Classic Actor Spotlight: Walter Matthau – Showing his Chops

jackdethbanner

Greetings and all sundry!

Given the success of my earlier three article arc on the career of Jack Lemmon. And to steal a suggestion from Nostra. Allow me a few moments of your time to focus some attention and love towards a consummate character actor. Utilized and cozily comfortable as part of an ensemble or team. Who earned his stripes and reputation in the fledgling years of television. Gathering attention and notoriety. While honing his talents for the better part of a decade before his stars finally aligned. To that end. Allow me to introduce.

Walter Matthau: Finding What Works.

WalterMatthau

Not many actors can claim esteemed director, Nicholas Ray on their early Curriculum Vitae. Though Mr. Matthau can. Given a small but important role as Wally Gibbs. Concerned co-worker, teacher, friend and neighbor of Manic-Depressive, Bi-Polar and soon to be self medicating Cortizone addict, Ed Avery (James Mason). In a little 1950s, suburban ‘Fathers Knows Best’ from Hell masterpiece:

#1: The Fortune Cookie: (1966)

Mr. Matthau’s Wally is content early on to sit on the sidelines and watch as Mason’s Ed Avery grows ever more distant, manic and eventually dangerous to himself, his family and the “Ain’t life swell!” facade of the white picket fences, manicured lawns of the perfect suburban ‘Atomic family’.

Matthau_BiggerthanLife1

Granted, the film is Ray’s and Mason’s to build a slowly frightening, often shadowy foundation upon. And some may argue that Matthau’s Wally responds with too little and too late. Especially with an undercurrent of an evening dinner scene with Ed, his wife, Lou (Barbara Rush) and son, Richie (Christopher Olsen) that leaves the same seen used in American Beauty forty plus years later far in the dust. The Olsen family is afraid to breathe. Lest delusional daddy, Ed goes into an Old Testament shouting, dinner and silverware throwing and smashing tirade.

But that is what makes Bigger Than Life near essential viewing in the small, yet frightening  realm of ‘Suburban Horror’. All the parts mesh together. Humanly and with errors. Through confrontations, denials and lies stacked upon lies from Ed. Which makes you not believe for a second the triumphant, dried out and rehabilitated Ed’s joyous, tearful, family hugging, “Happily ever after” return to family, hearth and home before the film’s final credits!

Overall Consensus:

To be given even a small part in a memorable and ground breaking film that dared to mess with the well marketed and maintained myth of opulent “perfection” of Post War America would be any actor’s dream. Especially if that film’s director had just delivered Rebel Without a Cause a year earlier. A very heady task. To be a small cog inside a much larger machine.And Mr. Matthau delivers! Quietly and with reserve. Letting his concern and emotions show through his face and gestures. Until it is almost too late.

Matthau_BiggerthanLife2

Which may piqued director Elia Kazan to contact Mr. Matthau for another slightly larger supporting role. As Mel Miller. The quiet, smitten, unassuming assistant to roving radio radio reporter, Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) in Kazan’s Magnum Opus to the power of charisma and media in culture and politics.

#2: A Face in the Crowd (1957)

Which begins back in the Ouachita hills of Arkansas. Where roving reporter and hostess, Marcia Jeffries records her human interest stories for A Face in the Crowd. And finds smooth talking, itinerant hobo and spinner of yarns, Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith. Never better!) behind bars and sweating out a hangover from a night of carousing. “Lonesome” is also full of down home humor and charm. When not belting out Gospel tunes with the aid of his guitar. Which gets him out of jail and into popularity amongst the locals. And the hosting radio station. Where “Lonesome” starts to come under the scrutiny of Mel. Who knows bad news when he sees it. And tries to warn Marcia as Rhodes starts growing in popularity and starts believing his own hype. Marcia is swept away as events start controlling events and actions.

Matthau_FaceinCrowd1

A local Senator up for re-election, Worthington Fuller needs a bump in the polls and used “Lonesome”, radio and television to fill that void on stump speeches. Where Rhodes shows a proclivity for a naive, teen aged baton twirling Majorette, Betty Lou Fleckum (Lee Remick in her first film role). Things start going bad as “Lonesome” pursues Betty Lou. Indulges in too much booze and letting his mouth rum while his brain is not engaged. Marcia catches him after a fundraising soiree. Stupid drunk and showing contempt for all the hicks, hayseeds and rednecks that make up his audience. Marcia’s tide starts to change and takes a decision to ambush her creation after an episode of “The Lonesome Rhodes Show” featuring the Senator.

