While Bullitt (1968) is better known for its extended automobile chase sequence through the streets of San Francisco, the film is also a carefully written detective story in the same mode as the 1970s TV series Columbo: it is less a mystery where the audience spends their time figuring out the puzzle than a story about how the police catch the criminals. What the narrative chronicles is the discovery of reasons – motives – for the opening montage that is simultaneously the title sequence. Every event in the film, most especially and literally in the car chase, is in pursuit of this information. This discovery is what unifies all detective stories: whether they are tracking the meandering investigation of a private investigator or following the police as they make their inquiries, they are concerned with piercing the veil of surface illusions – the lies, deceit and misinformation criminals use to hide their crimes. This fact defines the mystery genre itself and is an idea that is visualized by Pablo Ferro’s title sequence/opening montage for Bullitt (directed by Peter Yates). This beginning integrates the unveiling common to mystery stories into the design itself by fusing the opening montage with the type animation via compositing to present the on-screen credits (the title cards).
Ferro’s title sequence is set in syncopation to the jazz it accompanies: the pace and timing of the sequence match the music. As “Steve McQueen” fades up in white against a tracking shot of a deserted office at night, the name slides vertically up the screen, leaving behind a “type hole” (the shape of the name) that grows larger, revealing a different tracking shot in motion inside/behind it. This organization remains constant through most of these titles providing the transitions between shots in place of a simple cut. Each of the principal actors is handled in a similar way: their name comes on-screen, then when it exits, its “hole” provides the “cut” to the next shot: the optically printed kinetic typography in white leaves a “window” into a second image. In place of editing, this optically printed composite suggests movement into or beneath these images: while the white typography slides off-screen, the holes behind it grow larger, expanding, and in the process, revealing a new shot. These opening images will repeat – in full color and again in a red-tinted black and white – emphasizing the dualities and duplicities associated with crime. Unlike many detective stories where the audience can engage with the facts and attempt to deduce who is guilty, in Bullitt, this title sequence/opening is both a crime scene and a series of clues. The question invoked by this title sequence is not who did it, but why? And answering this question is the real focus of the film’s plot and mystery. These titles are thus not simply an independent reflection of/on the film, but an integral part of the story: the final shot of this sequence reveals that the man in the office was under (literal) attack by his brother – who also happens to be his business partner; the office under assault is their shared office. Why this sequence of events happened is the question explicitly raised by this concluding shot of the title sequence; it is essential to the dramatic narrative, posing the central mystery itself whose answer drives the events of the plot.
Yet while the mise-en-scene of these opening shots is essential to the detective story that follows, its particular transformation through the optically printed title sequence is not. Even though it is possible that the repetition of shots in full color and as tinted black and white was used to increase the duration of these shots so there would be enough footage for all the contractually required titles (a more traditional montage sequence would have an entirely different timing and character without Ferro’s optical transitions), this title design is clearly an integral part of how the narrative develops the mystery posed by this particular opening, whether or not this precise composition of titles and transitions was the “originally” planned opening sequence for the film as a whole.
Ferro’s use of optically printed “windows” that act as the typography is not unique to Bullitt. Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blow Up (1966), released two years earlier, offers an alternative execution of this same design approach: as with Bullitt, Blow Up employs optically printed titles that composite two different shots together to produce a “window” into a second shot behind (beneath?) the first. However, unlike Bullitt, this typography remains in place, showing a series of different shots that cut normally within the lettering superimposed over the green lawn of a park. While this shot of a lawn is a continuous long take, the typography appears and disappears, the image in each title card contains a different shot of women (?) in Mod clothing, dancing. The edits are “held” within (as) the contents of the text as the shots change with each new title card, providing a strong contrast to the nearly static image of green grass. This use of a long take as the “background” for a title sequence is typical for feature films starting in the 1920s, as is the use of optical printing to insert the typography. The titles to Blow Up imply a second reality beneath the visible one of the park, yet this title/sequence does not develop this implication beyond simply posing it. In contrast to the titles for Blow Up, Bullitt does develop this implication, moving into narrative exposition – the sequence shows a crime happening – allowing the doubling of shots to become part of the “performance” given by the actors.
The replacement of standard cutting (montage) by this optical compositing of shots produces a revelational affect: the sense in watching the sequence, and the implication presented by this construction, is that of a search within the space of this vacant, rather mundane, office. Each transition suggests movement forward (“going deeper”). The implied shift is clearly spatial – the emergence of a “new” space behind/within the shot. It reveals something about what appears on-screen. What is “discovered” in this process as the titles appear one by one is anticipatory: the office initially appears in the convex reflection of a lamp, countered by a rogue’s gallery of rough-looking men standing in the dark, their faces lit from below, seen en masse via a tracking shot. The content of this opening montage follows these men as they assault this office, breaking the plate glass windows and rushing in, guns blazing – an attack on a single individual who escapes by using a smoke grenade. Violence, smoke and mirrors, misdirection – what is happening? – these are the elements that are expected of a mystery story. Answering the questions posed by this roughly three-and-a-half-minute opening title/sequence organizes the plot for the rest of the film. However, the organization of these shots amplifies the sequence’s significance and comments on it.
