BULLITT – HD DVD review

“Mr. Cool.” “The King of Cool.” “The Coolest Man in Hollywood.”

It surprised me a little that Warner Bros. issued “Bullitt” on a high definition HD-DVD. I kept thinking back to the studio’s first DVD treatment of it years ago–a somewhat soft and pale image, with indifferent sound. Then I recalled what they had done with it more recently in their two-disc Special Edition, with an improved bit rate and stereo sound. There is no question they had a good print to work with and created a decent master from it. Unfortunately, it’s still not as good as I’d have liked, but more on that in a moment.

In 1960 Steve McQueen burst onto the screen in full-fledged stardom with “The Magnificent Seven,” after having labored for several previous years in things like the campy, low-budget horror classic “The Blob” (1958), the popular television series “Wanted Dead or Alive” (1958), and the Frank Sinatra vehicle “Never So Few” (1959).

By 1970 he was among the biggest stars in Tinseltown, with “The Great Escape,” “The Cincinnati Kid,” “The Sand Pebbles,” “The Thomas Crown Affair,” and “Bullitt” to his credit. And by the early 1970’s there were more successes: “Le Mans,” “Junior Bonner,” “The Getaway,” “Papillon,” and “The Towering Inferno.”

Then, by the end of the decade, he had all but disappeared from the screen, dying of lung cancer on November 7, 1980. His last two films, “Tom Horn” and “The Hunter,” are barely remembered by anyone but his most-dedicated fans.

He was accused of fast driving and fast living, hard fighting and hard drinking. He was accused of being generous by some people yet tightfisted by others. He was accused of being homophobic by his detractors while accused of being homosexual by many of the same faultfinders. He was accused of having affairs with most of Hollywood’s leading ladies. And he converted to Christianity shortly before he died. He was, to say the least, a man of contradictions.

For many admirers, his 1968 movie “Bullitt” best sums up his life, his image, and his work. These days, the movie is probably best known for its celebrated car chase, and younger viewers who have never seen the movie may assume it is a typical high-energy action thriller. But with that one exception, the movie is the complete opposite of today’s ultra fast-paced, quick-edited adventures. “Bullitt” is the epitome of cool.

“Bullitt” is controlled, composed, and laid-back, fashioned by director Peter Yates in a semidocumentary style. It’s a clinically accurate police procedural with the icy coolness of a History Channel special and the white-hot intensity of a grand-prix racing event. McQueen plays San Francisco Police Lieutenant Frank Bullitt, a character based in part on real-life San Francisco Police Detective Dave Toschi (who would shortly thereafter become famous as one of the investigators of the Zodiac killings). Bullitt is outwardly unruffled, almost detached; yet he’s inwardly agitated, tightly wound. He’s a loner with a girlfriend; a detective who goes by the book yet breaks every rule in it; a man who hates his work but does it better than any cop on the force.

In the story, Lt. Bullitt has been assigned the task of protecting a witness against the Mob until the witness can testify in a few days. He’s the star witness in a case that ambitious local District Attorney Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn) thinks is going to further his career. Chalmers isn’t so much concerned with crime prevention as he is with building his reputation as a crime fighter. This witness is very important to him and his political aspirations.

Bullitt puts the witness up in a seedy hotel, a place he feels is both secure and well hidden. But the witness is murdered in spite of Bullitt’s best precautions, gunned down by two professional hit men right out of Hemingway’s “The Killers,” complete with shotguns beneath their trench coats. But how could this happen? How could anyone have known where Bullitt hid the witness? The slimy D.A. wants Bullitt’s head on a platter, and Bullitt wants the assassins.

Meanwhile, Bullitt is so aloof he has trouble relating to the people around him. His partner (Don Gordon) doesn’t understand him; his captain (Simon Oakland) doesn’t understand him; not even his girlfriend (Jacqueline Bisset) understands him. There may be some question as to whether Bullitt really understands himself.

Now, here’s the thing. If you haven’t seen it before, don’t expect the Bullitt character to be a superhero or the movie to be a slam-bang action adventure. He’s not, and it’s not. Steve McQueen in “Bullitt” is no Clint Eastwood in “Dirty Harry,” Bruce Willis in “Die Hard,” or Mel Gibson in “Lethal Weapon.” The action in “Bullitt” may be exaggerated and at times melodramatic, but for the most part the movie, like its main character, keeps its cool, maintains its restraint, and attempts to put its plot over with as much realism as possible.

