1960s, Action-Adventure, Crime/Detective, Thriller

Bullitt (1968)

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Director: Peter Yates
Screenwriters: Harry Kleiner, Alan R. Trustman

This essay is offered as part of the Sixth Annual Allan Fish Online Film Festival 2022, a festival founded by Jamie Uhler and hosted by Wonders in the Dark, held to honor the memory of the late cineaste extraordinaire Allan Fish, considering films in the public domain and/or available to view online

By Roderick Heath

Words like classic, iconic, and seminal are very often overused, but feel entirely right in describing Peter Yates’ Bullitt. It’s a film that wielded vast and immediate influence – it’s doubtful William Friedkin’s The French Connection or Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (both 1971), or a host of hard-driving action-thrillers in the 1970s and ‘80s, would have been made. It’s difficult to imagine Michael Mann’s oeuvre without its example. Both Robert Altman (in Brewster McCloud, 1971) and Peter Bogdanovich (in What’s Up, Doc?, 1972) would lampoon the title character and his famous car chase. But Bullitt was the hit no-one saw coming. Like Point Blank from the previous year, which plays like Bullitt’s fractured, psychedelic sibling, Bullitt saw an established Hollywood star court a rising British directing talent. In this case Steve McQueen followed the advice of co-screenwriter Alan R. Trustman, who went to see Yates’ Robbery (1967) whilst writing the screenplay, and enthusiastically suggested Yates as director for the project. Yates himself suspected he had been hired just to keep the demanding McQueen busy and out of Warner Bros’ hair, at a time when nobody thought of British directors as action filmmakers. The Aldershot-born Yates, son of an army officer, was a RADA graduate who cut his teeth in British theatre, and also gained some surprisingly consequential experience when it came to fast cars by working as a manager for some racing drivers.

After drifting into film work and becoming a reliable assistant director working under heavyweights like Mark Robson, J. Lee Thompson, and Tony Richardson, Yates made his film directing debut with the Cliff Richard film vehicle Summer Holiday (1963). After Bullitt made him an A-list filmmaker, Yates famously resisted becoming pigeonholed in any particular genre, a resistance that has ironically perhaps diminished his reputation in posterity for the lack of a clear auteurist project. Yates instead oscillated between the kind of hard, realistic, atmospheric crime and action dramas he made his name with and more interpersonal and modest movies. Yates however could find the flexibility within genres too – technically works like Bullitt, The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1974), The Deep (1977), Suspect (1987), and The House on Carroll Street (1988) exist within the boundaries of the thriller but are all very different, and those all seemingly a world away from the like of Breaking Away (1979) or The Dresser or Krull (both 1983), and genre-straddling exercises like Murphy’s War (1971) and Mother, Jugs & Speed (1976). Except perhaps in Yates’ gift for carefully-paced, slow-burn tension, and his attitude to their central characters, with Yates’ admitted fondness for rule-bucking, underdog characters who take chances to ensure their personal vision will win through, sometimes succeeding, sometimes not. That facet to Yates’ sensibility was certainly key to the success of Bullitt, which enshrined the heroic figure who is at once an authority figure and also detached from the establishment as an essential one in pop culture.

Bullitt also became the quintessential relic of McQueen himself, as the film sees the actor paring his persona and performance down to its root DNA with the perfect character to inhabit, one who generally only registers the most powerful and profound emotions through the contraction and dilation of his glacial blue eyes and degrees of tautness to his lips. McQueen’s personal passion for fast vehicles and borderline-neurotic obsession with minimalist efficiency in life and art likewise infuses Bullitt, which presented in 1968, and still does in a way, a perfect style guide for cool. The opening credits, which unfold over events cryptic in meaning but eventually explained as the movie unfolds, are themselves a tight thumbnail of iconographic cool, as Lalo Schifrin’s ice-cold jazz theme strums away over credits that slip and slide and leave distorted impressions in the imagery that become portals into the next shot, and swaps between colour and black-and-white. The film title proper is projected over a quartet of impassive, tensely waiting hoods, bathed in cold blue light, like they’re cast for a zombie movie rather than a thriller, the hard lines and clean angles of the modern architecture promising geometric order but laced with tear gas and sweltering under the gaze of Willim A. Fraker’s cinematography.

As this game of aesthetics unfolds, a story also commences, as the hoods smash their way into a suite of chic offices: Johnny Ross (Pat Renella), hiding within, is a Chicago underworld lieutenant who’s embezzled a fortune from his organisation’s wire service, and now that he’s been rumbled he eludes his would-be assassins and escapes in a car. One of the hoods (Victor Tayback) lets Ross get away; this is Ross’s brother, indulging his kin one last time. A couple of days later in San Francisco, a man who looks and dresses like Ross and uses the same name (Felice Orlandi) goes through a series of enigmatic encounters, including with a hotel messenger service that proves bewilderingly negative, and a long-distance phone call listlessly observed by the cabbie he’s hired (Robert Duvall). Not long after, this individual is presented to SFPD lieutenant Frank Bullitt (McQueen) and his partner ‘Dell’ Delgetti (Don Gordon) by Senator Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn): Chalmers, hoping to make a big splash by presenting this Ross as a special witness before a senate crime committee has arranged with Frank and Dell’s Captain, Sam Bennett (Simon Oakland), to protect Ross until the hearing, as Frank’s been recommended as a smooth operator.

