Bullitt: Special Edition
Steve McQueen was one of the last great movie stars an actor who, like James Stewart, Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant, inhabited his own skin so effortlessly that it was easy to underestimate his talent. Peter Yates' Bullitt (1968) is perhaps the most loved of McQueen's films, and the one with which he seems to be most closely associated. The reason for this is that the character of San Francisco homicide detective Frank Bullitt fits McQueen so perfectly that he barely looks like he's acting but he is, turning in one the best, most understated performances of his career. Bullitt's assigned to protect a Mafia informant by smarmy, ambitious District Attorney Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn). Despite his best efforts, the witness is killed (in a particularly brutal scene) in a safe-house by two hitmen, leading Bullitt to seek out both the killers and answers regarding how, exactly, they knew where to find him. The plot from that point on is insanely intricate (convoluted, one might even say), but, to his credit, Yates keeps everything straight for the audience and ties up all the loose ends nicely. The much-celebrated car chase through the streets of San Francisco (the entire film was shot on location, adding to the realistic feeling of immediacy throughout) is still impressive, a ten-minute mini-film in its own right as Bullitt first spots the killers in a gleaming black Charger tailing him and then, after a bit of cat-and-mouse on the hilly residential streets, gets behind them and they take off. It's a brilliant piece of filmmaking the POV cameras mounted inside the cars still makes the stomach lurch as the cars fly, roller coaster-like, over steep inclines that could have oncoming cars on the other side, while the cutaways to Bullitt's Mustang bottoming out in the dips while dodging other cars is thrilling. In the non-automotive scenes, McQueen plays Bullitt as an Everyman anti-hero nothing like the almost superhuman action stars that would follow in the coming decades. Frank Bullitt is diffident, nonchalant to the point where his colleagues and his lover believe him to be uncaring and jaded. But there's a pain in McQueen's eyes and a fidgety tension to his acting that let us know how much he's seen, and how much he cares there's a quiet violence coiled inside him and a sorrow that make the character far more complex that what's written on the page. Anyone who accuses McQueen of being one those stars who could "only play himself" needs to take a closer look at the multi-textured performance he gives here. The few off-notes in the film belong to the ludicrously beautiful Jacqueline Bissett as Bullitt's love interest, who provides some much-needed glamour (and character development) to the otherwise gritty cop drama. As lovely as she is, dining out with her man at a swanky jazz club and then smooching with him in the sheets the next morning, she's also stuck with some seriously clunky dialogue (" Do you let anything reach you? I mean, really reach you? Or are you so used to it by now that nothing really touches you? You're living in a sewer, Frank, day after day.") One the finest of the seminal cop dramas of the late '60s and early '70s, Bullitt is just plain great from McQueen's subtle portrayal of Bullitt as a tightly wound loner to Lalo Schifrin's swingin' score. A timeless classic.
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Warner's two-disc Bullitt: Special Edition is an upgrade from their early DVD release way back in 1997, and the new anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) is very good. That's not to say it's great it would have been nice to see this title fully, thoughtfully remastered, as this admittedly slick transfer is still a bit soft. Colors have been bumped up and are very bright. Contrast has been enhanced, too, which makes the many daylight scenes far crisper and prettier to look at, while the darker scenes sometimes appear a little murky. Still, overall, it's an impressively clean, bright picture. The DD 2.0 audio (in English and French with optional English, French, or Spanish subtitles) is clean and generally very good but, again, not great. The music often sounds flat and sometimes battles with dialogue. The car chases alone could have benefited from audio enhancement don't expect true surround sound here. Extras on Disc One include a delightful new commentary track by director Yates, charming and funny and very scene-specific he recalls a lot of good technical information and personal anecdotes, and fans will like this a lot. Also on board is the theatrical trailer. Disc Two offers two documentaries. Steve McQueen: The Essence of Cool (86 min.) is a fascinating new TCM biography of the not-always-likable actor, with input from an astounding array of familiar faces, including Robert Vaughn, Eli Wallach, Richard Attenborough, Martin Landau, Lawrence Kasdan, Norman Jewison, McQueen's ex-wife Neile Adams, and film critic Charles Champlin. The second, The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing (100 min.) is a very good, very interesting piece on the editor's craft, narrated by Kathy Bates with soundbite interviews from virtually everyone in the directing game produced in 2004, it's a genuinely informative documentary on the impact good (or bad) editing can have on a film. There's also a vintage "making-of" featurette that was on the first DVD release, a basic promo piece produced when the film was released (10 min.). Dual-DVD slimline keep-case.
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