Sunday, September 4, 2011

Bullitt -- car chase, compromise and integrity

Director: Peter Yates, 1968. (PG) 

Famed for its car chase through the steep streets of San Francisco, Bullitt has a moodily European feel, perhaps due to its English director. Slow, with a sparing script, it relies less on plot and more on character, especially the two main players Detective Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) and politician Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn).

The movie opens in Chicago, where a man (Pete Ross) barely escapes an attempt on his life. As an accountant for the mob, they want him dead. Chalmers, on the other hand, wants him as a star witness in front of a US Senate subcommittee hearing on organized crime. That hearing occurs on Monday, 48 hours away. Chalmers asks for Bullitt, and his team of two detectives, to provide protection for this Mafia informant over the weekend. Having arrived in San Francisco, Ross is staying at a secret flophouse motel beside the freeway. A milk run assignment, or so it seems until it all goes wrong.

Bullitt assigns one of his men to take the first watch and we wait for the action to occur. During this lull, we see some of the life of Bullitt as he moves around town meeting his live-in artist girlfriend Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset). With a smoky jazz score used quietly, the mood is clearly the late 60s.

During the night, though, two hit men descend on the motel and both Ross and his watcher are shot. Taken to hospital, Bullitt arrives to begin the search for the killers. How did they find Ross? Why was the door not locked? What is Chalmers not telling? Bullitt is a determined cop, all guts not glitter. Unlike Chalmers, Bullitt wants to find the criminals, not necessarily deliver the witness.

Along the way comes the famous car chase involving Bullitt’s 68 Mustang and the killers’ Dodge Charger racing at speeds of over 100 mph through city streets. Although not in the novel upon which this film was based, and not in the original script, it is hard to think of Bullitt without this authentic chase. Using long, extended shots without any background music (the squealing tires and honking horns form their own cacophony), it is perhaps this that won the film its Oscar for best editing.

Despite the excitement of this chase, the movie’s real interest lies in the contrast of the two main characters, both apparently good guys. They are the antithesis of one another, as is evident in Bullitt’s comment, “Look, you work your side of the street, and I’ll work mine.” Chalmers is charming but sleazy, as quick to smile for a voter as he is to threaten someone who may let him down. Full of ambition, he has little in the way of integrity.

A key interchange between the two underscores their differences. Chalmers tells Bullitt, “Come on, now. Don’t be naive, Lieutenant. We both know how careers are made. Integrity is something you sell the public. . . . Frank, we must all compromise.” Bullitt’s response is swift: “You sell whatever you want, but don’t sell it here tonight.”

Integrity forms the moral heartbeat of this movie. Its primary definition is adherence to moral and ethical principles, or soundness of moral character. Chalmers did not have any moral backbone. He was prepared to sacrifice values and lives if it meant he would advance in his career. Although his cause seemed right, his motive was selfish.

Bullitt, on the other hand, was a man who lived his life in the moral sewers of San Francisco chasing the criminal lowlife. Cathy discovers this when she accompanies him to a crime scene. Faced with a realization of who he is, she questions if their relationship can survive such darkness. Bullitt, though, is committed to a cause, a man of integrity who wants to solve crime, not compromise with crime. Relationships are important but integrity is paramount.

Integrity is a key value found in scripture. “I know, my God, that you test the heart and are pleased with integrity,” writes the chronicler (1 Chron. 29:17). Paul tells Titus “in your teaching show integrity (Tit. 2:7). Even the opponents of Jesus recognized him as a man of integrity (Matt. 22:16).

It is perhaps in the life of Job, however, that integrity takes center stage. We all know the story. Satan is given permission by God to test him with loss of possessions, loss of relationships and loss of health. The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil. And he still maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason” (Job. 2:3). Toward the end, Job tells his friends, “I will never admit you are in the right; till I die, I will not deny my integrity” (Job. 27:5).

We may end up being confronted with someone like Chalmers, who threatens us and wants us to compromise our beliefs, our values. If this happens, let us stand up to the challenge like Frank Bullitt. Unlike him, though, we do not need to do it on our own. We can trust in the Lord. We can pray with the psalmist, “May integrity and uprightness protect me, because my hope, LORD, is in you” (Psa. 25:21).

Copyright©2011, Martin Baggs

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