Robert L. Fish’s source novel (written with the pseudonymous last name Pike) was entitled Mute Witness; Bullitt on the other hand places its hero front and centre, partly no doubt because it’s a thoroughgoing star vehicle, but also because thanks to the intricate collaboration of script, director, and actor, Frank Bullitt emerges as an intriguing and detailed protagonist. His last name seems to inscribe him through polysemy as an innate man of action, and yet Yates permits our first sight of the great urban swashbuckler as a man tired and cranky and a little pathetic. Here’s the great detective irritably limping downstairs to let Dell in, startled like a nocturnal creature when Dell lifts his blind and lets sunlight in, and warming a cup of instant coffee with a bedside heating gadget. Dell, plainly used to the vicissitudes of Frank’s lifestyle, helping himself to canned milk from his fridge and reading his newspaper. Immediately Frank is posited as a person with an identifiable life, as the film perhaps takes some licence from Sidney J. Furie’s The Ipcress File (1965) which similarly, carefully constructed its tough hero as nonetheless an opposite to a James Bond-ish playboy. Bringing in a class-conscious British director to an otherwise very American milieu served McQueen’s penchant for depicting ambitious men who have found themselves adrift or alienated in a social sense, elevated through their talents and smarts or general refusenik cynicism, but still retain strong working class traits. Frank’s head-butting with Chalmers is laced with sociological as well as temperamental and professional tension, Chalmers representing a nominally respectable but actually rapacious ruling class for which Frank is supposed to play sentry.

In other respects Frank pointed to an ideal for an onscreen authority figure that echoed back to James Cagney being cast as a streetwise operator turned FBI agent in “G” Men (1935), as a cop who seems vaguely like a congruent member of the community rather than a member of an occupying army. Frank straddles two zones: he’s fairly young if weathered, good-looking, and has enough good taste and savoir faire to date commercial artist Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset) and possessed of enough hip attitude to own a Mustang and dig a little cool jazz with dinner, illustrated when he and Cathy go out for the night. He has his own sense of style, his distinct dress and way of wearing his gun separating him from the pack. That McQueen based his characterisation on the film’s technical advisor Frank Toschi, a serving SFPD detective who later, famously investigated the Zodiac killings, gave extra credence to the portrayal. And still Frank keeps at least one toe on the ground, calling in to his station so he’s on call before settling down to eat, and living a most humdrum, borderline vagrant life when he’s not on the job. Yates extends this aspect as he depicts Frank, after a long and gruelling night of work, using a little sleight of hand when he realises he doesn’t have any small change to steal a newspaper, with a furtive glance around to make sure no-one’s seen him, and then going into a corner grocery store, from which he plucks a stack of TV dinners without any inspection and carts them to his apartment.

Whilst Bullitt certainly isn’t a character study of a suffering policeman a la Sidney Lumet’s The Offence and Serpico (both 1973), or Richard Fleischer’s The New Centurions (1972), Yates laces these droll moments of scruffy, very human behaviour into the film partly to give it convincing texture and to back up the core narrative, which is preoccupied less with the danger Frank faces from criminals, although he certainly does, than the danger from Chalmers. Chalmers is the pure embodiment of the asshole politician, a prince of darkness often followed about by his own personal golem, Police Captain Baker (Norman Fell), a glowering lump of animated clay who, like many others, obeys this Mephistopheles because Chalmers holds out lying promises (in the police’s case a promise for political support) on one hand and threats of hellfire on the other. Yates makes a motif out of associating Chalmers with social rituals and public meeting places, waylaying people and finding their pressure points for enticement and coercion. He’s introduced holding court in a gathering of high society ladies amongst which Frank looks entirely absurd, later intercepts Captain Bennett when he and his family are going to church, watching for their arrival like a well-suited gargoyle, and dogs Frank in the hospital and at an airport.

Frank becomes increasingly uneasy in his assignment when he finds the hotel room Chalmers has stashed Ross in is exceptionally vulnerable to snipers, but leaves Ross in the care of another of his men, Stanton (Carl Reindel). Danger doesn’t need a good aim: two hitmen, Mike (Paul Genge) and Phil (Bill Hickman), using Chalmers’ name, come up to the room. Ross surreptitiously unlocks the door as if expecting someone friendly, only for the killers to shoot Stanton and then Ross himself. Yates’ staging here is brutally impressive, in allowing what was then a potently graphic edge touched with peculiar grimy beauty, globs of spurting blood erupting from Ross as he’s gunned down and hovering for a split second in focus whilst the man is hurled away by the blast, whilst the gunmen remain shadowy, almost monstrous figures, their cool, ultra-professional efficiency noted as the gunman immediately disassembles his shotgun and hides it in his overcoat and removes balls of cotton wool he was using as earplugs to stifle the deafening noise. Opponents truly fit for another ultra-pro like Bullitt. The grievously wounded Stanton still manages to put Frank on alert about Ross’s strange action, and both men are taken to a hospital where Ross is operated on.

The rest of the film unfolds with the tick of a relentless metronome as Frank tries to understand what has just transpired and why, whilst resisting Chalmers’ aggressive attempts to either get Ross on the witness stand or nail down a fall guy for the failure, preferably Frank himself. “Lieutenant, don’t try and evade the responsibility,” Chalmers drones with tightly controlled smugness when Frank tries to ask him about what dealings he had with Ross: “In your parlance, you blew it.” Chalmers also makes clear he doesn’t care about the wounded Stanton, and tries to get Ross’s black surgeon, Dr Willard (Georg Stanford Brown), replaced by someone “more experienced.” Yates offers a brilliant vignette, very subtle in playing but laced with dimensions of socio-political meaning requiring no dialogue to explicate, where Frank, eating a sandwich and sipping a glass of milk, and Willard, washing his hands, give each-other knowing glances as both understand they’ve both made Chalmers’ enemies list – a noble fellowship of victimised factotums at The Man’s mercy despite their aspirations.

