Explosive Action. Intense. Gritty.
Peter Yates showcases it in the pulsating car-chase of ‘Bullitt’, the 1968 thriller.
If action sucks us in, it has to be because tension has been built upto the moment of release.
Most action movie plots shy away from building up tension for just one definitive release. They seek the safety of numbers; and insert scenes that are like short machine gun bursts. Build a little tension here, release; build some more, release; raise the stakes higher; and release again. James Bond movies fit the bill. Action movie buffs like that. To each his or her own. It is too formulaic for my liking.
In Bullitt, Peter Yates, the director, does not do that.
He builds up the tension for a whole hour into the movie. And how it works!
At one level, the tension is built up on the level of the plot itself. Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) is a lieutenant cop in charge of a witness-protection assignment over the weekend. A legislator has roped Bullitt in for the task. The witness is going to make his political star rise. Everything seems under control. As it is thought a routine assignment, Bullitt is not with the witness at night. Hitmen get to the witness and shoot him and Bullitt’s inspector. Both are fighting for their life in the hospital. One hitman sneaks into the hospital to complete the unfinished job. Bullitt thwarts the attempt but fails to catch hold of him.The witness dies of the gunshot wound in the hospital at the same time. The influential legislator is now hell bent on pinning all the blame on Bullitt. He confronts Bullitt in the hospital and Bullitt gives it back.
So, here we have Bullitt. A botched-up job. Subordinate fighting for life. Witness dead. An influential politician baying for his blood. Pushed to the wall, Bullitt goes for the jugular. At great professional risk, he goes undercover and moves the dead witness’s body out of the hospital. This is to keep the criminals interested and guessing. However, the legislator, who is not taken into confidence by Bullitt, is now hopping mad. He doesnt know what is happening.
And then this scene unfolds. Bullitt has just met an informant and gets into his car. He sees a car parked ahead and senses the criminals are around.
Bullitt’s car gets on the road. But, Yates does not go at it straightaway. He lets the tension build up. The music builds up the tempo. Bullitt drives uneventfully and the hitmen follow him. Mounted cameras in the cars nicely let us slip into the cars. We are now tailing Bullitt. Even we feel smarter than him.This seems too cosy to be true.
And it is! Because the hitmen and we both lose sight of Bullitt. The hit men don’t panic. We take the cue. Things are under control or so it seems. But, they drive with just that little bit of urgency, and look around. And so do we. And then, in the rearview mirror, we see Bullitt’s car ( masterfully done) Bullitt is now tailing them. We are now with Bullitt in his car! At a signal, the hitmen put on their seat-belts. That is a cue for us to hang on. But still the cue doesn’t prepare us. We don’t even realize that the music has stopped playing because the screeching sound of wheels just drowns it out and makes us sit tight! The chase is on!
From then on, there is no music. The roar of engines engulfs your senses. The undulating roads of San Francisco make the cars fly up and down and we are very much inside them, bouncing up and down! This is not 3D and still has that effect. And that to me is movie-magic! Rewind that part and go through it again. You will agree with me.
The biker sliding away to escape the onrushing cars and the cars careening off the railings of a dangerous curve going downwards – Adrenaline rush!
Watch the whole scene here in one go if you want to.
I know that a few things did not go as planned during shooting and the editors took care of it at the editing table. This was 1968.This is when they did things for real.
CGI is not my thing. Nor are action movies. But, action painstakingly handled in a way that makes it as close to reality as possible. Give that to me any day!
This car chase is considered to be one of the best, if not the best car chase scene of all time. A discerning viewer will watch the whole movie if he or she wants to experience why.