It’s rare when you can so clearly see it, but when that monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey dropped in on Hollywood in 1968, the police film also made a clear evolutionary jump with Bullitt. The year before is often cited as the year "New Hollywood" fully kicked off, with the releases of The Graduate and Bonnie & Clyde. That same year the police drama would get the mixed-race/cop-buddy film In The Heat of The Night, as well as the "ultra-violent criminal as hero" in Point Blank. The big screen cops of that era, though, were still closer in spirit to TV's Jack Webb busting hippies on Dragnet 1967 than they were to the characters in the French New Wave inspired Bonnie & Clyde. With the old studio system dying a slow death, the standards were relaxing a bit; therefore actors like Richard Widmark in Madigan, Clint Eastwood in Coogan’s Bluff, David Janssen in Warning Shot, and Aldo Ray in Riot on The Sunset Strip may have seemed a little edgier than usual (Frank Sinatra in The Detective even added an [in its day] shocking homosexual plot line), but those cop flicks still felt closer in style to the ones of the '50s with Glenn Ford or Kirk Douglas. Like an atom bomb Bullitt changed everything, and the policeman movie was never the same.
Actor Steve McQueen was already a big star with The Great Escape and The Cincinnati Kid, and a year earlier he got his only Oscar nomination for The Sand Pebbles. But ’68 was the year he became a mega-star thanks to the two giant hits: Bullitt and The Thomas Crown Affair. With Bullitt, McQueen’s own production company bought the rights to Robert L. Fish’s novel Mute Witness, and then brought in the little known director Peter Yates, having seen his minor heist film Robbery. Here McQueen plays the very cool San Francisco police Lieutenant, Frank Bullitt (with a name like that, how could he not be cool?). He and his guys are given the assignment of babysitting a minor criminal who is going to be the star witness against the mob in a Senate hearing (staged in San Francisco, for some unclear reason) that is being run by an ambitious politician (Robert Vaughn). While Bullitt is out wooing his pretty British girlfriend (Jacqueline Bisset) the safe-house is hit, and a cop and the star witness are fatally wounded. After the witness dies in the hospital, Bullet and his sidekick, Delgetti (Don Gordon), sneak the body out to the morgue so the hit-men will think he’s still alive, turning the film into a series of chases: on foot through the hospital, outside an airport, and most famously in cars through the hilly streets of San Francisco, which is what the film is still mostly remembered for. Along with The French Connection, any great car chase list will forever include Bullitt’s ten minute game of cat and mouse, which brought an authenticity to the car chase using real locations and cameras in the cars. The car chase alone helped win editor Frank P. Miller an Oscar and is still studied today by many a fledgling film maker.Continue Reading
After his death, Steve McQueen reached rebel-cool icon status based on his off-screen machismo (racing cars and motorcycles, martial arts with Bruce Lee, stealing Robert Evans’ wife) and partly on his actual film resume, which in retrospect isn’t as great as you would expect. His peak years start in ’63 with his one masterpiece, The Great Escape (he did the overrated but still influential Western The Magnificent Seven a few years earlier), a couple of big hits that now feel more like remake-bait time capsules (The Thomas Crown Affair and The Cincinnati Kid), and of course there is also Bullitt, largely famous for its amazing high-speed San Francisco auto chases. But for the most part the late sixties were rounded out with forgotten melodramas (Love with the Proper Stranger, Baby the Rain Must Fall and The Sand Pebbles). The early seventies include a couple lesser collaborations with Sam Peckinpah (Junior Bonner and The Getaway) and the super cast/super dud The Towering Inferno. But besides appearing as himself in the Oscar-winning motorcycle documentary On Any Sunday, McQueen’s best film since The Great Escape is the epic Papillon, a film that has been written off by some as overly long and cold. But for my money it’s one of the best prison escape movies ever, as well as an eye-opening look at worlds I knew little about. (ALSO OF NOTE: I first saw it as a very young kid, in its second run at a drive-in, and there are some moments of violence that then confused me, but have stuck with me ever since.)
