cynical. There aren’t good guys so much as less bad guys. Filming locations in Spain are gorgeous for the sun-baked mission, and Elmer Bernstein turns in a solid score with some unique touches. Still, his signature notes are quite noticeable.

Who better to lead our team here than George Peppard, future star of TV’s The A-Team? No one. That’s who! Even chomping on a cigar, Peppard’s Douglas is your typical anti-hero, smug, capable, dangerous and intensely focused on pulling off the suicide mission. His team includes the always-welcome Don Gordon as Jackson, his right-hand man who’d like to exact some revenge on Douglas, Pete Duel as Andy, the amiable, capable, guitar-toting killer, Nico Minardos as Pete, the Greek immigrant and specialist with explosives and mechanics, and Gabrielle Tinti as Lt. Gutierrez, a Mexican officer tasked with bringing Cordoba in. There’s also Giovanni Ralli as Leonora, a beautiful Mexican woman seeking revenge against Cordoba. A bit underdeveloped in terms of character to say the least, but a cool, eclectic group.

Not given much to do other than sneer and be a stereotypical Mexican bandit/general, Vallone is nonetheless a welcome addition to the cast, even if it is just as an intimidating presence. He gets a stock character out of the Mexican Revolution genre/canon, Hans Meyer as a sadistic Swedish officer, Svedborg, working for Cordoba, while spaghetti western regular Aldo Sambrell gets a decent-sized part as Ortega, a sergeant in Cordoba’s forces.

‘Cannon’ isn’t a hugely action-packed western, but when it’s there, it’s good. Cordoba’s opening raid to steal the artillery is a good scene-setter, and a running firefight at a ruined church about halfway through is pretty cool as well. The highlight though is not surprisingly the raid on Cordoba’s well-guarded mountaintop fortress. When the explosions set off the guns start firing, things get pretty chaotic. Lots of action, some cool camera angles, and plenty of wholesome carnage.

This is a movie that’s heavily flawed and is too slow for its own good at times. I would have liked even a little more characterization among Douglas’ team but also Cordoba. Still, it’s a lot of fun, and I enjoyed it just as much on second viewing. Worth seeking out for sure. YouTube has several “full movies” available, but they’re cut versions. The full version runs 104 minutes.

Cannon for Cordoba (1970): ***/****