Friday, January 01, 2010

Bullitt: Sounds of the '60s

I've just watched Bullitt for the first time, and I don't remember ever having seen a movie so self-conscious about its sound editing.

Footsteps clatter loudly and significantly. Characters gesticulate and argue behind glass, seen but unheard. Pumps pump menacingly. Characters breathe loudly, and if you know Jacques Tati, you know where the movie makers got their idea for the hospital lobby scene with its busy ambient sound and utter absence of dialogue.

A lot of this stuff comes across today like '60s artiness, but it works better than do the period touches in other '60s movies I've written about here. For one thing, the filmmakers took music more seriously and used it a good deal more effectively than did the makers of Harper. And they did just about everything better than did the folks who turned Modesty Blaise into an unfunny proto-Laugh-In sketch in 1966.

All right, folks, what defines period style for you, whether in movies from the 1960s or from any other period? If you behave and answer this question, I'll let you watch Bullitt's famous car chase. (One feature of the scene's soundtrack struck me as odd, another as interesting. I'll be interested to see if anyone else notices them.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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48 Comments:

Anonymous solo said...

Peter
I'm surprised you're only catching up with Bullitt now, a mere 42 years after its release. I've seen the thing more often than I can remember, simply because the film has been something of a staple on TV on this side of the pond. I used to be a six hour a day man where TV was concerned. You obviously used your time more wisely.

I love Lalo Schifrin's music in the first part of the chase. I also love the fact that when the chase starts in earnest the soundtrack becomes a symphony of exhausts, gear changes and squealing tyres and little else.

Recent Hollywood car chases that I've seen leave me cold. All big close ups and rapid cutting like in music videos. I do, however, get the feeling that younger people who grew up with this style find the more leisurely cutting in Bullitt boring. Was the earlier style better or is it that I like it simply because it's what I first became accustomed to? Consider me confused on the matter.

On the basis that Bullitt might have whetted your appetite for watching cars being driven fast, you might check out one of my favourites. It's from the movie Against All Odds, a not very good updating of that noir classic Out Of The Past, with James Woods and Jeff Bridges. It's only 150 seconds long. Here's the link:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ElVLfd9rapE

January 01, 2010  
Blogger Brian Lindenmuth said...

A couple of odd ones since it's sometimes the little details that jump out at you.

Sandra and I have been playing for the kids some movies that we liked when we were kids. One thing that struck me was the amount of smoking. I was laughing for all the wrong reasons at one scene in particular where the father was dressing down his son all the while holding, smoking and gesticulating with a cig. Another scene where everyone was sitting around a table trying to figure out what to do next and they are all puffing away. Or similarly related how elevators used to have ash trays outside of each door so you could butt it out before entering.

I was also struck more then once while watching some of the kids movies from the 80's (Goonies, The Monster Squad) how foul the language was. But oddly in aa good way. Because it's how people really talk. Dialog in todays kids movies is all tame and sanitized.

None of which is probably what you were asking for but it's what popped into my head first.

January 01, 2010  
Blogger Brian Lindenmuth said...

Also an interesting racial one. I was watching a movie that was probably 30 years old or so and I noticed in one sequence that the hotel maid staff were all black women. But I couldn't help but think that if that same scene were filmed today it would be filled with Hispanic women instead.

January 01, 2010  
Blogger Brian O'Rourke said...

Brian -

Monster Squad is a great flick that has a loyal cult following but seems to be forgotten by the masses in general. And more to your point - I loved the dialog in the movie, too. It was, as you said, real. Kids curse when their parents aren't around. We all know they do, because we did it when we were growing up.

Peter -

How did you feel about Bullitt on the whole? I think for its time, it was considered very realistic and detailed in regards to police procedures.

January 01, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, it's even more of a surprise that a crime-fiction guy (and former movie guy) like me had missed Bullitt until now. But life is full of surprises.

I liked the music so much that I checked the credits to see who had written it. I don't know if Lalo Schifrin write the musical number performed by the jazz group in the nightclub scene, but that was far better than the music in most such "atmosphere" scenes in 1960s movies. The scene was also shot better.