Based on the questionable autobiography of French petty criminal Henri “Papillon” Charrière, (played by the very American McQueen and shot in exotic locations all over the world) the script is credited to blacklisted legend Dalton Trumbo (Spartacus) and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (one of the creators of the '60s Batman TV series). The film begins in pre-WWII France with Papillon and other convicted criminals being marched through town and on to a boat to be shipped off to a French penal colony work camp. On the long and brutal ship ride, Papillon strikes a deal with a wealthy and rather famous forger, Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman in full nebbish mode), for protection. With a promise to keep the meek embezzler alive, Dega will finance any escape attempts. Through the course of time, the two strike up an unlikely friendship (a prison adventure Midnight Cowboy). The film covers years in swampy, tough malaria-plagued conditions, finally ending on the infamous Devil’s Island. The film is loaded with wonderful set pieces, including long and short escape attempts, a leper colony, sadistic guards, creepy prisoners, solitary confinements and lots of double crosses (even a nun stabs Papillon in the back). It’s a survival saga and a friendship story, though the survival aspect is the highlight.Continue Reading
The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming
Written by William Rose, who was also responsible for the loud, brash and big It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World a couple years earlier (as well as the overrated Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner), The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming is also a big ensemble comedy, but much better executed and focused than his previous script, with more heart and less mean-spiritedness. It also helps that it has a very able director at the helm, the nearly forgotten Norman Jewison, whose socially-conscious films still hold up (In The Heat of The Night, A Soldier’s Story, The Hurricane; The Russians Are Coming could also be considered part of that group). He had a number of films which were popular and respected in their day (The Cincinnati Kid, The Thomas Crown Affair, Fiddler on the Roof, Agnes of God, Moonstruck) and some fascinating curios (Jesus Christ Superstar, Rollerball and F.I.S.T.). He falls into that group of directors who emerged in the sixties like Arthur Penn, George Roy Hill, John Boorman and John Schlesinger who had a lot of acclaim and made some classics, but never became brand names like Polanski and Coppola, or even to a lesser extent Mike Nichols and Sydney Pollack. Jewison has as many solid films as his peers, though looking back none reach that same level of transcendence as a Bonnie and Clyde, Midnight Cowboy or Deliverance. For my money, though many would disagree, The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming is his film that holds up best today.
Based on a novel by Nathaniel Benchley (whose son Peter wrote the novel Jaws), set in a little New England beachy island community (very similar looking to that one in Jaws, though surprisingly actually shot in Northern California), where a Russian submarine gets stuck in a sandbar, leading to havoc in the town. This was a few years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, so this was the height of cold-war hysteria (think Dr. Strangelove), so even just having likable Russian characters was enough to make this film subversive to some. The film has dozens of characters, with top character actors of the day in peak form.Continue Reading
Viva Las Vegas
Elvis Presley’s film career can be seen in two halves. The first half is the '50s. It consists of just four films. It’s interesting. Elvis showed some potential and even ambition to become a serious actor. The second half is the '60s. Elvis made over twenty films in the decade: two or three a year. They’re not as interesting; most were totally forgettable, formulaic vanity projects. Elvis appears to have lost his ambition to be a real actor and was willing to accept any cookie-cutter musical as long as a paycheck was involved. However, many of those second-half films still have their fans. The one standout for me is Viva Las Vegas. It’s another cut-and-paste job. It’s fluff. But besides a couple of catchy songs and some fun actual Vegas locations, it has one very special thing going for it -- Elvis’ co-star.
Love Me Tender was Presley’s first film in ’56. He got third billing. It’s actually a pretty effective Civil War drama with Elvis also crooning the title song. His third film, Jailhouse Rock, was a solid B-movie drama/musical. His final film of the decade, King Creole, co-starred Carolyn Jones and Walter Matthau and was directed by Michael Curtiz -- you know the guy who directed Casablanca. When Elvis emerged in films, still at the height of Elvis-mania, it looked like he was going to carry on the Marlon Brando/James Dean torch of misunderstood youth rebellion and alienation as he tried to pattern his acting after them: mumbling, blatant sexuality, a coyness with the camera. But by the sixties, any pose of artistic rebellion had given way to capitalist goals. Elvis had done his stint in the army, he was now married and hanging around with Sinatra on television. And by the time we get to Viva Las Vegas in ’64, The Beatles are now king and Elvis is just a dated caricature of himself.Continue Reading