Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Pulpy Peter Yates (Eddie Coyle & Bullitt)

It's both a shame and a wonder to me that it took this long to get to the late director Peter Yates.  This week I also watched The Hot Rock, thankfully available on Netflix-Instant, but before that I hadn't seen any of his works let alone the seminal ones like I watched tonight (one on loan thanks to my father-in-law, which I borrowed around Christmas, and another I've had a copy of for Dog knows how many years).  He didn't just direct thrillers- he did dramas, some comedy, and ended ironically enough with his final feature film titled 'Curtain Call' in 1999- but these two films are the ones he'll still be remembered for twenty years from now, if there's any cine-justice in this world.  And I was so glad to finally get into both of them: tales of robbers and cops, lowlifes and cool dudes, cars and guns, Boston and San Franfuckingcisco.

"We're gonna rob a fucking bank"

The Friends of Eddie Coyle is 70's cinema at its finest.  You know what I mean, ya bastard.  It's not your kid's generation bank-heist-snitch movie (like the movie that robs liberally from this one, specifically for one shot involving a walk away from a car, The Town by fellow Boston-ite Ben Affleck).  This stars one of the baddest motherfuckers that graced the screen with his laconic but firm presence that took command somewhat unassumingly, Robert Mitchum, and it's a story that's told without too much of a rush for time.  This is also something to be said for Peter Yates' previous if different-toned film, The Hot Rock.  When it comes to staging a conversation, or a practically perfect bank robbery, timing is everything.  This doesn't go all over the place with fidgety camera-work and edits.  It's more attuned to Jean-Pierre Melville's aesthetic, only not quite as detached and with more sideburns and guns.

So in other words it's my kind of crime movie, the uncompromising, dark and edgy and Post-Hayes Code noir.  It's about a snitch, so one should look at him with some disdain.  But Eddie 'Fingers' Coyle (Mitchum) has good reason to snitch: he's facing some serious jail time for a job he pulled with a truck up in New Hampshire.  He thinks if he can just give the understanding if-no-bullshit cop something to work with and he can put in a good word with the judge up in NH, he'll be home free, for a little while at least.  And the guys he's plotting against are no amateurs; they're gun runners and bank robbers, the latter of which we see pull off some jobs that are timed to a T and to such a degree that the slightest error means a few slugs in a chest and a whole bank employee set put in the safe while they get away.

So why feel sympathy for Coyle?  Cause it's Bob Mitchum in the role, that's what.  If it were any other actor, even Lee Marvin or Steven McQueen, it just wouldn't be there despite the practical similar level of 'cool'.  Maybe laconic isn't the word.  It's a weariness that's there, having lived a life and been through with the shit of it (there's a scene where he tells the cop right off he's getting a bum deal and repeats the word, and it sticks), and we want him to come out on top if only as he's the least scummy of the the rest of the scumbags and lowlifes in the picture.  Some may be more professional than others- the bank robbers vs. the guy and gal looking for machine guns to rob banks- and one in particular can sway his allegiance any way as long as the money is good and he's got a dark highway at night.  But It's because of what Mitchum brings to the part that makes it work.

And what that is is hard to precisely describe except that it's screen presence, or an attitude that helps keep the character grounded so much in the reality he's in.  Yates does Mitchum a good one by putting the world he's surrounded in with such an air of despair.  This is actually much darker than a 1940's noir, the Hayes-Code restriction on language or sexual innuendo and violence aside.  It's an outlook, either by the director or dictated by the script, that is a little rougher, a little meaner, and doesn't need to rely on superlative language.  Mitchum is able to make other actors, who are all very capable and good, look sometimes as if they'll crap their jammies, and that's a good gift to have with the character even as he's doing unsavory things.  It's a complex role and the star is in perfect form for it: an existential dilemma with a pretty bleak outlook either way, contrasted (or complimented I guess) by the fall atmosphere and gray, cold skies of the Boston air around him.

The suspense in the film is drawn up superbly, particularly with a sequence surrounding one character's acquisition of machine guns, first in the middle of the night (the way one character deals with this has some of the best lines of the movie), and then the trade-off by a train station is staged with conscious, careful storytelling that suddenly POPS when it needs to.  And all of the characters, even minor ones, are well-drawn by how they behave, the cadence of their speech to one another even in small situations like a gun sale or sitting across at a bar having a cup of coffee or bourbon.

