Judge Ryan Keefer adheres to all traffic laws and posted traffic signs.
"You sell whatever you want, but don't sell it here tonight."
How cool must you be for someone to make a film based on your first name, huh? Well, Steve McQueen has inspired not only The Tao of Steve, but a legion of people still enamored of the late actor/racing enthusiast, whose mannerisms and joie de vivre have propelled him into a minor icon in the quarter century since his death. The movie that perhaps crystallized McQueen's essence the most, the action film Bullitt, makes its HD DVD debut. How does it stack up?
Facts of the Case
Lieutenant Frank Bullitt (McQueen) has been handed an assignment from an aspiring attorney named Chalmers (Robert Vaughn, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.). The assignment is to protect a key witness so he can testify about activities within the Chicago crime underworld. The man is shot and killed (and severely wounds one of Bullitt's detectives), and before Chalmers can discover what happened and pin the blame on Bullitt, Bullitt tries to figure out the reasons why the hit went as smoothly as it did.
From the novel by Robert L. Pike and directed by Peter Yates (Breaking Away), Bullitt has the unenviable task of containing a scene in it that transcends the film itself. You know which one it is. It's the chase scene with McQueen and stunt driver Bill Hickman that takes the viewer in and out of the streets of San Francisco with McQueen at the wheel of a Ford Mustang. It's arguably the best chase sequence because the chase is about speed, which the drivers handle in spades, until the explosive final moments. It's no surprise that Hickman and producer Phillip D'Antoni would return to collaborate in another chase scene that is also excellent, that being 1971's The French Connection.
However, as a piece of dramatic (or even suspenseful) filmmaking, because of the desire to keep Bullitt as much in the period as possible, time diminishes the enjoyment of the film. The story itself gets convoluted after awhile, and some of the scenes serve as an excuse for McQueen to deliver some cheesy lines that even Ben Affleck would shiver at. However, McQueen's boss (played by Simon Oakland, Psycho) handles the job of protecting his lieutenant well, and holy crap did Jacqueline Bisset look good back in the day! All in all, while Bullitt may not be Se7en or another police procedural drama, films like that owe a bit of their cellular DNA to the McQueen/Yates work.
Bullitt is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, despite being incorrectly labeled as 2.40:1, so at least keeping the original aspect ratio gets a salute to Warner Brothers from this reviewer. The 1080p/VC-1 transfer looks OK and has a pretty visible layer of film grain through the feature, but there's not a lot of depth to the images and everything appears fairly flat. The Dolby Digital-Plus 2.0 sound is pretty vanilla in terms of effects, but anything done before the glory days of Dolby usually winds up the same way.
The extras are ports from the two-disc standard definition version that is currently available. The commentary track with Yates has been retained for this high definition release. Yates is in his mid-70s and he remembers a lot of details from this film from almost four decades ago. He recalls what locations are still around, the work that McQueen turned in for the film (praising some of his more subtle nuances) and the types of style choices he made in this and other films. And of course, he talks about all that he remembers surrounding the filming of the chase. Overall, it's a much better commentary than I expected. Next up is a featurette describing McQueen's desire for the film to be as real as possible, with some scenes from the film, and some on-set film between takes that includes narration from McQueen, Yates and others, and shows off some of the crazy driving for "the chase." The next feature focuses on McQueen's life. "The Essence of Cool" is a Turner Classic Movies production featuring oodles of interview footage with McQueen, along with a lot of footage from admirers (like The Departed's Alec Baldwin) who share their thoughts on McQueen. Acquaintances, working or otherwise, like Robert Culp (I Spy) and Lord Richard Attenborough (The Great Escape) discuss their memories of McQueen off camera. Friends like Suzanne Pleshette (Newhart) and Martin Landau (Ed Wood) discuss his origins before his break, even in his days before The Blob. The co-stars from his films recall him on set, such as his feud with Magnificent Seven co-star Yul Brynner, and most of McQueen's other films get several minutes of examination at a time. And sure, everyone has a dark side, and McQueen's is given some screen time, along with recollections of this by his friends about his substance abuse and womanizing. But his kids remember how nice a father he was, so that kind of washes things out. Of course, Ali MacGraw is talked about eventually (she was the second of three wives) and it appears that they were the first "Brangelina" of the entertainment business. Although to be fair, wives one and three provide a lot of interesting stories about him, bad and good. His final days are discussed when he was ill, and his legacy is talked about too. It's a very intriguing look at the man. Since the film won an editing Oscar, there's a more technical-based feature worth checking out. "The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing" is a piece apparently produced for the Starz channel and shows what the editors do in the process. Admittedly, to see films like The Matrix in this high def presentation if for a second is pretty cool, but it is a pretty informational piece. Kathy Bates (Misery) provides some interesting factoids about the editor's job function, while directors like Sean Penn (The Pledge) and Jodie Foster (Little Man Tate) discuss how crucial it is to them, and the established directorial entities like Quentin Tarantino (Jackie Brown), Steve Spielberg (Jaws) and James Cameron (Terminator 2) talk about their feelings and experiences with editing. From there, Bates talks about the history behind it, and some of those same directors talk about their relationships with their favorite editors, and discuss some of the scenes in their films as examples. The challenges of cutting various film genres get discussed, and the contemporary editors discuss their inspirations for each, along with some of today's films. Among all of this, editor Walter Murch (he of Apocalypse Now lore), in his studio editing Cold Mountain, which is a better illustration of the process. Oh, and the Martin Scorsese/Thelma Schoonmaker collaboration gets interview time with the above-named participants. For any aspiring editors, it's an excellent comprehensive look at the nitty-gritty of a film production, or post-production in this case.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As Chalmers, Vaughn doesn't say much in the film but you can just sense how greasy a character he is who will sacrifice anything for personal and professional gain. If someone gets in his way, he doesn't hesitate to stop it. And what a vocabulary this character has! When was the last time you heard someone use the words "castrate" and "crucifixion" in the context of threatening someone? And because he deadpans the delivery, any other actor who would have done it probably would have delivered some sort of emotion to it, and thus made it comical.
Bullitt might not be the brightest bulb in the HD DVD lamp, but the overall video quality is a slight upgrade over the current SD version and the audio is a mild wash, so you go back to the film, which serves as a showcase to the magic of the man. The extras are better than expected; so overall, it's worth shelling the money out to upgrade, regardless of platform.
McQueen and company are acquitted, provided the court gets the chance to drive one of those cars.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Director Peter Yates
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