PRINT May 1969


Pendulum, Bullitt, Coogan’s Bluff, Madigan and The Detective

There’s no question that there’s a new crowd-pleasing movie around that has to do with a disenchanted cop, a city in which no corner is untainted, and an artichoke plot. Wrapped around a heart that is just a procedural cop story, police routines in Washington (Pendulum), San Francisco (Bullitt), Phoenix (Coogan’s Bluff), and Manhattan (Madigan and The Detective), is a shrubwork of Daily News stories, the whole newspaper from beginning to end: the sensationalism, sentimentality, human interest, plus some liberal editorials. Each film has its mini-version of the drug scene, investigating committees, philandering wives, some of it as wrong as the psychedelic dance orgy in Coogan’s Bluff, the weirdness there being the thousand equally frenzied participants, or the two senators (Robert Yaughn in Bullitt, Paul McPrissy in Pendulum) who are played odiously and with heavy messages.

Superficially, it’s a straight Bogart story with Sinatra (interestingly mediocre), McQueen (you could buy back Manhattan for the Indians with his blue eyes), or Peppard (unfulfilled, slightly sedentary) playing the ace detective role, but playing it less mythically and with much more defeat. The real juice of the films is their ranginess, that they give you a lot, the zest for what a city contains, and the flatness.

These movies work partly because they are exploiting the fairly unplumbed field of pessimistic observing rather than action, or, for that matter, acting of the traditional or method variety. The work often goes overdone, as when Bullitt is shown waking up and McQueen, trying for a bent-over feeling, does a St. Vitus dance while suggesting a wave of nausea spreading across his face. But in a long, near-silent and very good stretch in U.C. Hospital, which is almost excessive in the way it sticks like plaster to the mundaneness of the place, the movie hits into about seventeen verities: faces looking out as though across the great divide of 20th-century lousiness.

These movies use Hollywood bodies in a new way which could be called city physical: unglamorous, a lot of self-contempt (although I don’t see Jean Seberg as anything shy of complacency), naturalness emphasized or pushed to the front of the screen without losing its ordinariness (both Peppard and McQueen have great rooted-to-the-earth stances). The boy rapist in Pendulum, the young cop who gets shot in the beginning of Bullit, Lee Remick (too nice and too frail for a nympho), Don Stroud’s very ungraceful, unused to running in Coogan’s Bluff—all these actors seem to work towards an ideal of anonymity through a kind of unweighted gesture and great stretches of silent resistance to the material around them. There’s nothing better in these films than Peppard rifling the yellow pages for the telephone number of his wife’s beauty parlor, or McQueen eating a sandwich and drinking a glass of milk, very tense and guilty about having lost his prize hood to a pair of hired killers.

The scripts are written with the lore of a taxi driver, his head filled with routes, the difficulty of getting through crowds, and the cold, confusing congestion to be expected at any monument, terminal, or bedroom. These are not stingy films. If Jimmy Stewart were playing the gassing stage manager in Our Town, 1969, he might have this to say about Sinatra’s effulgence: “Take Joe Leland, The Detective. He’s one part Sam Spade, one part middle-aged and just plain tired, and, here and there he sounds like Norm Mailer (‘You’re full of crap, Doc,’ or, ‘The people of Harlem are living in garbage cans, the job of the police is to hold down the lids.’) He has a lot of angles, Joe: a hidden appreciation of O’Casey and Shaw; trouble with his wife, his boss too.” And the biggest angle is the way Sinatra plays him: clamped down, non-violent and passive-ized, as though he’s swallowed more than he can take of a dull office.

There’s so much particularity that the film goes from bad to good to smashing and back to good in the briefest quarters, and the excitement of each film is that it does. A police commissioner, acted stiff and lofty by Henry Fonda, is having an affair with a redhead who is performed like a dress dummy. A Negro rookie, in a so-so performance by Al Freeman Jr., vomits over the mutilation of a homosexual. A young long-haired wife looks out dazedly over the body of her shotgun-blasted rookie husband: her realistic shock and bitterness is too good for a movie. Some material gets into these frenetic films that suggests misplaced footage left over from another film, but the largesse about particularity turns the non sequitur material into something curious (Jacqueline Bisset painting a rowboat with the shortest, most ineffectual arms in movies) or wonderfully rich (McQueen and his partner ripping through some suitcases, accompanying their machine-gun search through the luggage with some curious litany-like dialogue).

The catchy impact of these sordid, philistine cop films comes from curiosity and a high degree of transience inserted into movies that are really rather rhythmless and not much for old-fashioned give and go. Playing the characters so hyper-observant, and suggesting through acting that each person is a conflict of pulls in all directions, makes the hollow, TV-styled Pendulum seem almost mobile, and sort of intelligent. This jangle and sharp attention occurs even in a virtuoso, Madeline Sherwood, cranking herself into self-pitying hysteria, or Bisset, so dewy and out of key in her alliances with Sinatra and McQueen.

A pylon-like Peppard, who has nothing horizontal in his acting vocabulary, seems to replace the lack of spring in his personality and the telephone-drenched stasis of the plot with a curiosity that roams all over the nation’s capital setting. The final chase in each cop epic should be ho-hum after a thousand Hitchcock-type films that end in a chase through Albert Hall or across the Mt. Rushmore sculpted horror. Nevertheless, the scenes at the end of Bullitt, by emphasizing the pursued’s and pursuer’s stiff running style and making the most of the unpleasant (the freezing night, the two non-athletes uncomfortably at work), keeps a shriek ascending through the last reel.

––Manny Farber