Comfortable and Furious

20th Century Duvall: Part 2-Action

Action: Bullitt (1968), The Killer Elite (1975) & Breakout (1975)

Despite being the best part of sixty years old and having no action in its first twenty minutes, Bullitt still feels fresh and unusual. It might be famed for its superb, eleven-minute car chase, but I take as much pleasure in its taut, understated feel.

The lack of shouty stuff is notable, especially during the tense interplay between craggy cop Steve McQueen and the supremely confident politician Robert Vaughan (“You work your side of the street and I’ll work mine” and “Integrity is something we sell the public.”) Duvall plays an astute cabbie, although in truth he’s barely in this one. You still get to see him share screen time with a never better McQueen, though.

Duvall underlined his class with another tremendous performance in 1974’s Godfather II, its success prompting him to reunite with Caan in Peckinpah’s atrocious, San Francisco-set Killer Elite. By now Bloody Sam was out of favor and stumbling through a blizzard of cocaine, but at least he managed to come up with a reasonable opening fifteen minutes in which the wisecracking, prank-playing CIA operatives Caan and Duvall party in a whorehouse before Duvall turns treacherous. “You just retired,” he tells his former buddy after putting a bullet in an elbow and knee. “Enjoy it.”

Elite then dies for about an hour as Duvall ducks out, leaving the flick to grow increasingly murky, introduce an Asian component and develop an understated but awkward sense of humor. The cane-wielding Caan starts training in the martial arts (even though he’s been told his damaged leg will remain a ‘wet noodle’) and manages to attract the attention of a Taiwanese hottie. When she tells him she’s a virgin, he replies: “Look, kid, I don’t want this to sound too harsh, but to tell you the truth, I really don’t give a shit, all right?”

And that’s a good example of the odd, unsatisfactory scenes that pepper this talky turkey as we wait for Caan and Duvall’s final showdown while Peckinpah (of all people) pushes us ever closer to chopsocky nonsense. Duvall is lost at sea, having to utter such execrable lines as: “You people may be black belts or whatever, but if they get in my way they’ll end up black and blue or DOA.” And just when you think this mess is finally over, it carries on for another twenty minutes. Sigh. At least you get to see the professional slob Burt Young (Rocky’s Paulie) take on a ninja.

Duvall continued his dud year of 1975 by teaming up with Bronson in the plodding, PG-rated Breakout. Dearie me, I sense this one was an attempt to give an unarmed Chuck a softer image, but it’s a bit of a groan-inducer involving a man in drag getting beaten up, corrupt Mexicans, a lady repeatedly making rape jokes and the reliably awful Jill Ireland. Anyhow, Duvall gets wrongly banged up for murder (by his powerful granddad in a development I couldn’t grasp) and bush pilot Bronson is hired to bust him out.

Breakout has too many illogical scenes, although at least Ireland keeps up interest levels by changing her hairdo halfway through. A bewigged Duvall has nothing to do except look miserable in one of his most forgettable outings. Somehow, though, this one made money.

For Duvall Part Three, Click Here






One response to “20th Century Duvall: Part 2-Action”

  1. John Welsh Avatar
    John Welsh

    You nailed Killer Elite, Dave. It was the subject of one of Pauline Kael’s stranger reviews.
    Duvall’s best performance was as Ranger Captain Gus McCrae in the miniseries
    Lonesome Dove, based on Larry McMurtry Pulitzer Prize winning novel.

    John Ford did not direct it, as he was dead at the time. Simon Wincer directed so as there is no fear of a Ford infection.

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