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Bullitt Imposter Confusion

I rewatched one of my favorite movies: Bullitt. It was on HBO Max (sorry, just Max now) and I couldn’t resist.

Peter Yates also directed The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which I wrote about some time ago.

I love Yates’ crime thrillers: the authentic locations, gritty realism, and ultra-careful attention to detail.

Bullitt was daring in a way people don’t realize now: cops, circa 1968, were decidedly uncool among the people who would appreciate a restrained, sort of arty, European-styled crime thriller/procedural. Cops were known as “pigs” for beating up protestors in the Civil Rights era.

But Steve McQueen made Bullitt cool—so cool, we don’t even think about this anymore.

In fact, I remember the first time I watched the film, being surprised at how understated his performance is. I had heard about “Steve McQueen, the big action star”—and the car chase in Bullitt still holds up (even though that bad-guy car sheds seven hubcaps, and they pass the same VW bug three times)—so I was expecting something more like a Lethal Weapon performance. Something showy and cool. McQueen, in many scenes, barely moves a muscle. But wow—what a movie star.

And the Lalo Schifrin score is classic. So proud of our FSM CD.

But there’s one thing about Bullitt that’s always nagged me: how confusing it is to follow the actual plot, because the bad guy and his imposter look so much alike!

So, spoilers: the plot concerns a mobster from Chicago, Johnny Ross (Pat Renella), who escapes a hit and goes to San Francisco, where he becomes a witness for ambitious Senator Chalmers (Robert Vaughn, setting him up for decades as a character actor of smarmy authority figures). There he is put in a hotel room for the weekend—where Bullitt and his team of cops have to watch him and keep him safe.

But the “Ross” that Bullitt is guarding is actually a fake, Albert Renick (Felice Orlandi)—a patsy hired by Ross who ends up being shot and killed by hitmen.

The problem, for the viewing audience, is that actors Renella and Orlandi look so alike (and we never see them side-by-side) that we are fooled into thinking they’re the same character!

But we are fooled in a different way, and at a different time, than the characters within the film—particularly our hero.

That’s the distinction. The movie starts with Ross escaping the Organization in Chicago, where he is mostly seen in shadows. (The “Organization” was pre-Godfather code for the Mafia, whitewashing it as bland Midwesterners.)

We next see Ross (actually, Renick) taking a cab in San Francisco (the cabbie is Robert Duvall) and running a few errands.

So naturally, we think it’s the same guy we saw escape Chicago. We only learn an hour-plus later that it wasn’t! (And, in fact, I was still confused before writing this column. I had to carefully check the movie to make sure I was identifying Renick vs. Ross.)

Think about Chinatown: Jake Gittes meets “Evelyn Mulwray,” who hires him to spy on her husband. When he later learns she was an imposter, and meets the real Mulwray (who, fortunately for our visual comprehension, looks like Faye Dunaway), we are totally with him—because Jake is in every scene in that movie. We experience the plot through his eyes and detective work. The movie is playing fair.

Bullitt, for the most part, follows the title character, and sees the story subjectively through his experiences—but there are still those opening “omniscient narrator” scenes where we assume the movie is giving us the information we’ll need to understand the story.

We assume it’s playing fair, but it plays a switcheroo on us.

That’s not fair...and that’s why it’s confusing.

But I still love it!

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