In fact, one of the highlights of “Bullitt” is that it was filmed almost entirely on location, both indoors and outdoors, in and around San Francisco. The location shooting lends the movie a note of authenticity sorely needed by most later police action films. If you are acquainted with the City, you’ll recognize North Beach, Enrico’s Coffee House, City Hall, the Hall of Justice, Pacific Heights, the old Embarcadero freeway, a number of downtown streets, the waterfront, the Marina Green, the S.F. International Airport, and dozens of other familiar sights. You’ll also find it amusing that Bullitt may turn a corner in one place and a second later emerge from the other side of the corner many miles away. It’s the magic of movie editing, and it’s especially evident during the car-chase scene. “Bullitt” is more of a character study than an action movie, with the famous car chase acting like the centerpiece dance number in a big musical; and it’s choreographed as well as any dance scene, too.

Yes, the chase scene. Of course, “Bullitt” did not invent the car chase. We’ve had car chases since the silent days of the Keystone Kops. But “Bullitt” did reinvent the car chase. It is so exciting, so thrilling, so fast-paced that virtually every action movie since has copied “Bullitt” and included an obligatory chase scene. Movies like “The French Connection,” the original “Gone in 60 Seconds,” and “Ronin” are among the most successful, but no matter how sophisticated today’s special effects get, it’s hard to beat the chase in “Bullitt.” Such a great sequence; I was mesmerized by it all over again. And I’ll bet it sold more Ford Mustangs and Dodge Chargers than any film on record; certainly more than any commercial could have sold. Moreover, the entire sequence was done in real time, with no speeded-up footage, and McQueen did most of his own driving.

OK, so why if I like this film so much am I not giving it a 10/10? Well, I have to admit that beyond McQueen’s definitive antihero cop, the superb location shots, and the great car chase, the rest can be rather humdrum. The plot is more than a bit convoluted and needs a second viewing to get the details straight; the dialogue is probably too terse to be as entertaining as it could be; the Bullitt character is reasonably complex, but beyond him the other folks are rather clichéd; and the narrative may be a tad too reserved, too sterile, to satisfy every taste.

Still and all, “Bullitt” holds up as one of the best of its breed. Credit not only McQueen but director Peter Yates, producer Philip D’Antoni, and screenwriters Alan Trustman and Harry Kleiner for turning Robert L. Pike’s novel “Mute Witness” into a movie classic. Its ultracool hero; its dispassionate, semidocumentary style; its jazz-inflected musical score; and its mother-of-all modern car chases make it the archetypal forerunner of almost everything else we’ve gotten in the cops-and-robbers genre for the past four decades. It’s hard to argue with success.

Incidentally, if anyone were to make another Bullitt, who would play the character today? OK, you’re going to be surprised, but I would choose Daniel Craig. After seeing him as Bond, I think Craig possesses the same cool intensity as McQueen as well as bearing a slight physical resemblance to the man. Who knows; stranger things have happened.

Video:
Because of its popularity, “Bullitt” was among Warner Bros.’ first DVD releases back in 1997, but it was a bare-bones affair; so it was about time the studio provided a more up-to-date transfer and added some bonus features. That first transfer looked more than a little peaked, with colors that were anything but vivid or deep, so the recent standard-definition Special Edition rectified those weaknesses with a new, high-bit rate, digital transfer.

The higher bit rate also helped to improve the SD’s colors, with hues that became deeper and darker, although the video engineers may have overcompensated because the picture was too dark at times. Obviously, in the even-newer high-definition version what is most improved is the sharpness of outlines and refinement of interior detailing. They can’t be beat. Yet the 1.78 ratio, widescreen HD image still remains too murky in its most-shadowy scenes, and they are many. Remember, this film was shot almost entirely on location, and that can be murder on the cinematography. I think both the SD Special Edition and this new high-definition version are probably as good as the original print from which they were made and as good as current technology will allow, but don’t expect the most spectacular image you’ve ever seen. Indeed, the overall HD picture while well delineated remains a touch soft, with indoor scenes and outdoor ones in shadow suffering the most from the duskiness I just mentioned. Black levels are quite deep, which normally would be a good thing, but ironically they just add to the problem of too much darkness in too many shots.