Yates’s carefully mediating visuals, often playing with foreground and background, occasionally crystallises potent visual vignettes, as when he spies Frank watching Willard operating on Ross through the OT window, vigilant in electric silence, knowing full well the avalanche that will fall if Ross dies, and a semi-surreal tracking shot as Frank strolls through the ER patients and monitoring equipment surveyed in sworls of white and mechanics, until a young woman’s face enters the frame – Stanton’s girlfriend in tired, listless vigil over the sleeping, injured man, in a moment of low-burning empathy. The hitman Mike makes a foray into the hospital to take another whack at killing Ross: he attempts to be casual in asking directions but the doctor he asks still reports the encounter to Frank. A nurse interrupts the killer before he can use a secreted ice pick on Ross, and Frank tracks him through the labyrinthine corridors of the hospital in a sequence that feels like a powerful influence on the paranoid visions of Alan Pakula and Michael Crichton’s Coma (1978), a place of glistening utilitarian forms that is nonetheless eerie and ambiguous. Yates and Fraker include a baroque shot of Frank walking into a therapy room, in the shadowy background of the shot, whilst the tracking camera pans onto the hiding hitman, ready with ice pick in hand, in the looming foreground of the shot, the imminence of danger revealed to the audience, all filmed into blue chiaroscuro with rippling pool water flickering on the far wall.

Whilst Bullitt as a film resists some of the more overtly distorted argots of film style of the period, such moments come charged with both efficiency as visual exposition and a glaze of enriching technical prowess and artistry. When Ross dies without extra help from the killers, Frank, knowing Chalmers will shut down the operation and make him the scapegoat if he learns this, talks Willard into keeping this a secret to give Frank time to investigate. Bennett, trusting in Frank’s judgement despite warnings to walk the straight and narrow, plays interference for him, resisting Chalmers and Baker’s pressure. Meanwhile Frank begins assiduously tracing Ross’s movements, working with Delgetti in jaded but capable good cop-bad cop pressuring the desk clerk (Al Checco) of Ross’s hotel to overcome his reluctance after and give up information, then following the trail on to Ross’s cab driver, whose own attentive streak proves vital. Frank also talks to an informant, Eddy (Justin Tarr), who fills him in Ross’s background and the events in Chicago. Frank’s efforts to fool Chalmers also have the unintended but lucky consequence of obliging the hitmen to follow Frank around town in the belief he can lead them to him. When the cabbie drops Frank back at his Mustang in a parking lot, Frank soon realises he’s being tracked, and begins a nerveless process of leading the hitmen on and then using his knowledge of the city streets to turn the tables and get behind them. At which point the hitmen fasten their seatbelts and step hard on the gas.

Thus begins the most famous and consequential scene of Bullitt, as the hitmen try to outrun Frank up and down the hills of midtown San Francisco before making a break for the highway out of town. Where Don Siegel, in The Line-up (1958) and again in Dirty Harry found obsessive fascination in San Francisco’s ravioli explosion of freeways and overpasses in their stark, charmless modernity and frenetic functionality, and Alfred Hitchcock for Vertigo (1958) had stuck to the dreamy precincts of the bay, Yates decisively found the vertiginous slopes of the Mission District the ideal landscape for car chase action, at once like they’re dancers in a ballet, and as if the earthbound drivers are nonetheless trying to mimic astronauts and take off for space every time they fly over a shelf and careen down a slope. Editor Frank Keller won an Oscar essentially for his work on the scene. Car chases were of course nothing new in action movies, having been a constant since the days of Mack Sennett in Hollywood. What made Bullitt’s chase cutting-edge then, and still-thrilling now, was the immersive fierceness of Yates’ and his crew’s staging and filming. Where what would once have been filmed all at a distance on some cleanly flowing road here exploits the tyranny of the unsuitability of the topography an aspect of the action, and completely avoiding rear projection, camera speed tricks, and other gimmickry, complete with close-ups of McQueen driving at high speed.

Yates toggles between manifold camera angles including shots taken within the cars moving fast down chassis-jarring angles, zoom shots moving and in and out to emphasise a documentary veracity, sometimes allowing the cars to move out of focus or become momentarily lost in hose-piping shots that at once add to the visual excitement and turn the action into semi-abstract art, whilst the editing discontinuity seems right in the age of the action replay. The whole sequence, including the cat-and-mouse stalk and then the roaring of the motorised lions, takes 10 minutes. One irony behind the scene’s impact lay in Yates and team forgoing precise realism, splicing together as they did multiple takes to amplify its symphonic impact, with attendant continuity goofs, with damage to the cars coming and going and one green Volkswagen Beetle that seems to be looping in a time warp. Yates’ feel for realism is nonetheless still crucial – the streets are quiet but not suddenly, conveniently empty, as Frank is briefly frustrated by cars blocking him at first from giving pursuit. The bucking bronco moves on the sloping streets give way to fast, flowing motion once the two cars get onto a parkway, as Mike takes the chance to shoot at Frank with his shotgun. The ultra-pros in their element, stalking each-other on the tarmac veldt, with only the very faint smile Bill gives when he thinks he’s lost Frank behind providing a hint of emotion.

