08 July 2010

Evil Sometimes Wears a Nice Blue Suit

There's something particularly scary about evil disguised as ordinary looking middle aged men in nondescript clothing. For one thing it suggests that evil can be anywhere Danger may lurk within the guy standing behind you on line at the pharmacy.

There are two such regular looking fellows at the heart of Bullitt (1968), a film better known for its iconic car chase scene and its star, the late great Steve McQueen.

Under those long raincoats are weapons, including a shotgun that is used to blow two people nearly to kingdom come. These are not raving lunatics in sheep's clothing either. They are as placid and calm as a full moon though portending as much menace. We see nary a hint of emotion from either. They are methodical men going about their jobs. Because they are hired assassins it does not follow that they are erratic or colorful. Quite the contrary. They are virtually wordless, expressionless deliverers of death.

But there is one other more nattily attired man in a suit. While he is not nearly so deadly in person, his power is far more insidious and far reaching. He is the power hungry D.A. Chalmers. This is the quintessential slimy politician who sees his fellow man in terms of what they can do to ease his own climb to the top. Robert Vaughn played Chalmers and he was perfect. All clipped talking points, overdone and totally insincere flattery and politeness. Utterly ruthless and callous and all too realistic to be dismissed as just another character in a film.

Some might say Chalmers represents the prototypical ambitious politico, but he's an extreme and virulent strain of that species.

Countering these sartorially resplendent men is the more casually attired and infinitely cooler title character played by the coolest of the cool, McQueen. A turtleneck and sports jacket will do nicely for him.

Bullitt is a man of very few words, indeed a man of hardly any syllables. The 1950's and 60's were the golden age of silent leading men who betrayed little emotion. Like McQueen's Bullitt, they nonetheless were successful in both their jobs and with the ladies. Bullitt's girl is the utterly gorgeous Cathy played by the then 24 year old Jacqueline Bisset. Finding a lovelier woman at any time and place would be no small task.

This is a film with a wonderful economy of words but a similar and quite striking absence of a sensible plot. Yet over 40 years on Bullitt is a film much beloved by many people, including yours truly. While it makes little sense it does a wonderful job of telling it confusing story. The chase scene is not aged a whit in all this time and in fact has yet to be outdone.

Director Peter Yates did a masterful job of pacing the film, his cuts from one scene to the next were especially effective. Yates also knew to slow things down occasionally and focus on the mundane. The scene were Bullitt and his partner are inventorying a victim's luggage is a prime example. While today I enjoyed my umpteenth viewing of Bullitt, I recently enjoyed my first screening of a later Yates film, The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) with Robert Mitchum as an aging crook trying to stay out of prison. It's a film that demonstrates a similar willingness to contrast the ordinary and the everyday with extraordinary events. It's a film I'll be re-visiting.

Bullitt owes much to the star power of McQueen and its other star, the city of San Francisco. It too is cool and more casual than others of its type.

Other supporting players were regulars of the time period often seen on Tv, Simon Oakland and Norman Fell both played Bullitt's superiors. A young Robert Duvall also features as a cabbie.

But among the star power and the character actors and the chases and the tension, there lurks those guys in their suits. A banality of evil all their own.

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