Recently, I've begun to question my assumption that a DVD viewing at home is always better than the average cinema trip, an assumption built up after years of miserable experiences in rip-off London cinema's.
Even with a top-notch plasma display, a THX sound system that places you in the middle of the action, a sterling DVD transfer, and comfortable, interruption-free viewing there are the odd occasions - admittedly not many - when a cinema viewing can offer an experience that just isn't possible at home, a fact I was reminded of watching Bullitt on high-definition DVD last weekend.
There are some - admittedly not many - film moments that INSIST on being screened at a size that totally dominates eye vision, and no matter how close you sit to your plasma or LCD TV, it's hard to replicate the required effect at home. My trip to see Sunshine earlier this week, together with recent screenings of 300 and Superman Returns in 3D are examples of such films, where even the high-definition disc versions viewed on the best home systems can't compare with a good projection at a prestigious cinema. To my surprise, Bullitt proved to be another. The car chase that's the climax of this film had me almost feeling sick (but in a good way) back in the 70's shown on a colossal screen that made you feel you were there in the car with McQueen. But on HD-DVD, even sat close-up, it barely raised an eyebrow and one feels more like a viewer than the passenger that the director originally intended.
Not that Bullitt is the sort of film you'd rush off to your local emporium to see these days. When originally released it set the bar for many a subsequent cop thriller, but viewed from a distance of forty years, it seems dated, confusingly plotted and poorly paced. And, it has to be said, rather dull! In fact the only reason the film is still talked about and referred to rather reverentially is down to what is arguably the career-best performance of its star, Steve McQueen. Well maybe not just that - the live action car chase around the hilly streets of San Francisco is rightly the stuff of cinematic legend, and still holds up well today, even with all the CGI trickery and nonsense that directors now have at their command to fashion something better.
The car chase is the reason the film exists at all. McQueen, a keen racer in real life, could pick and choose his films with ease, and had little interest in playing the part of a cop, worried that the negative reputation the police had at the time might rub off on him. It was the car chase at the end that interested him, and he wanted to make it real and to make it the best ever shown on screen. Such was McQueen's power in Hollywood at the time that it was him that effectively hired director Peter Yates, who had filmed the best chase sequence McQueen had seen up to that time in his film Robbery, rather than the other way round, as is usually the case.
Robert Vaughn plays the rather slimy politician who hires Bullitt to protect a key witness for the prosecution in a Mafia case, a case that he feels will help promote his profile and career. Vaughn is excellent, despite admitting in one of the disc's extra's that he didn't understand the script and only did it for the money, perhaps too excellent. Later plans to move into the real world of politics were thwarted because too many people associated the actor with the role he plays here, and I guess if there's a lesson to be learnt from Bullitt it's don't do anything 'just for the money'.
The witness premise is just an excuse to set up a sting that involves Bullit's colleague and the witness being fatally shot at a supposedly secret location, with the bulk of the film being devoted to Bullitt's attempt to find the killers based on the tiniest, and most confusing, of clues available at the crime scene.
McQueen often spoke about 'not being an actor. I'm a re-actor' (while subsequently arguing vehemently that he was a better actor than Paul Newman - go figure!), and his re-acting is at its best here. The word 'charisma' was invented to describe performances like this, and McQueen plays 'effortlessly cool' as if born to it. The role suits him perfectly. Unfortunately the same can't be said of the script - which is confusing - and the direction which in its attempt at a 'documentary' style seems leaden and dull by modern standards. Make no mistake, this is a 'flop' of a film that's only saved from oblivion by a charismatic star at his peak, and a car chase scene that still delivers (although nowhere near as well as it did at the cinema)
Unfortunately as a demonstration of the advantages of High Definition over standard DVD, the disc fails too. The opening scenes in particular are so soft and muddy they look more like they were sourced from a VHS tape than any kind of digital state of the art media. Things improve in outdoor scenes shot in daylight, but there are minor signs of wear and tear on the master print that show this has not been a top-tier digital restoration from Warner Brothers, which perhaps explains the low price.
The extra's are, in many ways, better than the main feature, and the reason why this HD-DVD gets a four star rating rather than the two and a half stars the main feature deserves. The commentary by director Peter Yates, while frustrating at times because of his late years (the word 'doddery' best describes his often-faltering speech), gives real insight that other commentary makers could learn from. There's also a featurette made around the time the film was originally released, intended primarily for marketing purposes. But it's two stand-out feature-length (over 90 minutes each) documentaries that really make this an HD-DVD well worth viewing or considering for purchase.
For fans of Bullitt the stand-out documentary is a 90 minute one about McQueen himself, called The Essence of Cool, featuring most of his nearest and dearest, together with vintage interviews the actor gave himself over the years. At its core is a film-by-film analysis of his career, but it covers pretty much everything about the man: his hobbies, his obsessions, his women and his cancer.
The final extra, and the only one shot in full 1080p high definition, is The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing which has nothing to do with Bullitt itself, but everything to do with films made over the last hundred years. Clocking in at 1 hour 40 minutes, this documentary covers everything from editing of the early silent films of the 1900's right up to recent blockbusters like The Matrix trilogy. There's lots of film extrcts and lots of famous talking heads (mainly actors and directors). It's well worth viewing, even if you normally ignore the extra's on a disc!
I'll take other reviewers at their word when they say the HD-DVD version of Bullitt is the best picture quality version available today. For me it's hard to see how it offers anything over a standard DVD transfer, with its murky, over-soft look for most of its duration. For the main feature this has to be a rental rather than a purchase, even if it does represent the king of cinematic cool giving one of his best performances. But the low price and superb added value of the two excellent documentaries tip this over into a purchase for me. Even if you disliked the original film, the HD-DVD is well worth a look for the features alone, and at an import price of just £12.99, post and packing included, it's a bit of a steal!