Peter Yates helmed three of the most iconic films of my life.
The first, Bullitt, simultaneously instilled Steve McQueen as the epitome of cool and provided what remains one of the best car chases ever filmed. Of course, the film boasted an incredible plot, a first-rate cast (Robert Vaughn, Simon Oakland, Don Gordon, Normal Fell) and even featured a young Robert Duvall as a cabbie. Yates used McQueen’s quiet and internal performance as a guide, and the silences in the film are as critical as the action; it continues to reveal nuances in later viewings. I can still watch the film beginning to end and thoroughly enjoy it even though I’ve seen it more than a dozen times.
The second, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, was a brilliant crime film set in Boston starring Robert Mitchum and Peter Boyle and featuring an excellent ensemble cast including Alex Rocco, Richard Jordan and Steven Keats. (Keats’ character was a gun runner named Jackie Brown; Quentin Tarantino would later pay tribute to this film by using that name.) Mitchum was excellent as the aging and desperate small timer trying to survive, it’s easily one of the best performances of his career. I still believe this underrated film is still one of the best crime thrillers ever made.
Years later, a small coming-of-age film set in Indiana would catch me off-guard. Breaking Away captured struggles that many have transitioning from adolescence to adulthood – the social caste system, the depth of infatuation and romance, the testing of friendships, the loss of innocence and acceptance of responsibility and consequence. Centered on four townies living in Bloomington whose lives are overwhelmed by the presence of Indiana University, the film uses the “Little 500” bike race as the catalyst to mirror the transition in everyone’s lives. Yates was blessed with a supporting a cast of pros (Barbara Barrie and Paul Dooley as Dennis Christopher’s parents) and soon-to-be-more-famous actors (Daniel Stern, Dennis Quaid, Jackie Earle Haley). An absolute feel-good movie.
Yates made other films I enjoyed – Suspect, Eyewitness, The Dresser among them – but these three are all time classics.
Yates, a four-time Oscar nominee, was 82.