Audio:
The sound is reproduced via Dolby Digital Plus 2.0. As with the Special Edition, I was hoping WB might enhance it by opening it up to full 5.1, but, alas, anything in the rear channels (and that would be almost nothing) is left up to your audio system’s own surround processing. Oh, well. The front-channel spread is still so narrow that it more closely resembles monaural than anything stereophonic, so maybe WB were exaggerating when they labeled it “Surround Stereo” on the Special Edition keep case. The HD-DVD case merely says 2.0; maybe they’re hedging their bets. I dunno.

What I do know is that there is a more pronounced difference between the Dolby Digital Plus sound on the HD-DVD and the regular Dolby Digital on the SD-DVD than there is between the HD and the SD picture. The DD+ in direct comparison to the Dolby Digital is much brighter, sharper, and crisper, with a tighter bass and better controlled transients. In contrast, the regular Dolby Digital sounds limper, soggier, and boomier. However, as a result of the increased clarity of the DD+ reproduction, it magnifies the soundtrack’s deficiencies, too. Voices seem more nasal and pinched than before; the upper midrange is too prominent; and at volume the sonics can be almost harsh. What’s more, there remains some small, occasional background noise intruding on the scene, which is now more evident than ever. So, sometimes with improvement comes added faults that one hadn’t noticed before or hadn’t bargained on.

Extras:
The HD-DVD contains the same bonus items that WB included in their two-disc Special Edition, with one of the items, “The Cutting Edge,” now in 1080 high def and DD+ 5.1 sound. First and most important, though, is the audio commentary by director Peter Yates. He is a perfect English gentleman and an elegant speaker who is quite informative, refreshing, and entertaining. Without trying to be amusing or overly chatty, Yates is charming and fun to listen to.

Then, there are two fairly new documentaries. The first, produced in 2005, is “Steve McQueen: The Essence of Cool,” eighty-six minutes long and divided into twenty-two chapters. It covers McQueen’s life from his early TV days through his death, with comments from practically everybody who ever knew him. Among those interviewed are actors Alec Baldwin, Robert Culp, Don Gordon, Robert Vaughn, Eli Wallach, Suzanne Pleshette, Richard Attenborough, Martin Landau, and LaVar Burton; plus directors Lawrence Kasdan, Norman Jewison, Peter Yates, and Robert Relyea; wife Neile Adams, publicist David Foster, stunt driver Bud Ekins, stunt double Loren Janes, photographer William Claxton, and film critic Charles Champlin. It’s a fascinating study of a fascinating man, a fellow not always likable and not always easy to get along with. The documentary is honest enough to show us all sides of the actor.

The second documentary, “The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing,” is the one in 1080 and 5.1. It’s a tribute to film editors and explains the importance of film editing (“Bullitt” won editor Frank P. Keller an Oscar). It is ninety-nine minutes long, it was made in 2004, and it is divided into twenty chapters. Narrated by Kathy Bates, the documentary includes commentary from just about everyone in the movie business from Martin Scorsese and Walter Murch to Quentin Tarantino and Steven Spielberg. I couldn’t help thinking as I was watching it that if you were a filmmaker and were not in this thing, you might have considered it a slight. In any case, editing is an important subject that most viewers take for granted; but, as this documentary points out, editing makes or breaks a film.

In addition, the HD-DVD contains a brief, ten-minute vintage promo, “Bullitt: Steve McQueen’s Commitment to Reality”; a widescreen theatrical trailer; twenty-three scene selections (but no chapter insert); English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; English, French, and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. As always, the disc also includes bookmarks, a zoom-and-pan feature, an indicator of elapsed time, and an Elite Red HD case.

Parting Thoughts:
You think of “Bullitt,” you think Steve McQueen and cars, no? But obviously the movie is much more than that, even if McQueen and the car are essentially the same character. Both are models of efficiency: reserved yet lethal, cool yet ready to move at a moment’s notice. If there is any one of his many movie roles that best exemplifies the McQueen persona, it would have to be this one. It’s nice to see it in improved high-definition picture and sound, even if there is not a lot really to rave about in either category.

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