I noticed the sound and the cinematography because music scenes in 1960s movies are often wretched and risibly dated. (The scene is also part of a witty sequence that says much about the filmmakers' attitudes to jazz and rock and roll. Immediately after the nightclub scene, we see and hear Ross listening to jarringly loud rock and roll in his hotel room. It is not hard to figure out which kind of music Peter Yates liked better. Or maybe not. The sound editors several times used brief bursts of gratingly repetitious sound. I wonder how many movies had contained deliberately non-pretty sound before then.)

Did you notice the almost total lack of people on the street during most of the car chase as well? The depopulated streets and lack of music reminded me a bit of a scene in The Driver.

In re cars being driven fast, I found several articles about Bullitt's car chase, including one that offered the amusing evaluation that the movie works because there is no nudity or profanity to distract viewers from the chase.

January 01, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Off topic but to Brian O'Rourkes's point, just spent some holiday time with my family and when my sister stepped out, my eight year old niece said to my eleven year old nephew in a stylized way that suggested she'd picked it up somewhere, "Mom's not here--let's party!"

Not that they did, of course. Just a little glimpse behind the curtain of how their minds work. Interesting that her dad and I were standing right there, but seemed irrelevant to the situation.

January 01, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Brian L., I'm old enough to remember cigarette ads on television and public-service campaigns against smoking in bed. I also notice smoking's negative image: its absence in current movies when it should be present, as in the minor but arguably silly decision to omit the cigarette from a scene of Rorschach's childhood in the Watchmen movie.

I don't know about kids' movies, but I am occasionally trapped in front of a television tuned to the Disney Channel. Some of those shows could use long, bitter strings of vituperation and profanity.

Profanity was not what I had in mind when I made this post, but Bullitt does something interesting in that area, too. Near the end of the movie, Robert Vaugh's character (if I recall the scene correctly) makes some menacing statement and, in closeup, Steve McQueen turns to him and says: "Bullshit!" That's the only instance of profanity I can remember in the movie, and its scarcity makes it stand out. There was something quaint, nostalgic and dated about such a word's being used for shock value, but the scene worked.

January 01, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Brian L., I'd guess that the makers of Bullitt made an effort to make sure the supporting cast had African American actors in it, and not just as background, either. A young emergency room physician at the center of the intrigue is probably the most prominent example.

January 01, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Brian O., Bullitt obviously made an effort at realism with respect to police procedures and at realistic detail with respect to hospitals. Both became staples of television, of course. I'd occasionally find myself thinking that some bit of realism was unsubtle, but then I'd remind myself that this was 1968. This sort of thing was new at the time.

On the whole, I thought highly of Bullitt. McQueen was fine, the car chase was thrilling, the disappearing-body plot full of tension. Jacqueline Bissett's speech after the sees the body in the hotel room was melodramatic shite ("Does anything reach you ... really reach you?"), but that's a quibble. It's a terrific movie.

January 01, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"seana said...
"in a stylized way that suggested she'd picked it up somewhere ..."


Hmm, that might be pushing the envelope for the Disney Channel.

January 01, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Brian L., kids' movies are not the only things tame and sanitized these days. I used the word shite a few comments above, and my spellchecker's suggested alternative to it did not include the obvious one.

January 01, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

It probably was the Disney channel, though. I suspect that party does not mean in that context what we assume. It's probably more like, eat a lot of snacks and drink a lot of soda and then mess up the house while the sugar high lasts.

January 01, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And always with the moral that disobedience does not pay, I bet:

"Gosh, Sis, we'll get grounded if Mom and Dad catch us!"

Disney Channel dialogue is on that level with addition of references to video games and cell phones so kids know it's contemporary.

Now, if only Sis were to reply:

"Ah, go blow, Bro. Them old fossils cramp a girl's style anyhow."

January 01, 2010  
Anonymous Mike Dennis said...

Thanks for posting the link to the Bullitt chase, Peter. I hadn't seen it in quite some time. It still holds up today, I think.

About halfway through it, there was a motorcycle stunt, where the driver fell off the bike at a high rate of speed, with the cars around him approaching speeds of 120 mph. I read somewhere that the stunt driver wanted $25,000 for that stunt, and he said he would only do it once. It's probably one of the most dangerous motorcycle stunts ever attempted in the movies.

January 01, 2010  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Nobody's mentioned that Steve McQueen was in two of the most iconic chase scenes in film history: the one in Bullitt and the motorcycle one in The Great Escape.