Mel watches from the wings as Marcia opens a microphone and catches Larry in the middle of a particular nasty vent aimed at his unseen, but listening audience. Who are flabbergasted and angered that their media idol would think so lowly of them. Massive numbers of complaining phone calls flood both the radio and television stations as Larry and his entourage head towards a victory dinner where the Senator is supposed to announce his candidacy.

Or not. While Larry is en route. The radio and television stations start calling Senator Fuller’s campaign workers. As contributors and backers turn their backs and abandon ship on Fuller and Rhodes. Who arrives at a spectacularly decorated, nearly empty and opulent penthouse suite. Crestfallen, rambling and confused. Larry lashes out at everyone and everything. Until Marcia arrive and tells him that she opened the off stage microphone and helped Larry commit Celebrity Seppuku.

Marcia leaves and Mel lays into Larry most prophetically. Giving him a heads up to his immediate future with an appropriate cool down period and anonymity. A change of name and venue. And the long lingering aftermath of fallen, faded glory.

Matthau_FaceinCrowd2

Overall Consensus:

In another role of quiet fortitude, Mr. Matthau wisely saves his best lines (And he has many quickly, dryly delivered lines in this film!) until the final reel. And the moment “Lonesome” Rhodes realizes that the curtain is quickly, finally raining down on his present career. Mr. Matthau delivers the soliloquy matter of factly. Yet devastatingly. Without well deserved malice. Just a prediction on how the media system works, Often fails. And quickly repairs and re-imagines itself for continued contented consumer consumption.

Under the masterful, sometimes creepy touch of Elia Kazan. In a far ahead of its time film that prophetically, scathingly screams to the rafters about the dangers of charisma, charm, celebrity and mass, instant exposure. A roughly sketched and filled in canvas portraying sweetly played out seduction and love between “Lonesome” and Marcia (Essential for it all to work). Egos, power, back room deals for more of the same. And the foretelling of insidious mass marketed “Info-Tainment” as news we all either enjoy. Or tolerate and endure today!

Giving Mr. Matthau a few years’ respite to hone his skills in television and lesser known films. Before signing on to what many (myself included) believe is the favorite, most personal film of Kirk Douglas.

#3: Lonely Are the Brave (1962)

With a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo. From the novel “The Brave Cowboy” by Edward Abbey. Directed by veteran, David Miller and set in the rough country and mountains outside Albuquerque, New Mexico. Mr. Matthau finds himself as Sheriff Morey Johnson. The over seer and protector of many, many miles of sun bleached desert, scrub and terrain better left avoided. And slowly drawn into the manhunt for John W. “Jack” Burns. One of the last great non conformists Cowboys (Who doesn’t even have a Drivers License!) rebelling against the onset of changing times. Flawlessly brought to life by Kirk Douglas.

Matthau_LonelyBrave1

It seems that Burns got himself arrested in a bar fight. So he could be put in the Duke City lock up to help his long time friend, Paul Bondi (Michael Kane) break out before being shipped to the penitentiary. The break out worked well enough. For Burns. With the aid of two hacksaw blades hidden inside his boots. After getting some payback for abuses delivered by Deputy Sheriff Guitierrez (George Kennedy) and discovering Bondi wants to just do his time. Burns slips through the weakened and pulled apart bars. Mounts his horse, “Whiskey” and starts riding towards the mountains and the Mexican border.

Sheriff Johnson is called to intervene. In a Jeep and with the help of his annoying, repetitive radio operator, Harry (William Schallert). A course is plotted. As far away, a semi tractor trailer full of toilets is driven by ‘Hinton” (Carroll O’Connor in full Archie Bunker mode) for an oblique date with destiny.

Burns uses every trick he knows to stay ahead of the law as he rides and walks Whiskey through soft soil, slick rocks and an ever increasing incline. To be glimpsed through binoculars by Sheriff Johnson. Who has Harry call the nearby Air Base (Kirkland, AFB) and ask to have a helicopter help out. Morey and Harry argument about everything and nothing as the glass bubble canopied Bell helicopter arrives on station, piloted by an uncredited, debuting Bill Bixby (‘My Favorite Martian’, ‘The Courtship of Eddie’s Father’). Who is too anxious by half. Flies too close and hovers too long dropping a rope ladder. And allows Burns to shoot at the helicopter’s tail rotor with his lever action Winchester rifle. Sending it screaming off to crash in the boonies.