But action is also characterisation: Frank swerves to avoid hitting a toppled motorcyclist, almost losing his prey as he crashes onto the dusty verge, but manages to catch up again. The chase has a structural and figurative similarity to the chariot race in Ben-Hur (1959), its mock-ancient equivalent, with Mike’s attempts to shoot Frank’s car like Messala’s use of a whip in the earlier film proving a recourse that invites self-destruction in breaking the informal rules of the chase, Frank forced to ram the assassins’ Dodge off the road, and the killers crash into a gas station, blowing up with it, whilst Frank skids to a halt. This climax to the scene was almost a total disaster due to an accident in the filming, but Keller saved it with clever cutting. Another smart touch here was removing music scoring from the actual fast chase portion, instead allowing the tyre squeals and engine grunts to provide music of a kind. Yates might well have been thinking of Jules Dassin’s silent heist scenes in Rififi (1955) and Topkapi (1964) in ironically making the suspense sequence the one that doesn’t need amplification in that fashion. The sequence did wonders for Mustang sales, too. The streamlined form of the Mustang seemed to combine the sleek aesthetic of modern, often European design with the muscle of a good American roadster, and so is the perfect style object for the film, as Yates blends aspects of cinema cultures to create a sleek and chitinous new form. Of course, movies are deceiving: in actuality the villains’ Dodge Charger was so much faster than the Mustang Hickman had to keep slowing down to let it catch up.

Bisset’s presence signifies a similar fruition, emblematic posh British beauty transplanted somehow to American shores, bringing a fresh gust of Swinging London chic. Cathy provides Frank with his anchor in the everyday world and also one who elevates him out of it. Bisset’s role in the film isn’t large and yet her character provides genuine substance as a presence in Frank’s story. Their growing relationship is given an amusing underlining when, with his own car wrecked after the chase, Frank gets Cathy to drive him in her trim primrose roadster in tracking down a lead. This however proves to invite trouble, as Frank finds a murdered woman at the end of the trail, and Cathy accidentally becomes witness. Cathy also provides Yates with another pole to explore his own dualism: as a transplanted artist she finds Frank immensely appealing but is also repelled by the things he countenances every day, embodying Yates’ own oscillation between warm and intimate stories and jagged tales of violence and exile. Observing that the murdered woman barely causes Frank to bat an eyelid, demands to be let out of the car on the drive home and runs down to a stretch of shoreline where, once Frank catches up to her, she plaintively notes they live in different worlds, and wonders what would happen to them in time if they continue together. “Time starts now,” Frank responds simply.

Yates films this exchange in extreme long zoom shot, lending a voyeuristic aspect but also a gauzy lacquer of romanticism despite the fraught and ugly feeling being invoked. Purposefully oblique framing hides Bisset’s mouth by McQueen’s shoulder, illustrating the potential for emotional disconnection between them, where when he reverses the shot Frank’s calm, simple answer is entirely clear, assuring Cathy that however taciturn he acts the one advantage is gives him, far from being emotionally anaesthetised, he knows rather what he wants and needs with a special rigour denied the more frivolous. Cathy and Frank’s exchanges have a structural similarity to Frank’s contretemps with Chalmers, in that both demand surrender from him, if with entirely different motives, Chalmers demanding obeisance and fault, Cathy prodding Frank to be a loving man, each on a ticking clock. The real source of tension for most of Bullitt is Frank’s efforts to keep moving, like an ice skater who’s ventured onto dangerously thin ice but can only keep driving for the opposite side, before the hammer Chalmers so desperately wants to drop lands. This is also a source of sour humour, particularly when Chalmers, having dragged Frank out of the shower to make more demands over the phone, then puts Baker on the line to emphasise the threat: “Now you listen to me,” Baker utters, only to hear dial tone.

Bennett’s stalwart defence of Frank as his actual boss sees Yates expertly using Oakland’s stocky physique and accompanying terse performance like a rampart, fending off the wicked. The film’s true climax then isn’t the car chase or the shoot-out finale, but the concluding scenes between Frank and Chalmers. Frank’s diligence and risk-taking are finally justified as, after finally revealing that Ross has died to Chalmers and Baker, Frank waits for the dead man’s fingerprints to be relayed to Chicago and their identification returned via laborious 1960s faxing. Chalmers, Baker, and Bennett wait in silent expectation whilst Frank’s expression turns concertedly pokerfaced, except with his eyes ablaze, betraying his awareness that his entire career and life will hinge on the next few minutes and what comes out of the fax machine. What emerges, as Frank by this time plainly already suspected but needed to prove, was that the dead man calling himself Ross was actually a used car salesman named Renick, a lookalike hired by the real Ross to pretend to be him long enough to take the heat off him: the murdered woman was Renick’s wife, killed to silence her and let him leave the country on Renick’s passport. Frank’s tone barely changes as he informs Chalmers he had him guarding an imposter even as he delivers the killer blow.

Chalmers is not so easily defeated, however, as he insists on following Frank as he and Del head to the airport in hope of netting Ross before he can fly out, still hoping to get him to testify. By this point Frank abandons any further pretence of putting up with the politician when Chalmers suggests the case has all the trappings for a publicity coup for them both, telling him point blank, “I don’t like you,” and riposting to Chalmers’ sanguine suggestions that “Integrity is something you sell the public” and “We all must compromise,” with a curt statement: “Bullshit.” Here Bullitt managed something borderline miraculous in presenting a cop hippies could cheer for. The notion that the truest public servants are the ones who take the lumps from both ends of society without much reward beyond their own inner satisfaction is of course a romantic one, and one that’s been through endless variations since, to the point where it may have outlived its worth.