The title cards (names) and their moving typography provide a counterpoint to the contents of the shots: the sequence initially proceeds in a stable, recognizable fashion, even if it is disorienting spatially (where does this sequence take place – in Chicago – but not any particular place in that city). The first image is an aerial tracking shot of Chicago at night, accompanied by the Warner Bros. logo; this initial shot ends with darkness that is replaced by a cut to a close-up of a mirrored ball lamp showing an anamorphic reflection, distorted and elongated, of a typical mid-century modern office: gray metal desks, letter boxes, typewriters and chairs. As the shot zooms out, Steve McQueen’s name fades up in the center of the frame, then moves vertically out of shot, allowing the expanding type to reveal the rogue’s gallery in red-tinted black and white. The initial non-specific disorientation continues as details of this space resolve into an inside/outside opposition – society vs. rogues. The main title card stating “in Bullitt” | “a Solar Production” fades up and the optical transition repeats, showing a tracking shot past the office windows, looking in; initially in full color, the shift produced by the title card “Robert Vaughn” changes this view for an identical shot, but repeating the pan and in the same tinted black and white as before. When the mask saying “Jacqueline Bissett” fills the screen, revealing a full-color version of the rogues, the optically printed sequence ends, and it cuts to a long take panning around the office in deep focus, collapsing the space on-screen into a confusing shallow space: adding machines and desktop clutter overlap, details near and far merge kaleidoscopically. It is a pan that suggests a search, looking for someone or something, but not finding it.
The doubled shots that shift between full-color and tinted black and white is significant for the meaning of this sequence. While the narrative dimension of this montage is simple – a group of men break into an office at night – the doubling of shots alters the significance of this action: it becomes a revelation of a much darker, sinister side to what is otherwise an unexceptional office space. The alternation of full-colored/tinted shots presents this specific meaning: that the world of crime is a darker, “bloodier” (red) version of the familiar world. That it is not only outside our familiar spaces (the rogue’s gallery) but lies just below the surface of our familiar interiors – this meaning appears through the shift introduced by the repetition of the tracking shot: in color for Robert Vaughn and switching to a tinted repeat of that same shot midway across the space for Jacqueline Bissett. We see only a glimpse of the rogues in full color before cutting back to the full color searching pan of the office.
The first view of this office space (below) anticipates this duplicity: it initially appears as a highly distorted reflection in the curved mirrored surface of a globular desk lamp, giving a panoramic view of the entire office space – but this wide-angle view also suggests the distorted spaces of security mirrors. The shot following it is the initial, tinted view of the rogue’s gallery – a view that repeats in color as the scene that momentarily lies beneath Jacqueline Bissett’s name. What are these men looking at? They stand, arrayed in a black space, frontally lit, clearly peering at something: point of view is unstable in these titles, shifting between inside looking out and outside looking in, but of particular importance is the collision between the full color and tinted shots that circle back between color and tinted, inside and outside, criminals and office space. That these men are on the other side of the glass, about to begin an assault on a lone man inside the office, becomes obvious as the sequence develops, but even this relationship is ambiguous. While the searching gaze and tracking shot through the windows can be linked to the criminals’ gazing in, what about the other images in the sequence? The views afforded of the smoke grenade, the lone man’s flight from the office and his escape through the parking garage cannot easily be linked to any particular gaze. But even those shots that do imply a connection to particular characters – the tracking shot, for example – become problematic because they are doubled: what does the shifting of color/tinting mean for this supposed point of view? These questions undermine the simple assignment of shot-to-character’s sight, directly contributing to the ambiguities of the structure that make these first opening shots disorienting.
This ungrounding of what would otherwise be a very stable and coherent variation on the standard shot/reverse shot montage is significant for what this montage suggests about crime: its universality – that it is not something lurking in the dark just outside our windows but something just beneath the surface, always present, already in progress – we just aren’t aware it’s there, is happening, until it bursts into view. This understanding of crime and criminality is one that blurs the boundary between the more traditional Hollywood film depiction of “white hat vs. black hat” where “good” and “evil” are normally separate, discrete entities that never come into contact. The moral ambiguity of crime just under the surface manifests through the doubling of these shots – the movement between color and tinted versions of the same images – and their repetition, the looping organization of these first composited transitions: the first cut once these titles have begun follows Jacqueline Bissett’s name, moving from a full-color close-up of the rogues to a full-color close-up of a typewriter on a desk inside the office as the searching pan around the office resumes/continues.