Matthau_LonelyBrave2

The sun starts to meet the rugged horizon as Burns crests one range and walks Whiskey down towards the wide and imposing super highway. Knowing that freedom lay just a short distance beyond. He mounts Whiskey for the hesitant trip across. As Hinton and his semi full of toilets makes up for lost time and Morey and Harry and many unseen police units head towards the same location.

I’ll end it here. Lest I venture too far into Spoiler Territory.

Overall Consensus:

Mr. Matthau is given more free rein and lines to expound upon his character. A career law man, who kind of empathizes with his quarry, Burns. Half understanding what motivates him. And using that knowledge to help track and estimate Burns’ responses and actions. Slowly getting used to his hang dog, long jawed visage. And letting it become part of his persona.

Again, not a large, singular role. More a part of an ensemble. In a film that would a lot of future talent if not on the map. Then certainly under some serious scrutiny.

More than enough to be considered for a kind of out of line of sight referee for the many juggling balls and plot twists under Stanley Donen’s whimsical touch in a splashy, location filled Parisian romantic variant of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.

#4: Charade (1963)

An elegant, sophisticated and very cleverly written Cary Grant romance with Audrey Hepbuen filling in for Eva Marie Saint in and around The City of Lights. Where no one beside Ms. Hepburn’s recently widowed Reggie Lampert is who or what they proclaim to be. In a game of multiple easily forgettable names, low level treachery. And one goal in common. $250,000 in gold that had been bagged, tagged and slated to be delivered courtesy of the O.S.S.to the French Resistance in WWII. And never arrived!

Matthau_Charade1

The surviving members of the O.S.S. team (James Coburn, George Kennedy, Ned Glass) whose leader was the recently murdered Charles Lampert show up at the funeral and go through ways fair and foul to verify the death. And smart guys that they are, determine Reggie must know where the swag is stashed!

Add to this mix suave, smooth, debonair Cary Grant in full Irresistible mode and a delightful full court press is on! As Reggie flightily accompanies Cary to one new hotel and another. Names and characters change at the drop of a hat. More and more of Mr. Matthau’s master puppeteer, CIA station chief, Hamilton Bartholomew is more than a Federal Super Grade looking for ancient loose change to bring back to its rightful Treasury coffers. Suspense is heightened as threats overt and covert are made and Cary Grant gets to play the knight in shining armor between shard flirtations with Reggie. While distrust and impatience seems to boil up within the survivors of the O.S.S. Jedburgh team as its members start showing up dead. Suspects and clues are winnowed down as romance fills the air. The topic of stamps is broached. Rare stamps that may be hiding in plain sight. Purchased by Charles and the $250,000 before being shot and dumped from a train leaving Paris.

Matthau_Charade2

With the final piece of the puzzle in place (Or is it?). Reggie calls Bartholomew for a meeting on the Paris subway. I’ll leave it here, so as to not reveal and last minute spoilers.

Overall Consensus:

Director Donen may have out clevered and outdone himself in an attempt to tops Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. Coming very close with sublimely romantic locations. A light, often moody Henry Mancini soundtrack. And Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn at the tops of their games. In a story that may become a bit convoluted if not not paid attention to early on. A little too egg crated with a few too many names to keep track of. Though Mr. Mathau delivers quite well as the man in the shadows. Never really fully fleshed out until well into the tale. In a pivotal role that moves him as far away from his previous “Nice Guy” category as possible.

A trait master director, Sidney Lumet may have noticed when giving Mr. Matthau the chance to expand on break a bit. As Presidential Adviser Groeteschele. An eerie, close to emotionless mix of Henry Kissinger and Professor Edmund Teller, the Father of the Hydrogen Bomb. In the 1964 Nuclear Doomsday thriller.

#5: Fail Safe (1964)

Where Mr. Matthau’s Groeteschele holds court at Washington, DC cocktail parties that run into the morning. Tossing around “Throw Weights” and the destructive power of Soviet warheads that can destroy a major city in a millionth of a second. As easily as the young, monied socialites in attendance ask for their drinks to be freshened. A man who has the President’s ear and is completely attuned and comfortable with the inside the Beltway idea of “Power as an Aphrodisiac”.