It was also one becoming more fashionable in the late ‘60s, a time when, then as now, leadership as a broad concept had taken awful blows. Where, say, James Bond was the revenge of primitivism in an epoch so futuristic to be atavistic, Frank Bullitt provided a full-proof blueprint for his spiritual opposite, a romantic hero tailored for a cynical age, someone who actually gives a damn about the public good but also under no illusions about what society actually is – that is, Chalmers is the face of society, venal, corrupt, predatory, and masked with righteous stances. Bullitt’s relative lack of interest in its official villain Ross only more firmly emphasises this as the real drama, but Ross is also the naked face of it, greedy and murderous and manipulative, throwing up doppelgangers to distract and confuse: Renick is his patsy but Chalmers is his real puppet, used and discarded once he’s provided the necessary distraction. At the same time Yates constantly suggests the soul-wearying strain all this puts Frank under, as he must keep operating after seeing friends maimed and deal out death himself. Of course, McQueen’s face was carved by the movie gods to convey existential distress. The film’s ending is another intense, slow-burn sequence that uses similar elements to the car chase to very different effect, again spurning music and filling the soundtrack with incessant airplane racket.

Frank and Dell comb the airport for the real Ross and find he’s boarded a taxiing plane: when the plane is called back and Frank ventures aboard, he spots Ross, who jumps off the plane and leads the detective on a chase across the runways, the bizarre sight of monstrous metal planes with their churning turbines making enough noise to make the dead, and make tracking by ear impossible, cruising by as Ross eludes Frank in the scantly-lit precincts between the brilliant runways, and Frank barely avoids being shot and run over by a 707. Mann paid obvious homage to this in the finale of Heat (1995). Ross manages to get back inside a terminal, and almost reaches the doors as Frank and Dell close in: Ross guns down a cop as he tries to make a break, demanding that Frank shoot him turn, leaving Ross’s very dead form splayed on broken glass and the airport in panicky chaos. Chalmers, eventually cheated of his prize, drives away to the next opportunity in the back of a limousine, whilst the sirens echoing about the airport gain a strange, amplified loudness, as if mimicking the dizzy ringing in Frank’s ears. The weird, queasy brilliance of the film’s final moments lies in the way it confirms Frank did what he had to to a very bad guy, making him at last victorious in this tale, whilst also making clear it still costs him something vital. He returns home to find, by way of salutary grace, Carol asleep in his bed, having elected to remain with him for at least another day, but also faced with the eyes of the killer in the mirror.

Bullitt is available to watch on many streaming services, including Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, and Redbox.

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1920s, Action-Adventure, Romance

The Sheik (1921) / The Son of the Sheik (1926)

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Directors: George Melford, George Fitzmaurice

By Roderick Heath

This essay is offered as part of the Allan Fish Online Film Festival, a festival founded by Jamie Uhler and hosted by Wonders in the Dark, held to honor the memory of the late cineaste extraordinaire Allan Fish.

