The great Peter Yates, bringer of the legendary Bullitt car chase, died in London yesterday at age 82. He was a highly respected craftsman and genre guy who wasn’t an auteur but really kicked ass as “Peter Yates” for about 15 years. And when he was good, he was as good as it got in his realm, which is to say intelligent urban crime movies about guys in tight spots, and always straight, plain and pared-down. He was an old-school, no b.s. professional.
Yates was lucky to have come along when he did and find his metier at a time when action films could be natural and reality-driven, before the Michael Bay aesthetic took things into a hyper-edited cartoon realm and completely polluted the action-film world and reset the rules so that nothing meant anything. Bleccch.
Yates’ directing career was alive and kicking for 42 years (from 1962 to 2004) but when you boil it all down he hit triples and/or homers only six times — with Robbery (’67), Bullitt (’68), The Hot Rock (’72 — a sublime male-bonding escapist fantasy), The Friends of Eddie Coyle (’73 — his absolute finest), Breaking Away (’79 — easily his most joyful and emotionally wholesome film) and Eyewitness (’81).
And that was it. Six films! If you want to be really tough about it you’d have to demote Robbery, The Hot Rock and Eyewitness down to the very-good-but-not-legendary file, so that leaves three. An entire career and the respect of everyone who knows anything about film stemming from Bullitt, Coyle and Breaking Away. Okay, add The Deep (i.e., the homina-homina over Jacqueline Bisset‘s soaking wet T-shirt) for a grand total of seven, but the rest were good-enoughs, duds and place-holders. And that’s okay. That’s how it goes. Quantity is overrated, quality endures.
All I know for sure is that I’ve got a Hot Rock DVD, a Criterion Eddie Coyle DVD and a Bluray Bullitt sitting on my bookshelf, and that makes me feel very content and right-with-the-world somehow.
I’m sorry but I thought Yates’ adaptation of The Dresser was just okay. He let Albert Finney get too hammy, I thought. I had seen the play twice (once in London with Tom Courtenay and Freddie Jones) and it just didn’t measure up the way it could have.
Things I love about the Bullitt car chase: (a) the sight of late ’60s muscle cars, (b) the wonderfully unmuffled engines, (c) both cars sliding sidewards and burning rubber as they corner, (c) the bad guys’ car side-swiping parked cars two or three times, (d) those hubcaps flying off as a result, (e) no schoolkids, women pushing baby carriages and senior citizens crossing streets at the wrong time, (e) again, those clouds of white smoke, (f) the unnaturally amplified shock-absorbers-gone-to-shit sound when the cars leave the pavement and come crashing down, (g) the cars that occasionally get in McQueen’s way and the super-cool way he drives around them without cussing or clenching his teeth, (h) those little around-the-hips seat belts, (i) no oncoming traffic to crash into high-speed downhill passing or sliding hairpin turns, (j) McQueen’s fastback Mustang twice sliding off the road onto dirt shoulders during the highway-chase section, and the second time into an irrigation ditch, and (k) the idea of scores if not hundreds of Haight-Ashbury kids tripping their brains out as this scene (and Bullit itself) was shot and Yates not paying the slightest attention, not even with a sideways glance.