Friday, February 27

The Directors: Peter Yates

Perhaps his directorial achievements have been neglected somewhat by American showbiz types because he's not American.  It's just a point I'm considering.  Perhaps it's because he isn't identified with one genre... like John Ford was with westerns or Hitchcock was for mysteries.  Hollywood has a tendency to think you're magnificent if you stick with what you know best.  I don't know why directors who tackle several genres (and do them well) are often disparaged as some sort of interlopers.  Others seem to eternally classify them as journeymen directors.  It's not right. 

Peter Yates was an accomplished director and he wondered in and out of genres because he was generally good with them all and he had a passion for many forms of storytelling.  I am not holding it against him that he never made a film noir, a western or a musical.  I could... but I won't.  He did make one of the most iconic cop movies and one of the most beguiling of all youth-oriented films.  He was probably best-known for staging action scenes and for turning a few American cities into characters in his films.  He worked mostly in American films from the late 60s through the 90s. 

Yates was born in England in 1929.  The son of a military man, he enjoyed a bit of a privileged life and apparently was supported by his parents in whatever pursuits he chose, even if it wasn't going to be following in his father's footsteps.  Yates developed a passion for fast cars in his teens and for a short while was a professional driver and team manager.  But soon his interests turned to acting and he joined the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.  He worked for years as an actor, director and stage manager. 

He cut his teeth in films as a dubbing assistant and in 1958 he worked on his first film as an assistant director, The Inn of the 6th Happiness.  That was followed up in the same positions on Sons and Lovers, A Taste of Honey and The Guns of Navarone.  In 1967 he held the director's reins for Robbery, a fictionalized version of The Great Train Robbery.  It was a moody piece starring the moody Stanley Baker and contained some impressive car chase scenes.  As it happened, American movie star Steve McQueen caught it and thought that Peter Yates would be perfect as the director of his next film.

That would, of course, be Bullitt (1968), the San Francisco-based opus of lone wolf cop and his Ford Mustang.  The French Connection and any number of other car-chase movies owe a big debt of gratitude to Bullitt... and Peter Yates.  The streets of San Francisco actually served as the backdrop for one of the greatest car chases the movies have ever seen.  It lasts a full 10 minutes and ends in a fiery crash.  Yates always said that McQueen did all of his own driving, which wasn't quite true.  He did some of it.

Yates showcased New York City in a couple of films.  The first was The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), containing one of Robert Mitchum's best performances as a small-time hood out to rat out a coworker in order to avoid prison time.  Unfortunately, the public stayed away.  A call girl ring getting mixed up with the mob was at the heart of the Barbra Streisand-Michael Sarrazin comedy, For Pete's Sake, but it tanked.

He reunited with one of his Bullitt actors, Jacqueline Bisset, for the underwater drama, The Deep (1977).  Encased in a wet T-shirt, on a boat with the heavily-testosteroned Robert Shaw and Nick Nolte, Bisset searches for buried treasure and incurs the wrath of some very, very bad guys.  If Yates took a percentage of this movie, he would have become a rich man.  It was a screaming big hit with audiences.

Breaking Away (1979) is the director's second most iconic film and I suggest the one he should be the most proud of.  It was an engaging coming-of-age hoot, time to champion the underdog in a bicycle race story of the town cutters v.s. the elite college kids.  Filmed in Indiana, it starred a cast of actors just starting out... Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Jackie Earle Haley, Daniel Stern, Hart Bochner and the gifted Barbara Barrie and Paul Dooley as Christopher's distressed parents.  Yates remains an important director in my mind for this film alone and he wisely received an Oscar nomination.  The film's writer, Steve Tesich, would win the Oscar.

The "cutters" of  Breaking Away

Yates and Tesich would work together again the following year in Eyewitness, a thriller that was a far cry from their prior comedy.  I liked the story of a murder in a high-rise and an eager female reporter on the trail, a janitor who may know more than he's saying and an aristocratic bad guy.  I'll tell you the film starred William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver and Christopher Plummer... you tell me who played which parts.

In 1983 Yates returned to his homeland to film The Dresser.  It is about an aging, tyrannical stage star and his effeminate Man Friday, the one who tries every night to get the star on the stage for King Lear.  It deserved more than the art house release it got but those in the know would certainly consider the performances of Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay to be exceptional.  They and their director were nominated for Oscars.

The Dresser was Yates' last really good film but he made four more that require some mention.  When I heard Cher was going to take the starring role as a tough public defender in Suspect (1987), I admit I thought wtf, but she was good and so was the film.  The following year came The House on Carroll Street, a little-seen thriller dealing with Communists and good bad guys and bad good guys and a charming performance from Kelly McGillis.

Finney and Matt Keeslar starred as a feuding father and son in 1995s The Run of the Country, a delightful romance comedy-drama.  Their tempestuous relationship in a small village on the border of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is further fueled when the son takes up with the wrong girl.

Yates' final theatrical film, 1998s It All Came True, costarred that dynamic duo, Maggie Smith and Michael Caine (who could forget them in California Suite as an actress hoping to win an Oscar and her gay husband?), as ghosts who occupy a house just purchased by James Spader who is afraid of marriage and causing concern for his long-time girlfriend, Polly Holliday.

I loved his work.  I'll bet you liked some of it, too.

Peter Yates died of heart problems in London at age 81 in 2011.

A 2-Parter

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