Matthau_FailSafe1

While over at SAC (Strategic Air Command) Headquarters at Offutt AFB in Omaha Nebraska. A group of VIPs are visiting as a wing of B-58 supersonic bombers at put on alert. It seems that radar stations have picked up a UFO entering American airspace and the “Hustler” bombers are on their way to their “Fail Safe” points to orbit and waiting until the orders come to obliterate Moscow.

The UFO is revealed to be a non air breathing, reciprocating engine, propeller airliner strayed off course. The Recall Order is sent to the waiting bombers, but signal is scramble by either solar flares or something. And the bombers starts proceeding north towards Alaska. With every intent of turning west and doing what they’ve been trained to do.

The extended “Oops! Form” is sent to the Pentagon. The President (Henry Fonda) is called down to the Bunker. Three and four star generals start pondering the imponderable as fighters are dispatched to intercept. Communications are opened between the President and the errant wing commander. Even though SAC training and tenets demand radio silence once the bombers go beyond their “Fail Safe” points. Groeteschele shows up. Takes everything in. Starts discussing the numerical advantages of a First Strike and states the obvious. “Let the bombers to proceed their targets. And let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

Which goes over as well as a lead balloon. Since US Nuclear Doctrine dictates that our weapons are only to be used defensively (Which is Iffy at best.) As a line of communication is established between the White House and the Kremlin. Where a young State Department translator named “Buck” (Larry Hagman) is on hand. While the intercepting US fighters are ordered to Afterburner. Only to fall from the sky and nowhere near missile range as their fuel expires.

Matthau_FailSafe2

The Soviet Chairman is wary at first as The President explains to the Kremlin’s translator. SAM batteries pick up the encroaching B-58s and MiGs are sent to intercept, but as always. Some bombers get through. And Moscow is the target.

I’ll leave it right here. So as to not unsettle one of the great Freeze Frame endings in film.

Overall Consensus:

Mr. Matthau excels in playing a cold blooded, inhumane SOB. So enthralled with his expertise, numbers and statistics that he does not see beyond his own massive ego. While Henry Fonda’s President is much more like Solomon when dealing the horrors and ramifications of Mutual Assured Destruction. In a much more dramatic and humane way that Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb only gives a humorous wink and a nod to. Courtesy of George C. Scott and his General “Buck” Turgidson.

Kudos to director Lumet in staying faithful to Eugene Burdick’s novel and staying in the realms of suspense and drama. Which his film seethes with. Even if the B-58 “Hustler” bomber was incredibly fast. It had short range and could not have hit its targets without at least one more mid air refueling. The fact is glossed over nicely by lighting, shadow and a taut sound score. High marks also to Mr. Matthau for his character’s ramrod straight posture. Slow gestures, measured speech patterns and inflection that heighten the tension. Holds the camera and gives Groeteschelle a less than human aura.


Check out Jack’s other posts and reviews



Well, do add your thoughts on Mr. Matthau. And what’s your favorite film from his illustrious career?

Classic Flix Spotlight: Steve McQueen – Acting vs Reacting

jackdethbanner

Greeting all and sundry! After the wonderful comments and responses to my previous ‘First Impressions from Second Stringers‘. I’ve decided to take a few moments to delve into the allure and mystique of an actor who for years applied his talent and trade into the consistent definition and refinement of his several characters on television. Before branching into films. To meticulously evolve into the absolute embodiment of rebellious cool during the 1960s and early 1970s.

To that end. Allow me to introduce a retrospective and hypothesis into the inner workings and machinations of the guy every kid and young man wanted to grow to be. And every contemporary girl and young woman wanted to be with.

Steve McQueen: Acting vs. Reacting.

SteveMcQueen1

I first noticed Mr. McQueen as bounty hunter, Josh Randall in a repeated episode of the Sam Peckinpah written western series, ‘Trackdown’ from the late 1950s. In it, Randall helps Texas Ranger Hoby Gilman (Robert Culp) track down a philandering husband. The two don’t hit it off at first, since Randall seems to enjoy his job and its reward money a bit too much. Though there seemed to be an ease about this young unknown rookie as he traded lines and shared action with the more established Culp. A surety and lack of fear that was both refreshing and intriguing.

