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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The Killer Elite (1975)

killer_elite_movie_posterWith 1969’s The Wild Bunch, director Sam Peckinpah helmed his masterpiece, a classic film, one of the best westerns ever made, and one of the most influential movies ever made in general. The problem? Though he directed some gems after ‘Bunch,’ he often got trapped by the legend of The Wild Bunch, often trying to live up to the reputation. Here’s 1975’s The Killer Elite, an uneven but entertaining Peckinpah flick.

Working together for a security firm affiliated with the CIA, Mike Locken (James Caan) and George Hansen (Robert Duvall) are good friends who have worked together as partners for years. Protecting an important defector, Hansen betrays Locken, shooting him in the knee and elbow before killing the defector. The horrifically crippling wounds force Locken to undergo serious surgeries and intense rehab, some of it through karate that he picks up quickly. Walking with a cane and a slight limp, Locken is brought back out of retirement to protect an important Asian politician on the run from an assassination squad. Leading the squad? Of course, it’s Hansen.

When I first really dove into Peckinpah’s filmography – an impressive, schizophrenic 14 movies – this 1975 action thriller was one of the last I was able to track down. The cast, the story, the potential Peckinpah chaos, it sounded like a winner. It’s a mixed bag in the end. Good but not great, wandering story and odd humor, and the cast is wasted at times. The potential is there, especially with a story ahead of its time foreshadowing government corruption (it was the 1970s) and its portrayal of bottom-dollar mercenaries. It’s a mess at 122 minutes, but there’s enough that works in the end.

James Caan and Robert Duvall together? It’s Sonny and Hagen back together again! Well, sorta. One betrays the other, filling him with thoughts of murderous revenge. The early scenes introduce the partnership/friendship, 2 guys with a history with a language and rhythm all to themselves. Unfortunately Duvall disappears for about an hour and then briefly comes back. Badly underused. Caan is solid, the revenge-seeking, stoic mercenary who must crawl back up from his lowest point. Caan could do a part like this in his sleep, but it’s pretty cool seeing him go all-out in the fight and karate scenes, using his cane as an accessory.

In the supporting cast, Arthur Hill and Gig Young are the firm’s supervisors, tasking their agents with one dangerous mission after another. Putting together a team to work with, Caan’s Locken chooses Mac (muttering Burt Young), a retired wheelman, and Miller (Bo Hopkins), a slightly off weapons expert. Mako plays Yuen Chung, the Asian politician looking to get back to Asia with some divisive plans. Not much backstory for anyone here, but Young and Hopkins (a Peckinpah regular) are having a lot of fun. The movie is at its best when it focuses on the agents, the mercenaries, even when they’re on opposite sides going toe-to-toe.

Mixed in with all this potential is an odd, out of left field choice to use ninjas as a villain. Not martial arts fighters….literally ninjas wearing black outfits and masks and using swords and throwing stars. It plays at times like a spoof, but it isn’t. The Locken karate subplot is one thing, but come on. It tries to be philosophical, thoughtful, questioning, but really, we just want ‘Elite’ to be fun. It is in its quicker moments, but too often goes back to that disjointed feeling of a story filled with potential that never quite figures out where it wants to go. At one point in the finale, all the action stops for a mano-a-mano fight as Caan and Young make fun of the fighters. It doesn’t play well.

You figure with a Peckinpah flick, you’re getting some good action. Eh, kinda. The final showdown is very cool, filmed on a mothball fleet of retired US Navy ships. But then the ninjas attack (poorly) and the slow motion takes over. It’s cool, but you can’t help but notice how cheesy it plays out, how disjointed it feels with all the twists and turns and betrayals. One last thing, the San Francisco filming locations are always nice to look at, and the score from Peckinpah collaborator Jerry Fielding is excellent.

 The Killer Elite (1975): ** ½ /****

Lawman (1971)

lawman_281971_movie_poster29Cowboy or a sheriff? Sheriff or a cowboy? Which is the more iconic figure of the western genre? It’s gotta be a split down the middle because both are so immediately recognized as the key character. Today’s entry tackles the changing portrayals of a wild west peace officer. It’s not the heroic sheriff versus the dastardly killer. It’s somewhere in between in 1971’s Lawman.

It’s 1887 in the dusty western town Sabbath when Marshal Jared Maddox (Burt Lancaster) rides into town. He has a warrant for the arrest of seven men responsible for the death of a man in Maddox’s town, Bannock. The death was accidental, a stray bullet killing an old man as rancher Vincent Bronson (Lee J. Cobb) and his men celebrate after delivering a herd. Now, the two sides are a standstill. Even with the odds stacked against him, Maddox intends to bring the men to justice. Bronson offers to pay damages, but Maddox refuses to listen. Is there an alternative other than a gunfight? Two stubborn men will go toe-to-toe to find out.

One of the better revisionist westerns to hit theaters in the 1970’s, Lawman comes from director Michael Winner (who would direct Death Wish 2 years later). It isn’t always mentioned as a classic, or even a very good western, but I’ve come away incredibly impressed both times I’ve seen it. Filming locations in Durango are familiar but add an element to the story, a feeling of being there in 1887. Composer Jerry Fielding turns in a solid score but nothing crazy.

What sets it apart – without being too heavy-handed – is its portrayal of the usual heroes and villains. Lancaster’s Maddox is the expected hero, but he’s so steadfastly stubborn, so icy cold in his job, that it becomes hard to see him as anything other than a robotic lawman without emotions. Cobb’s Bronson plays a rancher that could easily have been an out-and-out villain. He’s layered, logical and sympathetic as the situation degenerates in front of him. Maddox all but admits nothing will come of the arrests and eventual trial. Bronson knows it too but can’t bring himself around. Still, the ball is in play and pride, stubbornness and a sense of right and wrong – however skewed – will have its say.

Lancaster had quite the 2-year stretch among westerns with Lawman, Ulzana’s Raid and Valdez is Coming. It isn’t a flashy part, leading some critics to say Lancaster looks bored. I thought that reflects the character as we know him. Emotions just aren’t part of his decision-making. He knows what he believes and goes with it. Cobb is a great counter, an aging rancher who has carved a life out for himself with hard work, sweat, bullets and a whole lot of death. Surprisingly, Cobb’s Bronson ends up being the far more sympathetic character. Rounding out the lead trio is the always dependable Robert Ryan as Cotton Ryan, a sheriff bought by Bronson to “take care” of the town. Lancaster and Ryan’s scenes together are a highlight, but overall, that is three incredibly worthwhile performances.

Quite a supporting cast here too full of familiar faces. Robert Duvall, Albert Salmi, Richard Jordan, Ralph Waite, John Beck, William Watson, and J.D. Cannon round out Bronson’s men, a strong variety of individuals and not just a collective gang of sorts. Sheree North is excellent as Laura, a woman from Maddox’s past, who now lives with one of the men the lawman is chasing. Some of the townspeople include John McGiver, Walter Brooke and Richard Bull. Joseph Wiseman gives an interesting turn as Lucas, the saloon and gambling house owner who knows Maddox’s tendencies well. Of the supporting parts, North, Jordan, Duvall and Cannon especially stand out.

For a movie with a 99-minute running time, ‘Lawman’ is a bit of a slow burn. You know it’s building to something…but not quite what exactly. There are some quick hard-hitting (and some shocking) moments along the way, lots of good dialogue sprinkled throughout, and it all leads to a genuinely startling finale. Heavy doses of squibs and blood mark the final shootout that is more uncomfortable than exciting. A doozy of a finale.

Highly recommended. Well worth checking out for its strong, deep cast, layered story and a whole bunch more.

Lawman (1971): ***/****