Peter Yates, who died this past weekend at age 81, was one of several British directors invited to make movies in The States in the 1960s, all of whom had a particular and rare filmmaker’s gift for capturing a sense – the feel — of a setting often better than native-born filmmakers could. Yates’ obits talked about the car chase in Bullitt (1968), the Oscar nods for Breaking Away (1979) and The Dresser (1983), but they missed how this gift he shared with his UK colleagues was such a critical part of what made his best work so special.
Think of the hundreds – the thousands – of American-helmed movies set against the country’s great metropolises where the city sits inertly behind the action, as undistinguished and indistinguishable as a generic theatre backdrop. Then compare them to the almost hallucinogenically surreal Los Angeles of John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), Manhattan’s desperate, grubby demimonde in John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969), or the sun-burnished San Francisco of Bullitt — probably Yates’ best-remembered film. It may very well have been their stranger-in-a-strange-land distance which gave these Brit émigrés the ability to appreciate what was so distinctive and unique about American locales in a way the inured natives couldn’t.
Yates and the others understood, as few filmmakers did (and do), the powerful interplay there could be between plot, place, and people; the idea that this story could only play out with these characters and only in this place. And place – that feeling of there belonging to no other location – is one of the most intangible, ephemeral, and difficult sensations to conjure in cinema.
The car chase in Bullitt – still one of the classic sequences in American thrillers – wasn’t Yates’ most deft accomplishment in that film, but how he used so many tools to capture the San Francisco vibe. William Fraker’s crisp, golden cinematography; Lalo Schifrin’s jazzy score; the terse and opaque Alan Trustman/Harry Kleiner screenplay; the hard, low-key performances led by a tight-lipped Steve McQueen as the eponymous well-dressed, Mustang-driving cop; the little fill-in touches like a corner market, a jazz club luncheon for the culturally smart set — Yates pulled it all together to create a San Francisco that was the quintessence of late 60s California cool.
Thank of how unmemorable Bullitt might have been had it adhered more closely to the Robert L. Pike’s source novel, Mute Witness, with Bullitt as an aging, nondescript, ice cream-loving, blue collar Boston cop. Good or bad, it would’ve been a more familiar movie; more expected. Bullitt is Bullitt because no other cop movie looks – or feels — like it.
What Yates managed with Bullitt was no fluke as he demonstrated four years later in the New York-set caper comedy, The Hot Rock, with screenwriting ace William Goldman adapting Donald E. Westlake’s novel. Yates held the comedy back from silliness, with him and his actors playing it straight so the laughs seemed to come not from constructed jokes but from a credible urban lunacy organic to the sprawling, chaotic character of an off-kilter Big Apple. The Hot Rock is The Asphalt Jungle (1950) getting off at the wrong subway stop, its supposedly deft criminals now a step off their rhythm, stepping in dog doo-doo instead of the winner’s circle. Only in New York, Yates seems to say, only in crazy, weird Gotham with its endless supply of loons, losers, and wannabes, could the supposed mastermind of a crack heist team get mugged while casing a joint for their next job.
After Yates had hit West Coast chic and East Coast nuttiness, he went for The Middle with Breaking Away, showing himself just as deft at capturing heartland Americana as Big City glitz. Set in Bloomington, Indiana, Steve Tesich’s semi-autobiographical screenplay combined coming-of-age-awareness with sports-underdog-triumph for one of the all-time great American movies of adolescent passage. For those who remembered Bullitt, Breaking Away seemed a surprising about turn for the director, but Yates nailed perfectly the petty prejudices of a little burg, its insularity and familiarity, and the supreme frustration of big dreams stuck in a small town.
But in no film did Yates get it down as well as he did in the film criminally absent from most of his obits: the Boston-set crime flick, The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), with Paul Monash adapting the novel by one-time Boston criminal attorney George V. Higgins. Eddie Coyle presages the Beantown noirs Ben Affleck would make his specialty 35 years later i.e. Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2010) , and no movie – with the possible exception of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) – has ever delivered so acutely and despairingly a gutter-level view of the penny-grubbing day-to-day at the bottom rungs of the Mob hierarchy.
Set against a naked-treed Massachusetts autumn rendered with beautiful bleakness by cinematographer Victor J. Kemper, Eddie Coyle has no master criminals, no elaborate heists, no car chases, no gunfights, no Last Capers. There is only Robert Mitchum’s schlumpy Eddie Coyle (Yates, as good with actors as action, draws out one of the actor’s best late-career performances), being played by double-dealing Feds and bad guys further up the ladder as he frantically tries to hustle his way out from under a pending prison wrap, and make a few dollars to keep his family off welfare should he have to do the time.
Yates had too many fizzles in his resume to be considered a great director, but he turned out a number of films made great by his remembering and deftly capturing the idea that who we are and what we do comes very much from the place where we live.
– Bill Mesce