McQueen in The Magnificent SevenOthers must have thought so as well. Remembering Mr. McQueen as he slogged through an entirely forgettable take on Harold Robbins’ potboiler novel, ‘Never Love A Stranger’. And his B-Movie introduction in the Sci-Fi classic, ‘The Blob’. Before given the chance to romp and play with Frank Sinatra and assorted other heavy hitters in the John Surges directed, Burma/Thailand, OSS WWII film, ‘Never So Few’ in 1959. Only to return under Sturges’ protective wing for another classic that launched many careers, ‘The Magnificent Seven’.

It is this film where I believe Mr. McQueen began to find the benefit of being miserly with his words. Keeping his face placid or with a hint of annoyance should the need occur. Then responding to whatever actor with which he was sharing a scene. Using as few words as possible His moments as Vin with Yul Brynner’s Chris early on in the film is an homage to subtle up staging. With Mr. Queen using deft, remembered tricks. Like shaking the shotgun shells before chambering them in his borrowed 12 Gauge scatter gun . And taking off and angling his beaten, sweat stained hat to supply some needed shade on their caisson ride up to Boot Hill. Vin’s quick, quiet loss at the saloon’s roulette wheel. And his silent counting of their desired number of gunslingers on his fingers as it grows. These small gestures and glances would quietly outnumber Mr. McQueen numbers of spoken lines. Yet seemed to carry close to equal weight, Recurring again and again his later films.

SteveMcQueen2Which brings us back to Mr. McQueen getting his own television series, ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive’. That ran for three full seasons of 94 episodes from 1958 to 1961. And propelled Mr. McQueen’s bounty hunter, Josh Randall and his cut down Winchester lever action ‘Mare’s leg’ into house hold familiarity. Opening an opportunity for Mr. McQueen to try his hand at service comedy in ‘The Honeymoon Machine’. A 1961 compact minor gem where Mr. McQueen plays a Navy Lieutenant who uses his assigned ship’s computer to figure the odds and how to beat the many gaming tables of a Venetian casino. Sharing some great lines with civilian computer scientist, Jim Hutton and his fiance, Paula Prentiss.

Then being given the lead role and top billing amongst a plethora of proven character actors in a great, though oddly little known WWII drama, ‘Hell Is for Heroes’ from 1961. Directed by Don Siegel and written by Richard Carr and Robert Pirosh. Who would later achieve critical and audience acclaim for his long running WWII series, ‘Combat!’ for ABC television. In the film, it seems that all Mr. McQueen’s character does is react.

His Pvt. Reese has been under stress and combat for so long. It seems the only time he is relaxed is when he is on the front lines. Where he soon finds himself with the stalwart Sergent, Fess Parker. Veteran squad leader, Harry Guardino. Street wise hustler, Bobby Darin. Brainy southern Fix It guy, James Coburn. Always reliable Mike Kellin. And late arrivals Bob Newhart and Nick Adams.

Together, these soldiers have to keep a massively larger number of Germans occupied on the Siegfried Line prior to a major attack. The problem is that no one really cares for their situation or fellow man. And for Mr. McQueen’s Reese even less. They all just want to be somewhere else and go home. Those that are stopping them are the Germans. And if Germans need to be killed, that’s fine with Pvt. Reese. To facilitate this, Reese is equipped with the most phallic looking of sub-machine guns. An M-3 Grease Gun with flanking magazines taped upside down around the weapon’s main feed. Used propitiously through patrols and an aborted night attack on a bunker-ed German machine gun nest. As this gritty, character driven minor masterpiece concludes in a way that no one sees coming!

The Cooler King

Leaving Mr. McQueen in the WWII vein for an aerial stock footage laden quickie titled ‘The War Lover’. Where Mr. McQueen plays an Air Corp Captain and B-17 pilot with a near death wish. Opposite a very young Robert Wagner as his protege and co-pilot. Setting the stage for one Mr. McQueen’s most memorable roles. As Hilts, ‘The Cooler King’. Again under John Sturges’ direction and backed up by a ‘Who’s Who’ of young and established talent from both sides of the Atlantic. Amongst such company and with a propensity to be given some of the production’s best lines and scenes. Plus Mr McQueen’s ability and willingness to set up a near show stopping, groundbreaking motorcycle stunt cemented him firmly in the firmament of untouchable ‘Cool’.

Something he would easily maintain through three rather formulaic films. ‘Soldier in the Rain’ opposite Jackie Gleason in 1963. ‘Love with the Proper Stranger’ with Natalie Wood and Edie Adams. And ‘Baby the Rain Must Fall’ with Lee Remick. Aided by a theme song more popular than the film. Before given the chance to stretch his talents and romp and play with the then veteran big boys.