The graphic doubling of these opening shot transitions produces confusion, forcing the viewer to search the images shown, in effect casting the audience in the role of detective/criminal as the opening plays out on-screen. The dominant character in this opening sequence is not human – it is the office itself, that space under observation. However, the gaze being represented through the pan around that office has a specific locus: the rogues outside the windows, looking in. The act of searching – shown by the pan and its analogous role (the detective) forced on the audience by this disorientation of this opening – is at the same time specifically connected to this group of unknown men looking in; it has a “criminal intent” that spectacularly emerges. That these men outside, looking in are criminals is not in doubt: their presentation through the initial tinted tracking shot, the low frontal lighting, their inky black background, and their particular faces all communicate the archetypal Hollywood image of the criminal henchman; that they are members of the mafia is not in doubt from the first time they appear on-screen. But this connection of criminal to detective – produced by the connection of the searching gaze to these men – reinforces the confusion of “good” and “evil” (the criminal and the law-abiding citizen) that emerges from the visual doubling of these opening shots. Their linkage (even equivalence) in this title sequence poses a moral ambiguity about them that extends into the events of the main narrative; in this regard the titles encapsulate the unsettling and paranoid dimensions of this detective story where the villains are as likely to be the police as not. However, unlike later films such as The French Connection (1971) or McQ (1973), the internal corruption of the police department1 is incidental to the real focus of the narrative, the ambiguity inherent in politics and the social decay that results from the pursuit of personal political ambitions. The crime that appears in this opening sequence is merely the catalytic pretext for the broader consideration of these issues within the main narrative plot. While none of these dimensions are directly apparent in this title/montage, they are suggested by the specific space of the events shown: an apparently ordinary office of the type that might be seen anywhere in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s.
It is this moral ambiguity that produces the troubling dimensions of both story and title sequence, an ambiguity that was of great concern in the late 1960s; Bullitt was released in 1968, the same year that poet W. H. Auden published his discussion of detective stories, also from 1968:
I suspect that the typical reader of detective stories is, like myself, a person who suffers from a sense of sin. From the point of view of ethics, desires and acts are good and bad, and I must choose the good and reject the bad, but the I which makes this choice is ethically neutral; it only becomes good or bad in its choice. To have a sense of sin means to feel guilty at there being an ethical choice to make, a guilt which however “good” I may become, remains unchanged.2
The ambiguity that troubles Auden is the uncertainty made literally apparent in the duplicity of this opening sequence, not just through the repeating shots, but through the coincidence of gazes – the criminals and the audience who both engage in the act of detection (who become detectives) – by positioning the audience in the same uncertain space as the criminals. The audience’s complicity with those criminals becomes a feature of how the space of this generic office appears. What might be assumed to be a neutral gaze – the unseen camera – becomes instead the partisan view of the criminal/audience/detective looking into this space, searching . . . but for what, exactly? The difference between the criminals’ search and the audiences lies exactly in this difference: the criminals’ search is targeted, precise, while the audience’s is not – where the audience is looking for meaning, the criminals seek only confirmation of what they already know. Their certainty is a demonstration of their having already resolved the ethical problem posed by Auden – they have chosen “bad” instead of “good.” For the audience watching this sequence develop, that the criminals’ choice has been made is guaranteed by their appearance and location – outside, looking in – as much as by their actions: they break the windows and enter the office, guns blazing, firing blindly into this well-lit space. The duality of criminals outside (in darkness) and interior office (brightly lit) is countered by the duality of shots that transform the bright interior into an equally darkened space – a space that before and during their assault is itself transformed into a confusing labyrinth of reflections and smoke. The moral ambiguity is not just a feature of the title’s doubling of shots, it is also part of their initial framing, reflecting this uncertainty at all levels of this title sequence’s construction.
It is precisely this uncertainty that gives these titles their initial sense of the uncanny: that this office space is not what it appears to be, that it is transformed into a crime scene about to happen. But while the sequence begins with this displacement and doubling, as it progresses, these uncertainties are resolved in clear ways: the criminals are outside, breaking in; the office is not as deserted and unaware of their actions as it initially seemed. That the criminals run for cover when the lights come on (their awkwardness and speed reminiscent of cockroaches running when the kitchen light goes on) reinforces their marginal position and the illicitness of their actions. The certainty of the man lying in wait inside, the deliberate presentation of his pulling the pin from a smoke grenade and subsequent escape from the criminals, makes his actions as the “defender” a signifier of preparedness against the coming onslaught of the rogue’s gallery looking in. Even as the opening shots suggest danger, and through their repetition implicate this office space in crime, the singularity of the second half of the titles – there are no more doubled shots – coupled with the actions taken to evade, defend and escape the criminals serve as a consolation: while crime does invade the safety of the mundane office, it is basically foreign and the “residents” of that office are not unaware of the pressing danger. The affect this sequence offers is thus one where the initial threats and moral ambiguity – capable of provoking panic – are swiftly countered as the narrative develops. The shift from moral ambiguity and uncertainty about crime guilt (resolved by events of the main narrative focused on the identification of the true criminals, their unmasking, and capture/punishment) finds itself repeated in miniature within the title/sequence itself.
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All images are screenshots from the film(s) being discussed.