January 01, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mike, I hadn’t read that about the motorcycle stunt, but there’s plenty about the chase scene on the Internet, including here and here. Maybe I’ll watch the scene again to see if I can count the six hub caps falling off the hit men’s car.

January 01, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And I'd agree that the scene holds up well today. It had my stomach leaping and lurching.

January 01, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, no one had mentioned that here, but I did read last night that one of the stunt drivers in the Bullitt car chase was also part of the Great Escape scene.

January 01, 2010  
Blogger Dana King said...

There are so many cool things about that chase it's hard to know where to start.

Yates did something no one bothers to do anymore: he sets up the chase, and he takes his sweet time doing it. The soundtrack is strings and brass until the classic moment (one of my favorites in any movie) when McQueen's Mustang appears in the rear-view mirror. That's the first time the saxes come in, and they change the mood from tension to anticipation. (Great bass trombone player; I have no idea who it was.)

Once Hickman swerves his car in front of another to start the chase, the music just stops dead. The two bad guys never talk. Just car sounds. Wickedly effective.

The techniques of car chases are much better now. (They must have passed that one Volkswagen half a dozen times, and they go from city to residential and back randomly), but there have been few car chases that have been as viscerally effective, even seeing this one in the context of all that followed. THE FRENCH CONNECTION comes to mind, and there's a chase in RONIN I'm thinking of, too, as I saw it again a few weeks ago.

January 01, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, I learned about the continuity goofs in the chase only from reading I did after watching the movie. That means none of them inhibited my enjoyment.

Someone posted a map of San Francisco that charted the chase scene's route. It was actually shot in something like nine scattered, non-contiguous areas of the city.

The bad guys' silence struck as just a bit forced, arty and obtrusive. It's hard to believe that with two guys in a car driving like that, there would not a single gasp or exclamation.

It's an interesting to hear a musician's take on the movie's music. I mentioned the nightclub scene. Music-performance scenes in 1960s movies are generally crap, Blow Up notwithstanding. The filmmakers seem rarely to understand anything about jazz or rock and roll. Lalo Schifrin and the people who put the Bullitt nightclub scene on film understood both.

I felt sure that the movie must have won awards for sound. It turns out that it was nominated for the best-sound Oscar but lost (to Oliver!).

January 01, 2010  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Steve McQueen is an icon of cool certainly in this film but I still prefer Lee Marvin in Point Blank from the same era. There's a man who made screen silence into an art form.

January 01, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Funny you should mentiond Lee Marvin. I was going to suggest a few comments up that Steve McQueen might have made a good Parker. Consensus seems to be that Lee Marvin in Point Blank came closer than anyone else to getting the character down. McQueen might have done well with it, too.

I rented Point Blank last week but did not get around to watching it. (I've seen it before.)

January 01, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I got into a chat at the P&P this week about The Big Lebowski. My interlocutor said he thought there was something particularly Irish about the movie. What was it? I asked him.

I think he said something about the willingness to, even when one is in the shit, to find some outlet in which to drown one's sorrows, in this case in bowling. The guy was not Irish or even Irish American, as far as I know.

January 01, 2010  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Well TBL is wildly popular in Ireland, maybe the Coens most popular film. The slacker aesthetic fits in well with Irish culture which has traditionally been a bit workshy. Its also very Irish in that the friends stick by one another even when they repeatedly fuck up. And they all can laugh at themselves which I again is very Irish. Without doubt the deadliest thing to say about someone in Ireland is "he has no sense of humor". I think it would be better to be a paedophile priest than a man who couldnt see the funny side of things.

January 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That guy's suggestion about TBL may finally get me off my own slack-off keister and to the video store to rent the movie.

It was a good week for talking at the P&P. The other night I gabbed with a cool dude who turned out to be an English professor at Penn and big into Hume, Jane Austen and the philosophes. His wife plays piano and her father was born in China, and we all gabbed about Romanticism, ruins and our travels. Much fun. Their friend, whom I'd seen in the club, is also an academic, a specialist in Dante. We talked about Ravenna, which was also enjoyable.

I mention this because I complain about the P&P from time to time, so it's only fair to let you all know when I have a convival evening of relaxed, intelligent conversation. I will inform you when this happens again in ten years.

January 02, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Sounds a bit like the Penny University in that sense.

January 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, come on now, I know you think more highly of the Penny University than that.

I wish I could think of the P&P as the Penny University + alcohol.