Rudolph Valentino. Over ninety years since he died aged 31, his name is still familiar to people who have never watched any of his movies. As the first great heartthrob of Hollywood film, his impact lingers like background radiation in pop culture. Valentino was the defining archetype of the Latin Lover and icon of silent film’s budding cosmopolitan promise, and is still the subject of legend and feverish speculation, particularly in regards to off-screen escapades and omnivorous sexual tastes. Young Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguella acted out the essential myth of early Hollywood. He arrived in America as an eighteen-year-old immigrant, struggling in his early days in New York and skirting the outer edges of a scandalous tragedy before taking to the road as a travelling actor. Valentino took the advice of movie actor Norman Kerry to go to Hollywood and try his luck there, but found himself initially typecast as a villain for his dark, exotic looks. Then he was cast in the lead of Rex Ingram’s adaptation of Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’s bestseller, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, produced by Metro Pictures and released in 1921. Valentino was catapulted to stardom, and in spite of the film’s seriousness as a World War I drama, what everyone remembered afterwards was Valentino’s tango scene.
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Valentino still found himself patronised by Metro and after two throwaway vehicles grabbed the chance to head over to Famous Players-Lasky, where George Melford’s The Sheik, an adaptation of a novel by Edith Maude Hull, who like Valentino was a displaced cosmopolitan who found her life reshaped by travelling. Her wanderings began as a child alongside her parents, including a trip to Algiers, where most of her fiction would be set. The novel had been a colossal bestseller, a perfect vehicle for the star deemed fit to fill the role. Billed second to Agnes Ayres, Valentino was cast as Arab sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan. Except that, well, he’s not really Arab. Ahmed is ultimately revealed to be half-Spanish, half-English, one who was found orphaned and raised by a real Sheik in his traditional lifestyle. This was nominally a sop to Valentino’s Latin Lover image but was also designed to ward off the anti-miscegenation crowd who might have been infuriated by the central theme of romance between a white woman and a dark-skinned man. The sight of Valentino draped in a headscarf is up there with Charlie Chaplin’s bowler and moustache and Mary Pickford’s curls as one of the instantly recognisable points of iconography from the silent era regardless, from a day when cinema meant opening horizons and the images projected upon the screen blazed with an intensity of deliverance from the mundane that’s difficult to imagine in our screen-saturated day where our fantasy lives are serviced so often if not always so well.
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Close to a century has elapsed since The Sheik was released, and aspects of it remind me just what a long century it’s been. But it also feels peculiarly familiar in its similarities to more recent phenomena in its queasy, artful exploitation of a perverse romantic dynamic of threat and attraction, a reduction of the world to a pre-modern zone of hot-blooded men who know what they want from a woman. The Sheik opens with a scene in which Sheik Ahmed oversees the purchase of a selection of new brides for his tribe from another, where he sticks up for the right of one man (George Waggner, who would go on to direct The Wolf Man, 1941) to claim a woman he’s in love with over other, higher bidders, an early sign Ahmed is a covert romantic in a world defined otherwise by a crude and transactional sense of male-female relations. Meanwhile, Lady Diana Mayo (Ayres), a character who seems to have been based on Gertrude Bell, has arrived in the Saharan oasis town of Biskra, intending an exploratory venture into the desert and has hired one of Ahmed’s friends Mustapha Ali (Charles Brinley) as a guide. She’s accompanied by her flimsy brother Aubrey (Frank Butler), who tries in vain to talk her out of her expedition.
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Diana is an interloping emblem of modernity with her proto-feminist independence and wilful adoption of a masculine mode of dress for her planned venture. But she also finds herself enticed by the stir Ahmed makes when he breezes into town with his followers and their new selection of brides. Ahmed takes over the town’s casino for the night and bans all foreigners from the building so he and his men can stage a raucous celebration and watch the new wives dance. Diana, seeing a challenge, borrows the costume from a dancer in her hotel and uses it to enter and watch as the Arab men gamble to marry the various women. Diana is discovered when she’s grabbed to be the next lot on offer, and when Ahmed strips off her burka finds she’s carrying a pistol and uses it ward off any harassers before escaping. Ahmed’s interest is stirred and he enters her hotel the next morning to catch a glimpse of her in her room, and she hears him singing a love song outside her window without knowing who’s singing it. Soon Ahmed decides he must possess Diana, so he sabotages her gun and snatches her away, taking her to his desert camp.
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Hull’s book was a racy tale laced with a heady, violent erotic streak, and pushed the implied the rape fantasy much further than the film (quote: “Chattel, a slave to do his bidding, to bear his pleasure and his displeasure, shaken to the very foundation of her being with the upheaval of her convictions and the ruthless violence done to her cold, sexless temperament.”) Director George Melford congratulated himself on restricting to this element to only the faintest implication, as Diana finds herself at the mercy of the imperious Ahmed, who laughs at her mode of dress and declares that she makes a very pretty boy, but he doesn’t want a boy, so he forces her to dress in Arab female clothes. Unlike in the book Ahmed stops short of seeming to actually rape her, declaring “I could make you love me!”, but holds her captive in the expectation she will eventually succumb to the pure force of his throbbing passion. The ritualised stripping back of Diana’s arch western, liberated pretences before the might of an idealised figure of masculine entitlement is nonetheless reproduced exactingly, but that same force is then in turn tamed by the vicissitudes of romantic respect as Ahmed finds himself paralysed by his desire to be loved rather than to merely possess.
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Of course, The Sheik is very dated even as some of the things it exploits have proven insidiously difficult to extract from the modern mindset, exploiting a sexual fantasy of domination not really that far from the kind evinced in recent phenomena like the Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey books and films, mixed up a dubious conception of Arabic men as lascivious brutes, even when they’re actually Anglo-Spanish. One could read it all as self-aware role-play, an idea the film’s 1926 sequel takes up a little more brazenly. What’s undeniable is that The Sheik struck audiences of the day right where they lived. Or, at least, female audiences. Many male viewers reportedly found Valentino irksome in his liquid good-looks and willingness to enact erogenous fantasies for women, and his screen image was a violent switchback from the sort of hale and hearty American leading men prominent at the time. Charges of insidious effeminacy pursued the actor as well, accusations that eventually drove Valentino to stage and win his famous bout against the New York Evening Journal’s boxing writer, Frank O’Neill.