Eric Stoner in The Cincinnati Kid

As Eric Stoner. ‘The Cincinnati Kid’. A young and enormously talented player of stud poker. Who holds makers for half the players in Depression Era New Orleans and is very much a local legend. Until a player with an ever larger reputation, Lancey Howard; wondrously, confidently and resplendently played by Edward G. Robinson steps off the train. A showdown is to be had and the Kid starts gathering up markers for his buy in and stake. Getting sound advice from his mentor, Karl Malden as ‘Shooter’. While being used as a pawn by Rip Torn’s ‘Slade’. An arrogant and sleazy southern gentleman who wants payback for losing to Howard in previous games. Trying to stay true to Tuesday Weld’s ‘Christian’. And avoiding the sensuous clutches of Shooter’s far too young and beguiling wife, Melba. Wickedly played by Anne-Margaret. More than enough distraction to throw any mere mortal off his game, but this is Steve McQueen at the near top of his game. In a showdown that many have likened to the one between Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason in ‘The Hustler‘, but with a much higher cool factor. The stare downs between Mr. McQueen’s confidence and Edward G. Robinson’s placid poker face quickly builds palpable tension until the last card is played.

Mr. McQueen’s cool and penchant to react return in 1966’s ‘Nevada Smith’. Playing a half breed Indian looking to kill the three men who killed his parents. With the aid of Karl Malden as a traveling gun salesman, Mr. McQueen is taught how to shoot, read and learns enough tricks to keep him alive through a stretch in prison to find one of the killers during their escape. And the other two in cow towns across the West. In a fair adaptation of the Harold Robbins novel. Then onto one of his most under rated roles as Machinist Mate Jake Holman in Robert Wise’s ‘The Sand Pebbles’. Assigned to the USS San Pablo as it operates along China’s Yangtze River during the 1926 era of ‘Gunboat Diplomacy’. Butting heads with the ship’s captain, Richard Crenna. Holman breaks a lot of small, traditional rules around the ship’s engines which irritates the crew and the locals. While falling in love with a Missionary’s stunning daughter, Shirley Eckert. Played by Candice Bergen in a well thought out and executed period piece, history lesson and anti-war film.

McQueen & Faye Dunaway - The Thomas Crown Affair

Which brings the cool back to the fore in ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’. Where Mr. McQueen plays a handsome, rich, influential bank executive who decides to hire a crew of four specialists who do not know each other to rob Crown’s own Boston bank. The heist goes off smoothly and four bags are dumped in trash cans and picked by Crown in his Rolls Royce. Which brings in Paul Burke, a federal investigator who is out of his league. And takes umbrage when Faye Dunaway shows up as insurance investigator, Vicki Anderson. Who is much more than she appears to be. The game is afoot as she politely question Crown over a game of chess. That makes a splendid introduction. Shared in flirtatious silence before more adult entertainment is hinted at under Norman Jewison’s deft touch. The game of high end Cat and Mouse continues through resplendent Massachusetts locales. Until Crown comes up with another plan that no one would expect. In a wondrously opulent ode to conspicuous consumption and elegantly dressed ’60s cool!

SteveMcQueen BullittThat’s knocked down a few notches status wise for Mr. McQueen’s next venture into reaction in Peter Yates’ ‘Bullitt’ . As blue collar San Francisco Detective Lieutenant Frank Bullitt. Given the task of protecting an organized crime witness for an up and coming, politically cunning District Attorney, Walter Chalmers. Played with arrogant, near sneering glee by Robert Vaughn. Whose future and career depends on the informant, Johnny Ross testifying in court after the weekend. Creating a large enough burden on the shoulders of Bullitt. His boss, Captain Sam Bennett (Simon Oakland). And Bulltt’s partner, Delgetti (Don Gordon. Never better) as well as assorted underlings assigned to the flea bag hotel protection detail.

