Steve McQueen, without the car chase

BBC Radio 4’s brave choice to rework the ultra-visual Bullitt showed that old-school noir can still be entertaining.

Patrick West
Columnist

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As the bickering over Wes Anderson’s movie version of Roald Dahl’s 1970 novel Fantastic Mr Fox has illustrated, adapting stories from one medium to another is always fraught with difficulties.

Many British fans of the book are rather cross that, in the film, all the good guys have American accents and all the baddies speak with English inflections. This custom of using an English accent as a signifier of villainy is so ingrained in Hollywood that I don’t suppose there’s anything we can do about it now. There’s no point grumbling anymore. It’s only a matter of time now before Hollywood remakes The Dam Busters or The Battle of Britain and gives the British pilots American accents and the Germans British ones.

There’s also no point getting rankled when one of your favourite stories is relocated from one medium to another and fails to live up to expectations. The different nature of books, radio, television and cinema demand that a narrative’s structure alters across these media. Changing times and cultural evolution also dictate that works are re-interpreted to suit different mores. A stage adaptation of Shakespeare play today will be very different to how it was performed a hundred years ago, and each new interpretation will tell you something about the era in which it was presented.

Peter Jackson’s take on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is one of the few book-to-film adaptations of recent years that has been widely adjudged as authentic. But who’s to say that future generations won’t identify this cinematic work’s popularity as principally representative of the apocalyptic, post-9/11, financially-tumultuous, eco-worried mood of the Noughties? (The success this decade of adaptations of Philip K Dick’s paranoia-laden stories will almost certainly be regarded in this way.) The Lord of the Rings films will very possibly be remade some day, and in a different political climate they are bound to look rather different.

If turning a book into a film has its familiar pitfalls, how about transforming an iconic film into a radio play? Director Pauline Harris has taken on this challenge by adapting the 1968 film Bullitt to radio. The result was aired on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday (1). And what a bold choice it was.

That is because Bullitt is an intensely visual film, remembered chiefly today for its car chase on the streets of San Francisco (2). The radio adaptation overcame this obvious impediment by simply not including it, and instead set the story in New York, where the original book upon which the film was based, Mute Witness by Robert L Pike (1963), was set. New York does not have San Francisco’s hilly roads, which were so amenable to dramatic car-chases, but the city is more readily understood as a setting for noir detective stories.

But this presented a further problem. By the time Mute Witness was published, the golden age of detective stories and films was coming to a close, and the genre was embarking on an era of introspection and self-reference – Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 film À bout de souffle (Breathless) is cited by many to herald this break. I can only assume that the decision to relocate the 1968 film to the West Coast was made not just by petrolhead location directors, but by those who realised that crime stories set in New York were becoming passé.

Certainly, by the time Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid was released in 1982, self-reference in noir films had been supplanted by outright parody. Even when there are efforts to revive the genre in an authentic manner, such as in The Good German (2006), nostalgic allusions to the films of the 1940s invariably follow. Yet now even Bullitt has become a source of lampooning, as in the ‘jazz flute’ scene in 2004’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (3).

‘New York, the city that never sleeps’ began the radio production, as Lieutenant Clancy (Jason Isaacs taking the role that Steve McQueen played in the film) embarks on an undertaking to find the underworld boss who murdered a Mafia witness under his protection. It had all the hallmarks of a classic gum-shoe detective story: Isaac’s languid, rasping ‘New Yoik’ monologue; tales of too little sleep and not enough coffee; deception, murder, betrayal, witness protection; and the race against time.

A cynic might have derided this as all clichéd nostalgia, while pointing out the holes in the radio play’s ropey storyline. In a time when we are asked not to remake classic stories, but to ‘re-imagine’ them (Shakespeare plays being a typical case: seldom are they set in Shakespearean times, but ‘re-imagined’ in Nazi Germany, nineteenth-century Japan, or 1930s Hollywood) such a remake might be damned as ‘comfortable’, in an era when many demand that fiction should be ‘challenging’.

But what can you do with a genre that has been lampooned so mercilessly? There are two choices. One, parody it further. Or two, stay faithful to the original. The first option is the route taken most recently by Quentin Tarantino in Inglourious Basterds, who in seeking to make a Second World War film, felt the only fresh way to do so was to undermine simultaneously the ‘tired’ genre itself. The result was a postmodern and deliberate facsimile of war film, less a movie about history, more a movie about movies. Tarantino took the same approach to gangster films in Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994) by subverting received archetypes about hoodlums, portraying them instead as petty and often ridiculous characters who debated the meaning of Madonna songs or the names of hamburgers.

Or you can take an earnest and heroic approach, which, in terms of the Second World War genre, is what Steven Spielberg did in Saving Private Ryan (1998) and in the 2001 TV series, Band of Brothers. These were maligned by many critics for adhering to a safe, nostalgic and ‘sentimental’ formula – and were box-office triumphs for those very reasons.

Likewise, while Radio 4’s Bullitt will probably be swiftly forgotten, it was nevertheless an easy, enjoyable jaunt, because it didn’t try to be too clever. This is not a philistine, anti-intellectual point of view. It’s just that there’s a time and a place for everything, and on a Saturday afternoon there’s nothing wrong with a bit of innocent, comforting sincerity.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV and radio reviewer. Read his blog here.

Read on:

spiked-issue TV and radio

(1) The Saturday Play: Bullitt, BBC iPlayer

(2) Bullitt, IMDB

(2) Ron Burgundy’s ‘yazz’ flute, YouTube

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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