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Part of the problem might well be evinced in the way Valentino readily plays a character here who is supremely powerful in his little world but who, once he finds the woman who will obsess him, then places her at the very centre of all thoughts and ambitions. He is forgiven for his transgressions towards Diana because he at least wants her in absoluteness – there’s no playboy affectation or dilettantish indifference in his persona. Either way, Ayres and Valentino commit to their roles with gusto, and in many ways Ayres gives the more interesting performance in her registers swaying passing haughty self-possession to tremulous fear before her captor-lover and, at last, ardent amour. Valentino’s charisma is still amazingly potent when he’s charged with hawkish attention and brooding lust: his look of supreme erotic intent seems to x-ray whoever the object of that gaze through to the bone marrow. This quality is dramatized when Ahmed first sees Diana, his returned attention shunts her through a rapid succession of involuntary responses, anxiety, embarrassment, desire, revelation.
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Valentino does tread close to the boundaries of the overripe when his Ahmed flashes his eyes and gives an eagerly lustful smile. But what’s most obvious is his excellence as an actor attuned to silent cinema as a vehicle, conveying his character’s states of mind and attitude entirely through gestural and expressive affect, but also most entirely avoiding the hokier screen acting templates of the day: his on-screen stances and motions have a feline concision and fluency. One reason many of Valentino’s vehicles aren’t given much shrift today beyond retaining the man’s image itself is because he worked with no regarded directors, except for Ingram, who wasn’t particularly excited by the young star. But Melford’s direction of The Sheik is better than it’s often given credit for. It’s easily Melford’s best-known effort although he directed movies for over twenty years. Another of his odder claims to repute was handling the Spanish-language version of Dracula (1931) produced simultaneously to the Tod Browning film and which is, in its way, another variation on this kind of demon-seducer tale. Melford also made several imitations of his most popular work like Burning Sands (1922) and Love in the Desert (1928).
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Despite his relative anonymity, Melford’s direction is a great part of the strength of The Sheik, in his lucid sense of atmosphere and drama, establishing a visual motif through his use of the period movie camera’s depth of field in multiple planes of action often subdivided by physical elements, finding of ways of bringing theatrical integrity to the expanse of the desert with his columns of horsemen zig-zagging across the landscape. Archways and doorframes in Biskra, the flaps and panels within Ahmed’s tent, the dunes of the desert, render the film a succession of penetrated layers and chambers, apt for a journey that’s about getting to the heart of a certain way of seeing relations between the genders. The scenes of Diana’s first arrival at Ahmed’s tent and prostration before him are particularly strong, as the winds pummelling the desert set the whole structure about Diana shuddering and swaying, mimicking her psyche’s extreme tumult, and culminating in the affecting sight of her and one of Ahmed’s female servants, Zilah (Ruth Miller), embracing in sympathy.
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For some reason Diana’s brother never gets around to looking for her, and for a complicating flourish Ahmed instead is happy to receive his old friend, the writer Raoul St Hubert (Adolphe Menjou), who’s been his friend since Ahmed was schooled in Paris. Ahmed fears that Raoul might prove a romantic rival, but he really stands in for the side of Ahmed that has been ‘civilised’ by his western roots and education, whilst bandit chief Omair (Walter Long) represents the primitive and bestial facet that only wants to snatch Diana and make her a sex slave. Omair first glimpses Diana when she makes an attempt to ride out of the desert after fooling Ahmed’s French manservant Gaston (Lucien Littlefield): she falls from her horse and Omair’s caravan, returning to the city he controls, happens upon Diana, but Ahmed tracks her down before the bandit can pluck her from the sands. Raoul shames Ahmed for making Diana sustaining the façade of dressing in western clothes again and fronting up to another westerner who will comprehend her subjugation. Omair soon leads a raid, snatching up Diana and carrying her away after she and some of Ahmed’s men valiantly try to fight them off, leaving Gaston and others dead. Ahmed quickly gathers together the rest of his tribesmen and sets off in pursuit.
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The film’s most wistful image, reproduced on one of the posters, is that of Diana’s missive scratched idly in the sand declaring her love for Ahmed, a message that remains in place to spur Ahmed’s resurgence to chase down and take back his woman. Glimpses of Omair’s city deliver the film up to a sense of total immersion in a fantasy concept of a foreign world as a zone totally dedicated to erotic display and intent, with its teeming streets, ecstatically writhing dancing girls, leering male choruses and, at last, the sight of Diana lying unconscious and prostrate on a couch under the watchful eye of a hulking black manservant. In another, significant touch of character mirroring in the play of possession and desire, Omair has a wife who has attempted to talk him out of his kidnapping and when confronted by the sight of her man about to ravage the young white woman tries to knife him in a jealous rage. Omair easily fends her off, but the delay gives Ahmed time to arrive at the gates. He sneaks over the walls, penetrates Omair’s home, whilst his men batter down the gate and defeat the bandits. Ahmed enters Omair’s home and strangles him to death, but is in turn struck down by the manservant. Diana sits by Ahmed’s bed and waits to see if he will recover. Long story short: he does.
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H.L. Mencken’s fascinating meditation on Valentino’s life and death published after his funeral converted the late star into a different kind of archetype, that of the instinctively poetic and philosophical young man who gains all he wants in worldly terms but found it essentially worthless even before he’s cruelly cut down. This narrative connects Valentino less with many other live-fast-die-young movie stars than it does a later brand of idol more associated with rock music, like Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain. Five years after The Sheik, Valentino returned to Hull’s property to film a sequel she had written. Just how long a five years it had been seems perfectly encapsulated in the way the film casts him as both an older Ahmed Ben Hassan, now grizzled and long married to Diana, and his grown son, also named Ahmed: Valentino seems have lived just as many lifetimes in that short time. By this time Valentino was in need of a hit, after a couple of less successful films, and quarrelling with another studio. Although he was tired of the image The Sheik had stuck him with, he resumed the part with gusto, carrying over his costar from The Eagle (1925), Vilma Bánky, to play his new love interest. Valentino liked Bánky, who had been brought to Hollywood and billed as “the Hungarian Rhapsody.” The Son of the Sheik finds a reasonably clever way of redeploying the original film’s essential tension as young Ahmed takes a woman captive, whilst offering a different spin on it.
