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60s

Peter Yates’ 1968 detective thriller is a medium cool exercise in restraint orbiting around the quiet, canny performance of Steve McQueen as Detective Frank Bullitt. Bullitt is assigned to protect a mob witness by an ambitious D.A. (the charmingly oily Robert Vaughn) and the case goes bad.  As he tries to salvage the situation, we learn about Bullitt’s relationships, methods and character, all with less than 100 words from our hero.

The picture is notable for an over 10 minute car chase in and around San Francisco that alternates between chess match and smash up derby. The effect is mesmerizing, an automotive ballet, which is in many ways more impressive than William Friedken’s bid to outdo it in The French Connection three years later (the car chase wasn’t the only influential set piece; Bullitt has an extended chase scene on foot through the exterior of the San Francisco Airport, which Michael Mann reprised in Heat).

The film also demonstrates why Steve McQueen is such an icon. The debates over his ability to “act” are legitimate.  The “movie star versus actor” discussions invariably arise in consideration of  impossibly macho or attractive leads, such as Wayne, Eastwood, Redford and Gibson. Debate aside, McQueen so resonates on screen that discussing his skills as a thespian seems like quibbling. There is something to be said for understatement (Tom Cruise may just be learning that now).  McQueen can do more with a look or eating a sandwich than a lot of folks can with a soliloquy or stemwinder.  When he is aped (see the catatonic Ryan Gosling in the wildly overrated Drive or George Clooney in The American), his charisma and presence become all the more apparent.

Yates’ film is a bit of a jazz riff and some of his shots are annoyingly showy, but hey, it’s 1968 San Francisco and Bullitt’s girlfriend is the chic and arty Jacqueline Bisset.  So, he gets a pass.

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Point Blank was introduced by its presenter at the AFI Silver as “the most pretentious good film ever made.” The “good” discussion follows, but there is no doubt John Boorman’s tough noir picture is arty, almost to the point of distraction.

The story is simple: Walker (Lee Marvin) and his pal Reese (John Vernon, Dean Wormer from Animal House, in his film debut) make a score, Reese double-crosses Walker, takes his lady and his dough and leaves him for dead. Walker returns and with the help of his sister-in-law Chris (Angie Dickinson) works his way up the criminal syndicate that protects Reese to get his money.

This is a cold film. The characters are hollow, and Marvin is catatonic. The story is near non-existent and Boorman relies on showy and repetitive flashbacks that suggest portent and meaning but do not deliver. Boorman’s prior film, Having a Wild Weekend, was a romp in the mode of Help, featuring the Dave Clark Five, so his high-mindedness may have been itching to get out.

On the plus side of the ledger, the color and texture of the film are vivid, Boorman’s depiction of violence is jarring (in particular, a vicious brawl in a cacophonous soul club), many of Point Blank’s images are stunningly iconic, and the fractured timeline clearly influenced Quentin Tarantino, among others.

The virtues of Point Blank are more identifiable in its legacy than in the viewing. Except for the incomparable Dickinson.

As part of the AFI Silver LA Modern series, I took my son and his friend to see a double-feature Saturday, the first entry being 1966’s Harper. I’d probably seen this Paul Newman vehicle 5 or 6 times before this weekend. It was on regular rotation as the 4 o’clock daily movie during the 1970s, and I was immediately enamored of the sarcastic, bedraggled Newman playing Ross McDonald’s updated private dick, Lew Archer, changed to Harper for the picture.

It turns out I’d never seen it in full. Those bastards at Channel 7 must have cut the living crap out of it, because there were at least four scenes absolutely new to me.

I digress. Harper is a treat. Newman’s jovial cynicism fits the character perfectly.  Thankfully, Frank Sinatra was not interested in the role.  He lacked Newman’s playfulness and ability to make fun of himself.  Interestingly, when Dirty Harry came around 5 years later, Sinatra again begged off, as did numerous others, and Newman was approached.  Turned off by its politics, Newman suggested Clint Eastwood.

Lauren Bacall is deliciously venomous as Newman’s client (the paralyzed wife of a missing tycoon), Harper’s byzantine plot is more than serviceable (though, overly complicated), LA is well traversed, and the supporting cast (Robert Wagner, Strother Martin, Julie Harris, Arthur Hill, and Janet Leigh as Harper’s suffering ex-wife) is impressive.  It also didn’t hurt to see the film in AFI’s palatial main theater.

The first of Sergio Leone’s “Spaghetti Western” trilogy with Clint Eastwood’s “Man with no Name”, A Fistful of Dollars was actually shot in Spain. I guess “Paella Western” wasn’t an option.

Eastwood comes to a town at war. Two families seek the upper hand, and Eastwood shuttles between one and the other for the cash.

The picture sports the tell-tale Ennio Morricone score, featured in the opening credits:

As fun as it can be, the movie is a bit stilted. Leone’s visuals are ambitious but his sweep is not yet broad, and like Sean Connery as James Bond in Dr. No, Eastwood is still working on his persona and lacks gravitas (interestingly, Eastwood was Leone’s eight or ninth choice, behind Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and others). The entire cast, Eastwood excluded, is foreign and the dubbing is spotty (in the case of a crying child, I was immediately reminded of the dubbing in the Japanese animated series, Speed Racer).

This film ends up being a critical warm-up to the better For a Few Dollars More and its classic follow-up, The Good, the Bad and The Ugly.

Otto Preminger skillfully presents Allen Drury’s Pulitzer Prize winning political potboiler (published in 1959), the story of  a senatorial nomination (Henry Fonda, who is tapped to be Secretary of State)  gone bad under the weight of McCarthyite tactics, vicious blackmail, and a dying president.  The story is intricate, but Preminger, ever the pro, handles it with ease.  For example, if there is an issue of senatorial procedure, it is cleared up in a clever discussion with foreign tourists, who receive a crisp and unobtrusive explanation as to parliamentary procedure and the role of the vice president in American government. 

It is decidedly not an all-star cast, but it is a very good one.  Franchot Tone, as the tough and dissipated president, wields his waning power with as much vigor as he can muster.  He has a wonderful scene where first he tries to smooth-talk the chair of the subcommittee handling the nomination (Don Murray) into reporting it out and when the senator does not budge, his flash of anger is actually a little terrifying.  Walter Pidgeon plays the Senate Majority leader, tasked with shepherding the nomination through, and Charles Laughton hams it up wonderfully as the Strom Thurmonesque senator who opposes the nominee.  Lew Ayres, as the in-over-his-head vice president, is a perfect combination of insecure and decent.       

Having been born in Washington, D.C., the shots of the nation’s capitol in a more innocent and uncluttered time are worth the viewing in and of themselves.  And look close, because Will Geer (Grandpa Walton) plays the Senate minority leader and Betty White also has a role in that august body.