Sunday, March 22, 2009

BULLITT - Blu-Ray (WB 1968) Warner Home Video

Long on style, but fairly short on substance, the plot of director Peter Yates’ taut political/action/thriller Bullitt (1968) remains perplexing, but here goes: Johnny Ross (Pat Renella) is a front man for his brother, Chicago mobster Peter. Escaping death twice, Johnny is placed in protective custody by politician Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn) whose interest in Ross is superficial and politically motivated.
Johnny has agreed to testify at trial against Peter. Problem: one of the names that could get called before the grand jury is Chalmers’. Now, Chalmers asks Detective Lieutenant Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) and Sergeant Delgetti (Don Gordon) to guard Ross at a flophouse.

But the assignment goes horribly awry with yet another assassination attempt on Ross’s life that leaves him in a coma at the local hospital. Feeling he has been set up – and he has - by Chalmers, Frank bleeds information from his leeches to learn the truth. After Johnny dies, Frank keeps the death a secret from Chalmers, whom he already suspects as being responsible for setting up the assassination.

Nervous, but without recourse, Chalmers is determined to keep everything hush-hush or dismantle Bullitt’s career. After pursuing Ross’s would-be assassin - making attempt number two on his life inside the hospital - Bullitt gets down and dirty with a high-speed pursuit of his suspects that are now attempting to put a period to his investigative research and his life.

The car chase through San Francisco that follows has since entered the annals of all time great filmed chase sequences. What is remarkable about this sequence when viewed today is that none of it is faked. For the most part, McQueen does his own driving or was at least in the car with a stunt double while filming took place, careening off insanely steep Frisco slopes and coming perilously close to wiping out on a very tricky hairpin curve.

Critics who initially doubted McQueen’s staying power at the box office were quick to turn coat and suddenly declare the actor ‘the king of cool.’ As for McQueen's alter ego in the film, Frank - after contributing to the fiery crash of his assassins at a highway gas station, he has fingerprints lifted from the crime scene that reveal Chalmers as complicit in the assassination attempts. Like a lot of thrillers from the 1970s, Bullitt's last act is sort of a downer; the apprehension of Chalmer's a foregone conclusion with limited cinematic impact, even if it does end in a firestorm.

What is best remembered about Bullitt today is undoubtedly the aforementioned car chase – perhaps not the most esthetically sound reason to recommend a movie as a whole to a friend – but in Bullitt’s case, that recommendation is arguably well deserved. Need another reason? Steve McQueen, who plays his hand with equal portions of compassion and ‘harder than nails’ raw determination. He’s an anti-hero’s hero, struggling to justify his hunches when no one seems even that interested to listen to him. Bullitt is real McQueen.

The rest of the performances in the movie pale, while the Alan Trustman/Harry Kleiner screenplay (based on Robert L. Fish's novel) never attains the sort of slick and stylish ultra cool of its lead actor. William A. Fraker’s cinematography and Frank P. Keller’s editing should also get a nod, particularly for their frenetic and relentless pace of the car chase.

Warner Home Video’s Blu-Ray is nothing to write home about. Warner’s previously issued remastered 2-disc standard DVD exhibited a dated image with intense film grain. We retain that grain on this Blu-ray, but it looks exaggerated and gritty. Don't get me wrong. I'm not a lover of DNR. But Bullitt's image looks quite harsh to me and that grainy patina often distracted from my viewing experience.

Colors continue to exhibit a slightly faded characteristic with pasty orange flesh tones. Contrast levels too seem a tad weaker than I expected, which is odd considering the whole image is considerably darker on Blu-ray than it was on DVD. Scenes shot in full light fair the best. Here, colour fidelity is pretty vibrant. But low lit scenes struggle to make themselves visible under a haze of aforementioned grain.

The audio on the Blu-Ray is Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround, with all the inherent sonic limitations one might expect. What is impressive about this disc are the extras: two feature length documentaries; one on McQueen, the other, a critique of film editing presented in 1080p – The Cutting Edge.

I'd like to give Bullitt a big thumbs up on Blu-ray, but have to say that the visual presentation of the film left me flat and uninspired. Yes, it is an improvement over the DVD - no kidding. But I suspect there's a long way to go before we can honestly say this is the best the film is ever likely to look in hi-def. Sorry folks, that's the truth.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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