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Here young Ahmed is in love with Yasmin (Bánky), the daughter of a French emcee, Andre (George Fawcett). Andre has fallen so low he leads a band of performers who double as thieves, with the Moor Ghabah (Montagu Love) a glowering and terrible figure barely kept in hand by his nominal boss, who holds his leash with vague suggestions he’ll marry Yasmin one day. It’s Yasmin who really keeps the band with her alluring dancing, a talent that’s also drawn in Ahmed. Yasmin arranges to meet Ahmed in some ruins close to where the troupe camps, but her companions catch wind of this. Ghabah leads them out to take Ahmed captive, tie him up, and plan to ransom him back to his family. Ghabah, recognising Yasmin’s connection to Ahmed, also tells the young man she deliberately drew him into their clutches. Ahmed is rescued the next morning by faithful family retainer Ramadan (Karl Dane), and taken to a friend’s house in the town of Touggourt. Ahmed sees Andre’s troupe enter town advertising their upcoming engagement at a town nightspot, the Café Maure, and when Yasmin sees her lover waves to him, only for Ahmed to sternly ignore her. Ahmed can’t shake loose his apparent betrayal, and he soon reproduces his father’s crime in snatching Yasmin away and taking her into the desert, vowing to her that “I may not be the first victim – but, by Allah, I shall be the one you’ll remember!”
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This central situation, as young Ahmed holds Yasmin captive, offers a great revenge that seems to consist merely of Ahmed standing about in lordly postures and chewing her out some, again with some not-quite-rape heavy romancing as the two bark mutual protestations of loathing at each-other but also can barely keep their hands to themselves. The Son of the Sheik was directed by George Fitzmaurice, whose handling betrays the quickly evolving sophistication of Hollywood cinema. Fitzmaurice was probably picked as director because he had helmed Bánky’s Hollywood debut The Dark Angel (1925). The film lacks the pictorial beauty of Melford’s but makes up for it in lunging storytelling verve and Fitzmaurice’s attentiveness to the essence of the vehicle’s intent turns the act of being loved by Valentino. This crystallises in a scene when Ahmed kisses Yasmin in the very eye of their apparent mutual hate, Valentino stalking towards the camera as it takes Bánky’s point of view and then reversing the shot, gliding in towards Bánky’s face and then cutting to a huge close-up of her teary yet erotically mesmerised eyes. Character experience and audience wont are churned together in a moment of cinematic shamanism, the kind of near-surreal pictorial intensity filmmaking and worship of the star visage from this era could wield effortlessly and which would obsess experimental filmmakers of later years.
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One of the main tweaks The Son of the Sheik makes on its predecessor was to beef up the swashbuckling, and in this the film also represents rapidly solidifying formulas for this sort of thing, the transformation of the cinema art from act of atavism into industrial product. This is clearest in the quick alternations of high drama and comic relief, most of it coming from Ahmed’s sarcastic pal Ramadan, and the physical tussles of the mountebanks Ali and Pincher (Bull Montana and Bynunsky Hyman) in Andre’s crew. The film has a tongue-in-cheek aspect that never overwhelms the drama but keeps it all in perspective as pure daydreaming. Certainly it’s all a template for the maturing ideal of the action movie of a brand where Errol Flynn would soon readily step in to fill the hole left by the death of Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks. Valentino also seems to have been determined to butch up his image a bit: his costuming leaves his arms bare, the better to show off his rippling muscles as he grips and compels Yasmin, before launching into an extended action finale that sees Ahmed performing some quintessential stunts like swinging on a chandelier and making a bold jump onto a horse’s back. There’s even a torture sequence of the kind Flynn would also be often subjected to with heavy whiffs of S&M and homoerotic appeal, when Ahmed is held captive by the criminal band, leaving Valentino’s body scored with dark welts.
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The most substantial subtext lies in the casting of Valentino not simply as the young doppelganger of his father but also playing the old Sheik Ahmed as well, made up with grizzled beard. There’s a kind of audience appeal joke in this – more Valentino for your dollar, folks! But it’s also a commentary on Valentino’s awareness of his improving skill as an actor and a more than vaguely meta gag on his inability to shake the Sheik image. The son is cast in the father’s mould and finds himself entrapped by his father’s psychology even as he attempts to resist his will, a tough voice for the Jazz age scion of the stern old-world father, illustrated when Ahmed straightens out the poker his father bends to demonstrate his strength. The Sheik intends for his son to marry Diana’s cousin Clara, who’s about to visit, but young Ahmed remains aloof. Diana, still played by Ayres, prods the Sheik with awareness of his own wilful, unstoppable determination, cueing a flashback to his kidnapping of her, putting a wryly guilty smile on the old rogue’s face. Valentino plays the two rolls distinctly, occasionally letting the old man show the same florid grins and rolling-eyed glares, whilst young Ahmed is a study in the actor’s more refined sense of effect. Fitzmaurice pulls off some clever, simple special effects in scenes where Valentino plays against himself, including shots where the old Sheik puts his arm around his son, and the two men hold hands whilst duelling side by side in the finale.
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The narrative, such as it is, eventually sees Ahmed decide to send Yasmin back to Touggourt, but her father, Ghabah, and cohort surprise her and Ramadan in the desert. Ghabah makes the mistake of gloating to Yasmin at poisoning Ahmed’s mind against her whilst Ramadan can hear, but Ahmed’s already trying to find her again. The troupe return to the Café Maure, where Ghabah makes it clear he intends to possess Yasmin one way or another. But Ahmed sneaks in disguised: Fitzmaurice reverses the early shot of Yasmin’s swooning before Ahmed as the man now beholds Yasmin again in the delivering ecstasies of dance, eyes glowing from under his shadowing hood, before leaping into action to save her from Ghabah. His father, defying the windstorm thrashing the desert, tracks him and helps him battle off the Café denizens. The eruption of action here is terrific, showing off Valentino’s physicality to the max as the two Ahmeds swing their scimitars and wield off opponents with table, barrels, and improvised firebombs, dodging thrown knives and hurling them back. Father and son fend off the ruffians but Ahmed still has to chase after Ghabah and Yasmin on horseback, duelling his enemy as the pound across the sands. Ahmed loses his sword so he springs upon Ghabah and throttles him on the ground before embracing Yasmin just in time for the fade-out.
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The Son of the Sheik would surely have been the big hit Valentino was chasing even if he hadn’t died when gearing up to publicise it, as it’s a great entertainment by any measure in spite of the lackadaisical plot. Although she never rivalled his stature Bánky’s name is sometimes used like Valentino’s to invoke raciness from a long-ago time, and she was most definitely a luminous and dazzlingly sexy presence. It’s also fun to see Ayres playing the older Diana, now mistress of her desert palace. It’s rather painful to think about what bad luck all these beautiful and talented people suffered: Ayres would die aged 42, her fortune wiped out by the Black Friday crash and career ruined by weight gain, and Bánky foiled, as Valentino might well have been if he had lived, by her heavy accent once sound came. At least on screen they’re all eternally young, gallivanting across a moonlit survey with nothing to do but enact our fantasies.

The Sheik can be viewed here on YouTube…

…and The Son of the Sheik here.

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