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Ice Cold San Francisco
One of the ways in which curiosity for cinema rewards a person over time is that we begin to see a thread form between films, movements, and eras. I do not doubt that many film buffs out there perceive and understand the little things that seem to connect films and movements; without ever looking into the vocabulary (often created long after the fact) to define these threads. I muse about this because I consider myself an eternal student and get immense satisfaction from learning about these movements in film history and the critics who defined them.
Exhibit A: neo-noir; a revival of film noir. One could easily spend the next hour going down the rabbit hole afforded by the two Wikipedia links I just provided, but allow me to offer an extreme over-simplification. (keep in mind these definitions are continually debated): Film noir took place in the 40s and 50s (post-WWII) and primarily consisted of black and white Hollywood films with a bleak worldview. This isn’t to say these films are without a shred of hope or optimism, but you’ll have to dig. Neo-noir is a revival of film noir, starting in the 60s and continuing today, spanning many countries, languages, and film styles. Again, in my opinion, the defining characteristic of all noir is its bleak worldview and outlook.
Interestingly, you can look at any art form, such as theatre or painting, and find a move towards bleakness after world-shaking events. Just check out more film noir, the Theatre of the Absurd, the Return to Order, or whatever one would call the dark shift of superhero films post 9/11. (I propose something that cleverly bakes fascism into the name.)
But why does any of this matter? This week’s film, Bullitt, could easily be enjoyed on its own merits. After all, it has one of the most famous car chases ever committed to film, along with what will be the most valuable Mustang ever sold. But I find thinking about the film in conversation with other films of its day, along with the tumultuous 60s, adds to the experience and pushes it into the “must-watch” zone.
It’s difficult to imagine Bullitt existing in a world where Le Samouraï (1967) doesn’t. Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, Le Samouraï is an ice-cold, captivating, and precise film. It oozes style and cool and speaks to a more primal instinct in the viewer. However, it doesn’t seem to share the same intent. Bullitt taps directly into this same primal nerve, seemingly reacting to the times in which it was made. It’s challenging to imagine that a neo-noir film, as impenetrably unemotional as this, could be so successful; it was a box office smash and was met with universal acclaim upon release. Difficult to imagine until you begin to read into the events of 1968 that might make a rogue cop, willing to buck the corrupt system and feckless peers, incredibly cathartic.
A few events that led up to the October 17th, 1968, release of Bullitt:
January 1968: Media coverage of the Vietnam war gives home viewers a front seat to the horror of war.
April 4th, 1968: Martin Luther King Jr. assassinated.
June 5th, 1968: Robert F. Kennedy Jr. assassinated.
August 26th-29th, 1968: A bloody conflict between police and protestors at the Democratic Convention in Chicago
History has taught us that in times of institutional failure, people increasingly look to fascistic leaders that typically claim to be a solution to all problems. Our mass-media consumption tends to be no different; Bullitt would pave the way for a slew of “renegade good cop” features, most notably the Dirty Harry franchise, starring Clint Eastwood and also set in San Francisco.
Bullitt thrives in this context, but to attribute its success entirely to timing would be a mistake. It scratches the primal itch that desires control and justice, but it also does so in a tightly shot, beautifully staged, and expertly choreographed fashion. Steve McQueen’s most famous role sees him maintain a steely indifference as he investigates the murder of a mobster who was going to testify against the outfit. In true noir fashion, the investigation uncovers layer after layer of corruption, allowing McQueen to subtly ratchet up the intensity as the film barrels towards its centerpiece and climax.
Speaking of the centerpiece; this is why you owe it to yourself to watch this film at least once. Bullitt features a ten-minute car chase so incredibly bonkers that it is rightfully considered the greatest car chase ever committed to film. It is safe to say that a sequence like this will never be filmed again. Peter Yates, the director, along with the producers of the film, convinced the Mayor of San Francisco, Joseph L. Alioto, to give them unprecedented access to the city to shoot. Alioto was intent on driving more film industry to the foggy city. The filmmakers took that unprecedented access and spent three weeks filming muscle cars at speeds over 100 mph zipping through small neighborhoods like Nob Hill, the Emarcadero, Bernal Heights, Telegraph Hill, and the Mission. If you’ve had the chance to visit these neighborhoods, imagining a vehicle moving at these speeds boggles the mind. The streets are narrow, old, and seemingly not long enough to even reach these speeds. The sequence is messy; hubcaps fly, cameras break and struggle to track, fenders get dented and broken, and a green Volkswagen Beetle oddly shows up multiple times in a testament to the difficulty of editing something as audacious as this.
A film made for its time, a view into the id of an American era, a portrait of San Francisco in the 60s, and the height of “cool” for a generation. For better or worse. Frank Bullitt captures the feelings of a generation living in unsure times, offering a terse read on the situation: “Bullshit.”
Written by Alan Trustman, Harry Kleiner, and Robert L. Fish; Directed by Peter Yates
Stray Thoughts from the Editor
That last line is a nod to a famous line from the movie, I swear! San Francisco has so many great films to choose from for writing about. Still, I especially want to call out a specific list on Letterboxd that I’ve been referencing for well over a year in my pursuit of all things San Francisco Cinema: San Francisco by Jessica D. The list is not only a testament to a brilliant feature on Letterboxd, it’s a continually updated (23 days ago was the last update!) sign of folks’ dedication to finding fun and exciting ways to dissect film. Thank you, Jessica for putting it together!
One additional point of interest on Bullitt, from Indiewire: Steven Spielberg Developing New ‘Bullitt’ Movie Based on Steve McQueen Character
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