English Director Peter Yates was nominated for Best Director awards in both Britain and America for his film, THE DRESSER, in 1983. It actually won a slew of international prizes and critical praise. The thing is, I barely remember it. I’ve seen it. A couple of times. It’s extremely well made and features a great performance from Albert Finney. But, honestly, when I think of Peter Yates, I seem to forget it even exists. And I don’t think I’m alone in this.
The Peter Yates I think of is the guy that made three particular films. Those three film are BULLITT, THE DEEP, and THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE.
Any car fan will know BULLITT. At least the eleven-minutes of car chase through San Francisco in it. The film stared Steve McQueen driving a dark green mustang that became so famous that Ford has subsequently released several “Bullitt Editions” in tribute to it, even in the current decade. Said, original Mustang can be seen in the film going at insanely high speeds and getting the crap beat out of it as it pursues a black Dodge Charger through the hills of San Francisco.
The car hit speeds of over 110 miles-per-hour during the sequence. Remember, this is 1968, before CGI. And it shows. Those are real cars going very fast through real streets. None of this FAST AND FURIOUS, fake, defying the law of physics, shenanigans. This is, real-deal, legendary stuff.
That eleven minutes of the film is enough, right there, to put the film in the history books. But BULLITT is not a bad movie, even beyond that. You’ve got McQueen as cop who doesn’t like being told what to do, Robert Vaughn as a powerful, very threatening, Senator and Jacqueline Bisset as McQueen’s girlfriend.
I honestly, couldn’t tell you the specifics of the plot, even though I’ve seen it dozens of times. Something about the mob and a witness getting killed and the Senator being involved. I don’t know. But that’s really, kind of my point. It doesn’t matter. The plot is fine. But I don’t watch it for that. I watch it for McQueen and Vaughn and Bisset and the way it looks. And, of course, that amazing, never-gets-old, car chase.
In 1977, THE DEEP was released. It’s about a group of divers who hear about a shipwreck with a very valuable cargo that still might be on it. That cargo isn’t gold or lovely trappings of the royal age, it’s drugs. Morphine, to be exact.
Much of the enjoyment of watching THE DEEP comes from watching Jacqueline Bisset in her return to working with Yates. She is absolutely stunning. So is the underwater photography, shot on location in the British Virgin Islands. But it was the white t-shirt that caused all the rage. Some even credit it for starting the concept of the wet t-shirt contest. Bisset’s look in the film became almost as legendary as McQueen’s Mustang in BULLITT.
THE DEEP was based on a best-selling book by Peter Benchley, the author of JAWS. However, the tone of the film is, in many ways, closer to the post-Sixties hang-over vibe of Robert Stone’s DOG SOLDIERS. There’s a cynicism to it all beneath the breathtaking underwater photography and gorgeousness of Bisset. A contrast of the beautiful and the unseemly. It’s a contrast that that makes a so-so story far more intriguing than it has any right to be.
Oddly, the official movie version of DOG SOLDIERS came out just a year later and would also star Nick Nolte. It was called, WHO’LL STOP THE RAIN and was directed by Karl Reisz. It also has a plot about drugs. However, at least as far as I recall, no gorgeous women in wet t-shirts were involved.
Bisset, by the way, would go on to shine for far more than just her looks. Out of her many memorable roles, 1984’s UNDER THE VOLCANO, directed by John Huston, clearly put aside any idea that she was just a pretty girl who looked good in the water.
FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE is not famous for one particular thing, like its car chase or Jacqueline Bisset’s wet t-shirt. Not that it couldn’t be. There’s a very notable scene shot in the Boston Garden during an actual Boston Bruins game. This was in the days of Bobby Orr. The days when hockey players didn’t bother with silly little things like helmets or masks to protect them. It’s a great scene. EDDIE COYLE, however, isn’t about a single, big, sequence or particular attribute. It’s just slow burning, solid, film.
The story features a down on his luck ex-con, played by, an aging, Robert Mitchum. He faces a return to jail unless he can provide the ATF with useful information. The plot involves gunrunning and lots of interaction with his “friend,” a bar owner, played by Peter Boyle. Mitchum possibly turns in the the best performance of his entire career as he tries to keep the ATF off of his back and stay out of jail. From the outset, Mitchum seems like he’s doomed. And, unlike some, “it’s always darkest before the dawn,” mainstream movies of today, he is.
Things do not end well. It’s one seriously grim movie. But it’s great. The performances. The location photography. The soundtrack by Dave Grusin. The writing. It’s just a good movie. Not just in my opinion, but that of the critics and of Yates himself, who considered it one of his best.
I like THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE. I’ve seen it many times. But I have not watched it nearly as many times as I have THE DEEP or BULLITT. And I know that will, probably, always be the case. For all of Mitchum’s brilliance, when it comes down to it, THE DEEP and BULLITT win with me every time. I’m sure that says as much about me as it does about the quality of the films. But I can live with that.
Yates had a gift. The ability to make movies that may, or may not, be examples of great filmmaking, but were seriously addictive. Movies that hold up decade after decade and viewing after viewing. At least, for some of us.
Be warned, however, that if you ever come across someone claiming that THE DRESSER is their favorite Yates film, just give them a little smile and walk away. There is, obviously, something just really, really, wrong with them.