Cops-and-robbers as folk art: is It unfair to look too close?

ALAN EDMONDS March 1 1969

Cops-and-robbers as folk art: is It unfair to look too close?

ALAN EDMONDS March 1 1969

Cops-and-robbers as folk art: is It unfair to look too close?


I DON'T SUPPOSE anyone involved in making Bullilt ever intended it to inspire the frenzy of analysis which ritually attends a new Godard or, say, the latest Bergman. Like westerns and musicals and sit-coms, it is a piece of folk art as mannered as the madrigal: it is simply and superbly a cops-and-robbers movie. But of all modern folk art, the copsand-robbers movie is the most socially revealing. It is one-dimensional, and because it doesn't question society it reflects it with disturbing fidelity.

Bachelor police lieutenant Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) is ordered by a politically ambitious socialite (Robert Vaughan) to guard an underworld defector about to spill a bibful about The Organization.

Reflection No. 1: At the socialite’s party McQueen in crumpled raincoat is aloof — the cop above, or at least apart from, corrupting money and high society.

McQueen’s trusty, courageous aide is an Italian sergeant. The Mafia defector is called John Ross.

Reflection No. 2: The Italian-

American society is working hard to convince us that not all hoodlums have names like Mario Lombardi. They must have made their point around Warner Bros.

Predictably, the defector is gunned down. And what a gunning! No more the little bangs of capguns; this Mafia killer’s shotgun sounds like a howitzer and smashes the victim’s back against the wall; his glistening red corpuscles stipple the ceiling and turn the stomach.

Reflection No. 3 : With the-way-it-is of Chicago and Watts and Vietnam brought to our living rooms in living color, we are all comfortably familiar with the quality of violence. Movie violence must now be larger than death.

Socialite moneybags Vaughan, his political ambitions damaged by the defector’s death, is angry. It becomes apparent that he seeks not Justice, but personal aggrandizement. In the best Vincent Price tradition, he wears his sneer like a black hat, and harries good-guy McQueen; even tries to have him fired.

Reflection No. 4: The cop ain’t perfect, but basically he’s a good guy. Ambitious politicians (those who want to curb police powers?) are the canker of our society.

McQueen’s girl friend (Jacqueline Bisset), an emancipated new-woman architect (or some such), stumbles accidentally upon one of the bodies that litter a good cops-and-robbers movie. McQueen is unmoved. The girl friend pales; runs away; tells him he is “part of ugliness, death and violence”; that she now realizes she doesn’t know him; that she doesn’t want to know about such ugliness.

Reflection No. 5: The cop is alienated from the world he serves. And we, the public, refuse to acknowledge our society’s nastinesses because if we did we might have to give the cops more power, not less.

McQueen shoots a man, who dies gorily. Before doing so, the man shoots a Negro guard, who also dies gorily.

McQueen is obviously shaken by his killing.

Reflection No. 6: Cops hate violence as much as we are all supposed to. Bonus reflection: Not all Negroes riot; some die for us.

But Bullitt was never intended for this kind of analysis. At the level at which it is presented it is the best of a new crop of an old folk art which began with Harper and includes The Detective, Madigan and Coogan’s Bluff.

Furthermore, Bullitt has a chase sequence which is probably the best ever made anywhere at any time: McQueen in his Mustang pursuing a Chrysler product through the hilly switchback streets of San Francisco. It doesn’t last ten minutes, but I seemed to spend a lifetime on the edge of my seat, heart racing. This sequence is the ultimate justification of director Peter Yates’ obsession with the longfocus zoom lens.

But good as it is, Bullitt inevitably leaves one wondering: Why doesn’t somebody make a movie about the real social significance of cops-androbbers: police brutality?