`I've given American culture the car chase and the wet T-shirt'

Peter Yates, a director liable to be remembered for just two iconic moments
Peter Yates has been making films for nigh on 40 years. He has dabbled in every conceivable genre. His credits include teen movies (Cliff Richard and the Shadows up to mischief on a red bus in Summer Holiday); sci-fi epics (Krull); the occasional foray into boggy Irish pastoralism (The Run of the Country); and a handful of thrillers (Suspect, The Janitor, The Friends of Eddie Coyle). Yet, when it comes to posterity, his versatility will probably count for very little. He is liable to be remembered for two iconic moments alone.

The first, as recent TV ads for the Ford Puma have relentlessly reminded us, is the bravura car-chase sequence from Bullitt in which Steve McQueen roars up and down the hills of San Francisco in pursuit of hoods. The second - an image that captured the imagination of red-blooded adolescent males everywhere - is the equally startling sight of Jacqueline Bisset in The Deep, diving in a diaphanous T-shirt that clings to her body like a drowning man to the proverbial raft.

Does it ever worry Yates that his career is distilled down to such basics? He takes the question in good grace. "My son accused me of exactly that," he chuckles. "He told me recently that I'd contributed two things to American culture - the car chase and the wet T-shirt. Still," he muses, "it's better to contribute something than absolutely nothing."

Bullitt was clearly the defining moment in his career. From being a young British film-maker with close links to Woodfall and the Royal Court, somebody who cites Tony Richardson as his most important influence, Yates was turned in an instant into a fully fledged Hollywood director. "When I came out to do Bullitt, we were going to stay three months, but it's now been more than 30 years and I'm beginning to think it's time I came home. In LA, I've always felt like a tea-planter in a colonial outpost."

Just as it is somewhat baffling as to why he was plucked from the relative obscurity of the Royal Court to direct Summer Holiday in 1962 ("the producers wanted a young director who would get on with Cliff Richard"), it isn't entirely apparent what led Steve McQueen, the film's co-producer, to hire him for Bullitt. Yates suggests it was because the American star had seen and admired his British-made thriller Robbery (1967), which starred Stanley Baker and re-created the events of the Great Train Robbery. Whatever the case, he arrived in Hollywood "blissfully ignorant of the political background of the Hollywood system".

Much to the vexation of Warner Bros, Yates decided that Bullitt should be shot on location in San Francisco. "It's near enough to LA, but far enough away from the studios. You've got all those freeways pulsing with cars, looking like bloodveins. I wanted to show that. Also, cities that have hills are more interesting than flat ones." No one had ever filmed in Frisco before, and Yates decided to use a lightweight Arriflex to actually shoot in the streets.

The movie's improvisatory approach, he suggests, owed as much to the freewheeling style of films like Tony Richardson's Tom Jones as it did to the American thriller tradition. It was also exactly the method he used on Summer Holiday, which he somewhat improbably describes as a film shot in the New Wave style. "Cliff and the rest of the gang certainly enjoyed making it on location. It was like a pantomime. I tried to make it as pleasant and colourful as possible."

Whatever Cliff Richard's response to the enthusiastic young director, one can't quite imagine Steve McQueen taking kindly to being bossed around by a public school-educated tiro with high-falutin ideas. "But I was very lucky because I was British," Yates admits. "I had an English accent and that seemed to make McQueen think I had far greater knowledge than I really did. The accent impressed him."

McQueen, he believes, underestimated his own abilities. "He always said he wasn't an actor, he was a re-actor. By that he meant that he didn't want to be lumbered with speaking plot. He wasn't sure he could do it."

Yates is clearly proud of the much-imitated car chase - "a great sort of mystique has grown round it" - but admits that, after Bullitt, he was terrified that no self-respecting actor would go near him: "and I would always rather work with writers and actors than I would with machinery." He has no objections, though, to seeing his work cannibalised by flash London ad agencies. How would McQueen react to being shown behind the wheel of a Ford Puma? He ponders. "That, I think, would depend on how much they paid him."

While acknowledging McQueen's "extraordinary screen presence", Yates suggests that Robert Mitchum, with whom he worked on the 1973 thriller The Friends of Eddie Coyle, was probably the better actor. He watched the film again recently, just after Mitchum's death, and was impressed by how well the old hood-eyed star's performance stands up. "Everybody said he was falling apart when he made it, but that was because he had to put on weight to play the role of the ageing gangster. He was a much better actor than he is given credit for. He is somebody who just wanted to do it, not talk about it. Wasn't it just typical of poor Robert's life that, just after he died, James Stewart did too. They were about to start a series of Mitchum tributes and everything got switched on to Stewart instead."

Yates trained as an actor at Rada and worked in rep for several years. Thirty-odd years of Hollywood exile haven't entirely extirpated the old theatrical roots. He gushes on about what a great actor-manager Albert Finney, with whom he worked on both The Dresser and Run of the Country, would have made if he had only lived a generation earlier. His new film, provisionally entitled Trouble with Stevenson and currently in post-production, sounds like a cross between The Ghost Goes West and a creaky old Aldwych farce. It stars Michael Caine and Maggie Smith ("the first time they've played husband and wife since California Suite," he rhapsodises) as a pair of theatrical ghosts who haunt the house that has just been bought by James Spader.

Yes, he says, he notices that all the Brits in Hollywood seem to be going back home. He himself feels increasingly out of place in Los Angeles. "One came here because it was easier to raise money and to develop scripts. It was the centre. Now, unless you want to make alien films or teenage comedies..." he breaks off in a dark mutter. But, all being well, his next film, a Somerset Maugham adaptation that is being scripted by Ronald Harwood and produced by Mark Milne, will be made over here. "There's such a healthy atmosphere in Britain. It's a good time to be coming back"n

Bullitt (pounds l2.99) is released for the first time on widescreen video on 8 September as part of Warner Home Video's new `Maverick Directors' collection

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