Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Great Wine Moments In Movie History - Bullitt (1968)

You have to focus on Bullitt pretty hard to spot its wine moment, I'll grant you. You have to want to see it. In fact, to be perfectly honest, it helps if you freeze-frame it on your home video and pore obsessively over the sequence where Lieutenant Frank Bullitt goes and has dinner at the preposterously-named Coffee Cantata restuarant (an actual place) in San Francisco.

Only then do you stand a real chance of discerning the instant where a wine waiter walks behind Lt. Bullitt, going from right to left of the frame, bearing a tray of drinks which are presumably meant to be wine. One hesitates to say conclusively that it is wine because although there are five or six half-full glasses on the waiter's tray, plus a possibly-stoppered but apparently label-free bottle, what's in them looks like Ribena or cherryade, or possibly red diesel, depending. The stuff is far too brightly transparent, with a horrible ruby-pinkness (perhaps the Technicolor, there), somehow made worse by the camp implausibility of the waiter doing the carrying.

This walk-on sports a supertidy Martin Scorsese beard plus collar and tie, uneasily contrasting with a bead necklace/Mandala chain round his neck to denote some kind of hippy partiality, but either way he looks wrong. And if he looks wrong (one instinctively feels), then what he's carrying must be wrong, too.

Not that Lt. Bullitt cares. He just angles himself into his seat at the table, from where he subjects his girlfriend (played by the worryingly beautiful Jacqueline Bisset) to a succession of quizzical, potent, glances. Meanwhile, a jazz quartet (real group, Meridian West) fires up and starts noodling away at some deliriously po-faced Jazz Flute music. A minute passes, and it's over. Everything about it, like everything else in the wonderfully lean Bullitt, does its bit and then makes way for the next piece of the story.

So, why the wine? After all, it passes in the blink of an eye, and the next really prominent drink you see is a glass of milk, being consumed with every sign of enjoyment by the Lieutenant. And when I first saw the film, when it came out, in the cinema, I must have been all of eleven, and not in any position to have any feelings towards wine, or Jazz Flutes, or anything even marginally sophisticated. I was there for the shoot-outs and the peerless car chase.

But eleven is an age when you are on the threshold of that larger understanding of the world about you; when adult things start to acquire a chimerical significance; when, for reasons you can't begin to articulate, that otherwise tiresome scene in the Coffee Cantata has a resonance which becomes clearer over time - the studied easiness of grown-up people in a trendy restaurant; the presence of Jacqueline Bisset; the glimpse of that drink which up to now has seemed bafflingly unpalatable but which is clearly a key component in this slinky new world.

Until I went back and checked, I would have sworn that Bullitt actually consulted the wine list and was about to opt for a nice Californian Zinfandel. But then that's what happens when the fuddled desires of youth get entangled with the consolations of middle-age.



  1. I don't know that I'd call that a great wine moment in movie history, but I really enjoyed the post. I've never seen "Bullitt" but now I want to.

    I'd love to see more, better, great wine moments: keep it up!

  2. Paul Giamatti8 May 2011 at 18:24

    Yes, really interesting post. Love to see more movie wine moments.

  3. Banquo Calhoun17 May 2011 at 13:23

    Peter and Vincent display their expertise here: