You know, there are times when you realize only at the moment of someone’s passing just how much their work meant to you.
Such is the case as I sit here tonight, “Breaking Away” playing on Netflix Instant, thinking about the films of the truly great Peter Yates. I would argue that even when he directed scripts that were not the equal of his considerable talents, he brought class and restraint and a lyrical visual style to everything he shot. He was one of those directors who you can feel thinking from shot to shot, every cut part of the storytelling. There’s no fat on the work of Peter Yates. And at his best? In his very best films? There are few who stood toe to toe with him.
His high points are, in my opinion, “Bullitt,” “The Hot Rock,” “The Friends Of Eddie Coyle,” “The Dresser,” and “Breaking Away.” And those films, each and every one, is distinguished by his voice, his eye, his enormous heart. These days, action scenes are gigantic, noisy things, pitched at such a preposterous intensity because we’ve become numb from the barrage. When Yates shot a set piece, like the justly-acclaimed car chase in “Bullitt,” the reason it is so effective is because Yates puts you right there in the seat next to Steve McQueen. More than that, he makes you understand the appeal and the sensual pleasure of driving a car that goddamn fast in the middle of a city, hauling ass for dear life.
The same is true of the amazing scene in “Breaking Away” where Dennis Christopher tests himself, drifting behind a semi-truck on the highway, eventually pushing himself up to 60 miles per hour. I’m not a biker, and I can’t imagine I’d ever enjoy it, but in that moment, I can feel exactly what it is that Dave feels, the exhilaration, the power, and the joy of accomplishment. Yates could make you feel what his characters are feeling, and he never had to overdo it to make his points.
I’m just as fascinated by his failures as his home runs. “Year of The Comet” is one of those films that was in development for a million years, and the great William Goldman has told the story of the way that film came together elsewhere, and reading his account, you get a sense of just how hard smart and talented people have to work to make a bad film, and just how right everything can seem all the way through the process. Yates directed “Krull,” a post-“Star Wars” corporate piece of desperate fantasy that contains some gorgeous imagery amidst some jaw-dropping stupidity, and Columbia and Coca-Cola were involved in some weird cross-company deal on that film that hamstrung Yates. I remember the year of hype about “The Beast,’ the bad guy in that film that turned out to be a terrible suit shot with a strange distorted lens, and I got the feeling that some real ambition on the part of Yates was thwarted by a lack of control on the film.
He made actors look good. He was enormously skilled at building a comfortable space for performers, and even some of his second-tier films like “Eyewitness” or “Mother, Juggs, and Speed” are notable for the loose and easy rapport between the players. He directed several actors to Oscar nominations over the years, and was rewarded with nominations for both “Breaking Away” and “The Dresser” for Best Director.
I never met Peter Yates. I have no personal stories about him. But I have spent my life awash in the films he’s made, and they are films that I look forward to revisiting. If I could pick one for you to seek out, I’m going to guess that the least-seen of his great work is “The Friends Of Eddie Coyle,” which is a sad, broken-hearted little crime movie starring Robert Mitchum, Peter Boyles, Richard Jordan, Alex Rocco, and Joe Santos. It’s a movie about loyalty, about friendship, about betrayal, about survival. It feels dangerous and authentic. And it’s got one of the very best world-weary performances by the perpetually world-weary Mitchum.
That’s because another of the skills that Yates had was an appreciation of the iconic. He knew what Steve McQueen was worth. He knew what Jackie Bissett in a wet t-shirt meant. You give him a Robert Redford in his prime, and he shoots him right. You give him Peter O’Toole in the full-flush of his post-“Lawrence” prime, and you get a forgotten gem like “Murphy’s War” because he figures out that the smaller the space you put him in, the bigger O’Toole gets. And you give him all of that fantastic Italian classical music and opera, and he will make a gangly kid on a second-hand bike on some backwoods Indiana road a golden god for a perfect moment of frozen cinema bliss.
Peter Yates was 82. They do not make them like this anymore.