A weight that shifts precipitously when the informant, Johnny Ross (Pat Renella) unlocks the door for his and the detail’s demise via a team of shot gun assassins. A description is given by one of slowly dying detail detectives as Bullitt arranges for the deceased Johnny Ross to be listed in the morgue as a John Doe. Which doesn’t seem to slow the team of killers down as they try to find Ross and finish the job. Giving Bullitt a quickly glimpse at them. Annoying the heck out of Chalmers as Bullitt tries to put the pieces together and asks Bennett to be put in charge of the murder investigation. Bennett gives Bullitt close to carte blache and leads are followed the next morning. After waking with a hangover in the goofiest pajamas on earth. Waiting for his immursion unit to heat water for instant coffee. Giving Don Gordon’s Delgetti some of films better lines as motel managers are questioned and Ident-I-Kit drawings are put together. While Bullitt seeks out a cab and its driver (Robert Duvall) and dots are connected and snitches contacted. To determine Ross’s foot steps around San Francisco after fleeing Chicago with two million dollars stolen from his older, mob connected brother.

The pressure increases as Bennett is subpoenaed outside Sunday services by Chalmers and his milquetoast associate and Bennett’s boss, Captain Baker (Norman Fell). Something is not adding up as Ross’s trail ends at a middle of nowhere motel. On his way home, Bullitt sees the two shooters in their Dodge Charger and the great grand daddy of all car chases begins in amongst and over the many tight turns, narrow streets and hills of San Francisco. Then out on the highways. Weaving in and out of traffic at well over seventy miles per hour. Dodging shotgun blasts as Bullitt finally manages to nudge the killers’ Charger into the gas pumps of an off road gas station and a huge explosive fireball.

With Jacqueline Bisset in Bullitt

Shaken and stirred, Bullitt invites his girlfriend, Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset, never sexier!) to spend what is left of the weekend with him. Which includes a trip back to the motel. Where Bullitt discovers a murdered woman, Dorothy Simmons (Brandy Carroll). Along with two passports, travelers checks and two tickets from San Francisco International to Rome. Before the room becomes a taped off crime scene, Cathy stumbles in and is shocked to see what Frank deals with. And what he could become.

The passport numbers are faxed to both Customs and State as a pow wow of all the heavy hitters is brought together. As the question of who the John Doe in the morgue really is? And who leaked the information to Chicago about John Doe’s fleabag motel while under protective custody? Leaving Chalmers little else to do once the John Doe is identified as Albert Lee Rennick. Except try to smoothly lie and go into a defensive diatribe aimed at Bullitt. Who tolerates the rhetoric and replies, “You work your side of the street. And I’ll work mine.”

Unburdened of Chalmers, Bullitt and Delgetti go to SFX and open up Ross’s luggage and find that Ross exchanged his tickets for Rome for a same time flight to London. Calls are made and the 707 returns to the departure gate. Delgetti stays in the terminal and Bullitt gets on board. Sees Ross, who escapes through the rear exit door and runs for it. Bullitt gives chase. Finds Ross inside the crowded terminal. Catching Ross just feet away from freedom. Catching rounds from Bullitt’s .38 Colt Diamondback between the terminal’s sliding glass double doors.

McQueen and Ali MacGraw - The Getaway

Capping off a pinnacle of macho coolness that would run long after his death in 1980. Mr. McQueen would continue ti ride high as Formula race car driver, Mike Delaney in the near documentary style, ‘Le Mans’ two years later. Coming under Sam Peckinpah’s masterful touch as rodeo rider, Junior ‘JR’ Bonner in ‘Junior Bonner’ and as just released heist man Doc McCoy. In the ahead of its time, Walter Hill and Jim Thompson scripted heist gone bad film, ‘The Getaway’ with Ali MacGraw. Then turn in a very understated performance as petty thief, Henri Charriere who befriends a near unrecognizable Dustin Hoffman, Louis Dega in ‘Papillon’ on their way to a French Guyana penal colony (Devil’s Island) and their escape attempts from there.

Overall Consensus:

SteveMcQueen9I think Mr. McQueen may have struck onto something by remaining quiet and giving some more memorable lines away to others. Creating a sense of drama while letting his facial expressions do the talking. A trait I’ve noticed by other actors, particularly Clint Eastwood, Jeff Bridges, Joe Mantegna, and the late Jack Lemmon and James Coburn. Actors confident enough in their talent and abilities to let silence speak volumes.

Kudos also to Mr. McQueen for having the savvy to use credibility and cool as a commodity and bargaining chip in ‘Bullitt’. Especially his and Peter Yates’ behind the scenes negotiations to get Warner Brothers out of their studio and back lot confines. Venture down to San Francisco and shoot on location for how ever long a scene or the completed project required.


Check out Jack’s profile page and links to his other reviews


What do you think of Steve McQueen and what’s your favorite McQueen movie(s)? Do share ’em in the comments.