Steve McQueen: Lady Killing Machine

I learned on Monday from the CBC that Peter Yates, director of the Steve McQueen classic Bullitt, has died. In honour of this, here is a post about two Bullitts: the classic film, and the novel it’s based on, Mute Witness.

I recently read Mute Witness (1963) in about 2 non-consecutive hours (it doesn’t take much commitment to get through old timey crime dramas). From what I can tell, publishers have rebranded the novel as Bullitt since the movie came out in 1968, despite the fact that Frank Bullitt is a character exclusive to the film (although, if the object is to sell books, the switch makes total sense: I saw Steve was on the cover and immediately shelled out the $3.99).

Yes, you are a stud.

The plot of Mute Witness is a little more complicated than Bullitt, and thus slightly more interesting. In short: Lieutenant Clancy (no first name) is ordered by Assistant District Attorney Chalmers to guard Johnny Rossi, a notorious California mobster who has mysteriously decided to come to New York and testify against various other insidious wrongdoers. Chalmers, an educated bureaucrat who isn’t so much corrupt as ruthlessly ambitious, wants Clancy and his men to keep Rossi alive and hidden from Friday to Tuesday. Needless to say, that doesn’t work out so well.

Through a series of missteps by Clancy’s bumbling yet steadfast colleagues, Rossi winds up dead. Rather than announce this to the District Attorney’s office and risk losing the criminal in a pile of paperwork, Clancy and his fellows hide the body in a well air conditioned hospital basement and spend the next 24 hours hunting down the murderer. SPOILER ALERT: it wasn’t Rossi that was killed. He sent a patsy lookalike to New York under his name and killed him, faking his own death with the intention of fleeing to Europe, thereby escaping angry fellow mobsters that wanted him dead in California. Rossi and his brother end up arrested, Clancy finally gets a good night’s sleep, and the Assistant District Attorney looks like a bit of an idiot. The end.

Bullitt tells basically the same story but with some obvious Hollywood alterations. Gritty, dingy, rapidly-gentrifying New York is replaced with sunny, hilly, orange-skinned San Francisco (where Robert Duvall drives a cab for some reason). Californian mobster Johnny Rossi becomes Chicago gangster Johnny Ross (why they got rid of the wicked rhyming name, I couldn’t say). Tired, cynical, middle-aged, and perpetually single Lieutenant Clancy becomes Frank Bullitt/Steve McQueen: a hot man, with a hot architect girlfriend, and a hot car that he drives hotly.

Although seemingly aesthetic, these differences actually have a pretty sizable impact when dealing with this genre. The type of hero and the type of city he protects differ dramatically between the novel and the film, and these are two of the most important elements of any crime story. The relationship between the hero and his setting are an important sign of the story’s moral compass. This is especially true of the hardboiled stories that Mute Witness owes its heritage to (not sure I’d classify it as hardboiled, but there are a lot of similarities).

Mute Witness shows a drab hero falling out of love with a rapidly modernizing city and the educated, arty upper middle class whose profession is to complicate seemingly simple concepts like justice. In Steve’s version, the story is ultimately a vehicle to showcase how cool he is. And when I say vehicle, I mean that literally: Bullitt’s claim to fame is the dramatic car chase, generally considered one of the best ever filmed (this was before Vin Diesel got fast and furious, of course).

Let’s go on an uber-masculine tangent for a moment, shall we? HRRRRRR CARS!!!

This car chase obviously has a different feel than car chases today. The authenticity does just come from the fact that Steve McQueen was actually a very talented driver and did much of what you see in the film. Steve and the producers were insistent that the car chase be real, which is to say, the chase was actually filmed at breakneck speed. In today’s films, the camera creates the illusion of speed – in Bullitt, the camera captures it.

(For what it’s worth, this is my criticism of how dance is filmed these days. The cinematography is about rapid, close cutting to simulate movement, rather than the long shots typical of the Gene Kellys and Fred Astaires of yesteryear, which showcased choreography, movement, and space. It’s the difference between physical talent and video editing.)

Clancy and Bullitt are very different men. Where they and their stories come together, though, is in their approach to authority. Authority, of course, being synonymous with The Man: the white, educated bureaucrat who thinks but doesn’t feel, thereby mistaking justice for what is (to the hero) merely law and due process.

The Hollywood hero of the 60s and 70s, like the hardboiled detective before him, was ultimately a marginalized man. As the world got bigger and more complicated, it became harder to distinguish the heroic male lead from the fool or the criminal, save for his position at the centre of the narrative. He gets lost in shades of grey, unless the spotlight is on him.

So we get characters like Clancy, like Bullitt, like Dirty Harry and Rambo, whose ethics are questionable and whose understanding of right and wrong is at times naive, if not childishly simplistic. We love them for sticking it to the elite, for spitting in the face of lawyers and politicians, who aren’t satisfied by legal mumbo jumbo and seek instead for good honest reciprocal justice. The world fell in love with Steve McQueen because he was a rebel, on and off screen. We love him because he assures us that The Man can be pulled back to down to our level and outed as a crook.

Needless to say, things are a bit more complicated in today’s films. I can’t think of the last time I saw a “stick-it-in-your-eye” monologue like Bullitt’s or Dirty Harry’s (the speeches do exactly the same thing in both films: assert the individualist leading man as the moral compass distinct from the legal morality that he’s supposed to uphold).

It might be that I’m not watching the right films. But when I think of taking on The Man in contemporary cinema, I can’t help but think He isn’t quite so easy to topple anymore. We live in the digital age, where your identity can be stolen or wiped out in a couple of key strokes. Life and death isn’t the only binary: you can end someone’s life without killing them. We’ve swallowed the red pill, as it were: the bureaucratic state is so strong and well integrated that the nostalgic figure of the lone cop who knows best, while satisfying, doesn’t represent the reality of how our present era works, nor does it represent any of the cultural anxieties that film (and art more broadly) seek to understand and relieve. In the world of narrative, vigilante justice isn’t the easy answer it used to be.

I’ve lost my train of though, so I’ll close on something interesting I learned from Wikipedia while watching Bullitt. Did you know that Robert Duvall played Boo Radley in the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird? I know!! Wacky.

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