Yates captures such a strong flavor of Boston that the drama naturally flows out of the environment.  And it being the 70's there's two other things one can count on: really cool, jazzy music (sadly not by Lalo Schifrin but it does just as well), and an ending that is not what one would totally expect.  That is to say, again, if this were the 'old days' of film-noir, back when Mitchum wowed audiences with Out of the Past, it might end up different.  But not in this time and place, and not for Eddie Coyle.  It's a cold, nasty little movie that hits all of the right spots.  It's one of the underrated treasures of 1973, a great year in American film otherwise.


Bullitt was one of the first to get there, no doubt about it.  It's one of the first of the real lean and gritty cop thrillers (or Policiers if you want it French), and it's got the tough, frakk-you attitude of its main character that would resonate on with an audience that was building up some anti-authoritarian attitude very quickly (1968 after all).  Its story has got some good double-crosses, mystery surrounding a witness needed to testify at a grand jury who may or may not be dead, and its never a sure thing what will happen up until the end (at least up to a point, depending on who's alive or not).  It's Peter Yates giving an American chase movie with plenty of time for the procedure of things - surgery in a hospital room, looking in a crowd for a perp, walking to get a steak for dinner - with bursts of extraordinary violence.

That isn't to say it's a very violent film.  When it does spring out it's like a coil that has been wound for a while (with one exception early on where the tension leading up to it is unclear), and Yates has a level of realistic integrity to everything.  That is to say it's still a Hollywood blockbuster of the period, but there is an edge to it that was seeing just a little more light coming in to the New Hollywood.  It's not traditional in certain ways even if it's still at heart a procedural with some stuffy stock characters and a good deal of expository dialogue (sometimes needed, sometimes not so much).

Part of this edge, of course, comes from Steve McQueen.  I must admit I only see some of the appeal.  He does look cool in a car, sure, and he can hold his own in a scene with some good players.  As far as how wide his talent or appeal goes will be a little more subjective; he was, and probably still is a cool-ass legend of old who blazed his trail and died too (if not James Dean too) young.  Maybe it's only a personal preference based on his character; it takes a little while to get through the super-cool (almost lukewarm?) surface of McQueen and his Frank Bullitt.  Perhaps that's part of the approach, however I also felt a little too much of a connection to his previous bad-ass anti-authoritarian rider in The Great Escape.  I did grow to like his performance more as the film went on, maybe in part due to a little (if slightly shallow) characterization given to him by his sometimes-vacant-hot-eyed lover played by Jacqueline Bisset.  But I wouldn't go back to him as a favorite cop of the period; Dirty Harry still will be more interesting years from now.

McQueen is an integral part of the appeal of the film, and he does get by well especially when his character buts heads with authority (mainly Robert Vaughn actually who plays an officious prick).  Yet this is not really the reason you would come to Bullitt.  Nay, it has something of a "thing" with it (not a gimmick, just a 'thing').  You hear from friends about this thing in the movie, something that may have something to do with the plot, if one can explain the ins-and-outs of it (er, Cop tries to track down the hit men going after the witness for the trial), and it practically makes the movie.  The car chase through San Francisco is a mini-masterpiece of economy of shots, overtonal montage, and speed.  The thing distinguishing it from a lot of others (or at least the first) is how fast it turns into after a slow but methodical start through the ups and downs of streets.  The cars were going at the speeds they appear to be going, and the intensity keeps on edge.  It's action that could have tremendous consequences, even if one can reasonably assume the outcome.

So, for those who just scrolled down to this point of the review, is it worth seeing the whole movie or just that scene?  Bullitt is a gritty little Hollywood movie that gets uplifted from being a B-police movie into something a little more and more landmark-ish due to its protagonist and his take-no-shit attitude, from those he goes after and those he answers to.  I also liked that there was a feeling of loneliness to it, that Frank wouldn't make many friends by the way he treats people outside of Bisset.  It has lasting power and is very entertaining, if only in seeing the process of how police and hospital workers and so on do their work in realistic terms.  And of course the music is iconic, when it comes on; it's impressive to note how much of the movie is without music, only the sound effects of tires scratching and wheels burning and an airplane about to take off or land in the climactic chase at the airport.  Yet when Schifrin's score comes up, especially in the opening credits and in its smaller doses, it catches the mood just right: the one that one would want to have if riding a cool green car with a cool McQueen face and body and eyes and attitude.

I guess what it comes down to is not being as big a McQueen fan as the rest of critics and audiences out there, finding him in a role like this (that is to say not always) bland, like a tougher Robert Redford.  That shouldn't stop anyone from watching it right away if the urge comes up to watch an "old-school" modern Hollywood action hit; when it comes time for summer and cineplexes will be loaded with several sub-par offerings, it wouldn't be a bad time to load this up and see how a professional can do it.

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