Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Renegade April: Bullitt (1968), the iconic Steve McQueen

This week, as part of a vast two-film series starring Renegade extraordinaire Steve McQueen, I saw Bullitt, a 1968 cop movie famous for its pioneering maverick cop and its epic chase scene. The plot is a bit loose, following Lieutenant Frank Bullitt as he’s tasked with protecting a witness for a Senate subcommittee hearing. He loses this witness to an assassin almost immediately, through some mysterious treachery, and as he follows up to uncover details of the murder, he gradually garners the hostility of higher-level superiors. He flaunts their escalating opposition in order to find the murderer and discover the true nature of the witness’s involvement in the high-profile case.

Frank Bullitt is basically the coat-rack upon which director Peter Yates hangs every other aspect of this movie – the brooding atmosphere, the other characters’ roles and performances, the central chase scene, every narrative thread. And Frank Bullitt is an on-screen embodiment of McQueen’s manly charisma, drawing the whole cinematic experience into his gravitational field. McQueen was a reformed hoodlum and California drifter who loved cars and motorcycles. He played tough guys because he knew how to be one, and he brought this authenticity to Frank Bullitt, the maverick cop of San Francisco, in particular.

Yes, Steve McQueen, the "king of cool," is a paragon of manliness. Frank Bullitt is the role he's cut out to play; it's clear why he's built a reputation on this type of character. To my eyes, he seems to occupy a space between James Dean and Daniel Craig, with the tacit strength of character that middle-aged men tend to consolidate, but also with an attitude of youthful resistance, less snide than the postmodern rebellion gestated by generation X... a coolness that seems less "coached" and more learned, and understood.

And it's interesting to note: Bullitt is gruff and driven, but not so impenetrable as some of his successor "maverick cops" (Dirty Harry, I'm looking at you). This is how McQueen reminds me of James Dean... even as he plays Frank Bullitt as a prickly loner, he also gives him some glimmers of uncertainty, a foothold for the audience's empathy. It's subtle, but it's there -- like when his captain asks to speak to him on the phone, and Frank just hangs up, or when Senator Chalmers confronts him about signing off on his professional failure, and Frank just refuses and walks past silently. He doesn't respond with the confrontational retort so common to modern "heroic" resistance; rather, he just pushes past, intent on staying the course, unwilling to let go of what seems like a hopeless debacle. Modern heroes always seem sure that they're doing exactly what's justified and appropriate in any situation. McQueen is headstrong, but he's clearly a man who understands consequences, which makes him a little more real.

This vulnerability is the deepest thread of characterization in Bullitt, the most important element keeping Frank Bullitt from just being a brooding cop superhero. My own observation, above, that Bullitt is conflicted about his insubordination is certainly arguable -- it's possible that he was just as heroically flawless as King Leonidas or the T-1000. But Frank's tortured soul reveals itself in other ways, as well, keeping him up at night and infecting his relationship with his two-dimensional trophy girlfriend. In fact, sleeplessness is a subtle but undeniable theme in Bullitt: Frank is roused from an obviously inadequate sleep at the beginning of the film, and at the end, his anxiety prevents him from going back to that bed after a long night of pursuit. The one time he does seem to be getting a good sleep, the phone rings, informing him that something on his case has gone awry. This is where his police work dogs him most tenaciously... in bed, as he's trying to rest.

And this theme is the exclamation point on the deeper significance of Bullitt's character: he can't find peace. Or, perhaps more accurately, he can't accept it. From lead to lead, he's pursued by discouragement, and by death, reaching out for each bystander he encounters. But with a problem set before him, he can't stop shaking it and working at it until he unravels it, even under pressure from his own agency: let it go, they say. But for Frank, it's a mild obsession, perhaps an emotional symptom of job-induced insomnia. He's a cop akin to some more recent danger junkies... like Katherine Bigelow's Sgt. William James, who's probably having these same kinds of sleepless nights.

This brings us back to his role as a renegade, which, in Frank's case, isn't any kind of personal statement. Frank is a rebel because he's fixated on the problem he's been given, which, at times, doesn't even seem to be clearly articulated... is he trying to protect a witness? Foil a hitman? Recover testimony? Whatever the nature of the entanglement, Frank has to work it out completely, even if it's at the expense of his own sanity, and he's willing to fight against both the mob and his own superiors in order to do it. He's not an ideologue or a teenager throwing a tantrum... he's just a man who needs to take care of a bit of business, and he'll go it alone if he has to.

Frank Bullitt

Insubordinate cop, tasked by a politician with protecting a key witness, who gets embroiled in a case of theft, assassination, and mistaken identity, who has to fight his own superiors in order to go the distance.
  • Insubordination
  • Justifiable homicide
  • Reckless endangerment
  • Destruction of property (both public and private)
  • Speeding, various other traffic offenses

Further reading on Steve McQueen and Bullitt:
Steven Santos at The Fine Cut on McQueen's Persona in Bullitt and Enemy of the People)
Steve McQueen "5 for the Day" at The House Next Door
The Cooler: "Bullitt Points" on Steve McQueen, including some thoughts on Bullitt, and an excellent blurb from the poster
A Google Map of the awesome, awesomely inconsistent car chase

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