January 02, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Well, actually, the Penny University is not averse to alcohol on occasion. In fact they'll take any excuse for a party and I imagine they've had a few this month, though I haven't been able to attend for a few weeks.

The thing is, an open and free discussion in downtown Santa Cruz does tend to bring some strange characters out of the woodwork, and we've had a higher percentage than usual of late. Usually very bright, but still, mad as hatters.

January 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mad as hatters might set my nerves on edge. It might also be a welcome change.

The occasional exceptions, of which I've had three in the last week, are a welcome respite.

Does the Penny University meet where alcohol is served?

January 02, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

No, but people just bring it along for parties. It's actually held in a church meeting room, though there's no religious aspect--they just rent it to us.

On the other side of a glass door, there's a weekly dinner for the homeless youth of Santa Cruz held at exactly the same time. Needless to say, the alcohol doesn't cross past that line. Luckily the kids haven't sussed out the parties yet. Not a common enough occurrence. And I suppose I have to hope that none of them are reading your blog.

January 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's an interesting mix. And that's a church that throws itself into the community.

You may be the first non-British person I have ever known to use "suss out." (Not sure if Australians use it.) Have you been reading British fiction recently?

January 02, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

I don't really think of suss out being British--no idea where I picked it up.

January 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, I wonder by what strange route the expression reached you. I always liked it, and I have since read that it does indeed have Australian and New Zealand currency in addition to British.

January 02, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Oh, I'm sure it's books. Well, or maybe movies.

January 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The word also appears in one of Rod Stewart's songs, but from well after Rod Stewart had ceased to be worth listening to.

January 03, 2010  
Anonymous John H said...

Dana,
Thanks for mentioning the saxes. I had completely forgotten the music. In fact all the sound I remembered was the cars bottoming out on the hills. I grew up in Appalachia around the time of the movie and we had fast cars. Moonshiner mystique I think but I still don't think that mustang could have caught the Dodge.

vword=track how about that?

January 03, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, I'm not that much of a car guy, but I was fascinated by the number of automotive articles about that chase scene that are floating around the Internet. Some of these dealt with technical modifications to the cars. I don't remember what if anything was done to their engines, but their shock absorbers sure were beefed up.

As to whether one car could have caught the other, there appears to be no way that either of the cars could have done what they did without the modifications. And who cars? The scene lives up to its reputation.

January 03, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

bullitt is a real snoozer

January 05, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Peter:

Re your comments on the sound track on the chase, it actually had to be shot twice, because the sound did record properly on the first take. Steve McQ drove all the Mustang chase scenes himself and I understand there was a huge fight over the liabilty of allowing him to drive. A professional racer drove the Charger.

January 09, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Peter:
I today saw the Steve McQ flick Le Mans, in which he also drove all the race scenes. A sad commentary is that he died at 50 from asbestos related cancer, which may have been caused by the asbestos fire suits he wore and the asbestos mask race drivers used for protection in the 60's and early 70's.

January 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's an impressive study in the psychology of perception, I'd say, that the chase's soundtrack could work even though recorded separately. On second, though, how else could it have been recorded? Simultaneous live sound recording would have been pretty difficult, I should imagine.

I knew Steve McQueen was a good driver and had done at least some of his own driving in "Bullitt." If you;re the start and you control the production company, you can do what you want, I guess. I also read that James Garner did a bit of driving in either "Bullitt" or "The Getaway."

January 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, I had no idea he died that young. But then, I was surprised that he died as long ago as he did -- 1980, I think, and I was surprised how old Ali MacGraw is, so it all adds up.

January 09, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

That 1980 ending threw me for a loop too. I can remember his whole search for an alternative cure down in Mexico, but I'm surprised I was paying any attention on the 70s. Mass culture is apparently very pervasive.

January 10, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, I wonder if that lends retrospective irony to the cinematic Getaway's ending with McQueen and MacGraw crossing into Mexico.

January 10, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Well, it would.


v word=dogusse. I don't know what it means, but it's a good one.

January 10, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Forgive me if you've mentioned this already, but have you seen or read "The Getaway"?

I like "dogusse." It could fruitfully be paired with "alphonse."

January 10, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Haven't seen or read The Getaway. Or if I did, I don't remember.

January 10, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ah, perhaps retrospective irony like that is best left for celebrity biopics.

January 10, 2010  

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