Friday, 10 December 2010

Penguin no. 2999: Bullitt (Mute Witness)
by Robert L. Pike


The whole Penguin venture began with an intention to publish inexpensive quality books. I began collecting them and reading them for this very reason; when I was young and inexperienced I found that it was an infallible way of choosing a secondhand book, because if it had an orange spine it would be worth reading. But at some point the ethos changed, and Penguin began to publish anything, and an orange spine ceased to be an indicator of quality. I’ve yet to establish exactly when the change occurred, but this book provides an upper bound. Simply put, this book has no merit whatsoever. It is just a story; pulp fiction. The characters are not believable, their conversations are inane, it tells us nothing new about the world it describes, and the author has no observations to make on life. There are no lessons here. This book gives the reader nothing but a way to pass some time. It is what Graham Geene would have described as 'an entertainment', but even that description would be generous.


Or almost. The book has a single saving grace in that it was the source of the film Bullitt, which is an amazing film, but one in which the plot is very difficult to follow. Much of the joy of watching Bullitt comes from what it captures: San Francisco in the 1960s, Steve McQueen when he was young, action sequences which are believable, and a sense of space and stillness. The dialogue is kept to a minimum, the acting is understated, we observe the characters from a distance. This contrasts with the films they make today which are too busy, with too much going on, too many special effects, unreal action sequences, and with characters who display too much attitude and sarcasm. You can watch Bullitt 10 times and still find elements of the story you hadn't noticed before, which usually provide some crucial insight into understanding the plot. Important aspects of the story are revealed in places you don't expect, such as behind the opening credits and before the main characters are introduced. Understanding this film is an iterative process, a better detective story than the one embedded within the plot. It never gets boring.

And so when I spotted this book amongst my collection, I wondered if it held the answers. Exactly why does the man in the hotel room unchain the door? And who hired the hitmen; was it Johnny Ross, Peter Ross or the Organisation? Is Renick inadvertantly killed by the Organisation in a case of mistaken identity, or intentionally killed by Johnny Ross to get the Organisation off his tail? Perhaps a previously missed clue embedded somewhere in the dialogue will reveal the answers, or perhaps the film has it both ways, and it can never be known. And so this is where the book differs from the film, because although it has nothing else going for it, the book has a great plot which is outlined clearly. The action has moved from San Francisco to New York, the names of many of the characters have changed, and Bullitt is now called Clancy. Perhaps it is just as well because it is simply impossible to picture Clancy in the guise of Steve McQueen.

In the book Johnny Ross is called Johnny Rossi. He is a well known gangster from Chicago who has delivered himself into the hands of Chalmers, an ambitious Assistant DA in New York. Although it isn't highlighted in the film, the important question is why. Why does a gangster offer to testify before the State Crime Commission? Why in New York? Why through Chalmers? Clancy and his colleagues have the task of keeping the gangster alive over the weekend, but they fail, and the man they are guarding becomes the mute witness of the original title. They hide his dead body from Chalmers and set about answering these questions. The answers in the film are different to the answers in the book. The answers in the book are more coherent, but I wouldn't change anything about the film.

Links:
Bullitt locations in San Francisco

1 comment:

  1. It's probably notable that the author, Robert L. Fish, published this one under the slightly altered pseudonym Robert L. Pike...I like Fish's work, and perhaps something (such as an importunate editor) helped keep this one from being the book he wanted it to be...wonder what he thought of the film.

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