Peter Yates' 1968 crime classic is a personal attempt to define the limitations of HD. I was curious as to how a classic print would stand up in the Hi-Def format. It's been over 10 years since I'd seen "Bullitt" (on a crappy VHS copy no less) so my initial impressions of how this film compares on HD are probably highly overstated. Still, this is a beautiful looking print. The clearest examples of this version's sharpness come in the many exterior shots of San Francisco, which makes the superbly crafted and largely lauded car chase sequence especially exciting. The buildings in the background are given definition, the cars that dart in and out of the frame look sparkling, and the various gaudy colors of people's Sunday best really jump out at you. Once again, as in "The 40 Year Old Virgin", Hi-Def visualizes the film's color more than ever. Watching "Bullitt" in HD reminded me of the old, exaggerated colors of "Duel In the Sun", a film full of images that feels like they're burning off the edges. And I mean that in a good way. The disappointment of "Bullitt's" Hi-Defness comes in the interior scenes. I didn't notice any real definition when the film turns to set and studio. Also, some of the nigh time scenes in the beginning of the film fail to register on anything more than DVD quality. As in other HD features, the deep blacks and shadows of the film are heightened. In "Bullit", they feel grainy and worn. Perhaps this is the overwhelming deficit of bringing older films into the HD format.
A quick word about the film itself.... I'd forgotten how modern the story feels, right down the climactic airport chase that surely influenced Michael Mann's runway finale in "Heat". Also, this is a brilliantly conceived take on violence in the movies, sporting a complex realization of cops and their guns. When McQueen finally does pull his gun in the last five minutes of the film, it's quite startling. The film cues that extraordinary moment with a tense cut to the gun and a blast of music across the soundtrack. Expecting somewhat of a relief in the film's final minute as McQueen returns home, instead, director Yates closes in on McQueen washing his face in the sink, visibly regretting the bloodletting. A slow zoom into McQueen's gun as it rests in its holster on the table closes out the film. "Bullitt" makes clear that this is something very heavy for bad ass cop McQueen, and it inverts the confident attitude of its protagonist. Bullitt is dealing with something real now, and its quite a refreshingly poignant way to close out a film much praised for its car chases and brutish posing.
Army of Darkness
Sam Raimi's "Army of Darkness" is the next HD challenger. No disappointments here. Picture quality is impressive and, unlike "Bullitt", the night time scenes pop off the screen. Really, if you're a fan of the Evil Dead trilogy, then you gotta have this on HD-DVD. Nevermind that it's probably the third most quotable film of the 90's (tailing behind "The Big Lebowski" and "Swingers" of course), but in HD, the Harryhausen-style animation still impresses and you get to see Bruce Campbell flail about in vivid picture quality. The drawback to this DVD (and "Bullitt") though is the extreme lack of extra features. No commentary, no deleted scenes... just the bare-bones movie. If one can live with that, then buy away.