Sunday 4 December 2016

The movie car-chase maestro

Published 15/01/2011 | 05:00

Peter Yates, the English director who died on Sunday aged 81, made his name with what many critics believe to be the greatest movie car chase ever -- Steve McQueen's epic drive in Bullitt.

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The hubcap spinning, tramcar dodging, high-speed pursuit through the streets of San Francisco was a triumph for Yates and his cinematographer, William Fraker, who made the daring decision to mount cameras on the cars rather than shoot from a distance.

"The whole idea was to allow the audience to experience the chase like they were in the cars," said Fraker. Despite spawning a host of imitations, it is regarded as the original and best.

It did not just depend on new techniques. Steve McQueen, whom Yates described as "a lot of macho", revelled in the death-defying driving scenes.

"I was in the back of the Mustang and Steve was going about 120mph," Yates recalled. "We came to the last downhill section and when we got to the top of the hill Steve was still going pretty fast. I tapped him on the shoulder and said: 'We can slow down now, we're almost out of film.' Steve said very calmly: 'We can't. There aren't any brakes.'"

The car duly flew past cast and crew members before McQueen managed to steer it on to an incline to bring it to a halt. "If it was anyone else, we might not have made it," said Yates. "Steve was a great driver."

Yates's path to films was idiosyncratic. The son of a soldier, he was born on July 24, 1929 in Aldershot, Hampshire, and educated at Charterhouse public school. He went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London and at 19 began in repertory.

His notices as an actor were so appalling, however, that he abandoned the stage for motor cars and from 1949 to 1953 became assistant works manager at HW Motors in Surrey, which had a racing team led by Stirling Moss.

In 1953 Yates entered the film industry as a dubbing assistant on foreign language films. He then edited documentaries before rising to become assistant director on several pictures, including the celebrated war epic The Guns Of Navarone (1961). He also directed television episodes of The Saint and Danger Man before taking charge of his first feature, Summer Holiday (1963), starring Cliff Richard.

His next film was an adaptation of the play One Way Pendulum (1965), which he had directed on stage at the Royal Court. It had little commercial success, and it was his third picture, Robbery (1967), an effective retelling of The Great Train Robbery, that set the template for the rest of his career. Its opening scene, a tautly thrilling car chase, won Yates the job on Bullitt.

Though a genial character, Yates was his own man and infuriated McQueen when he refused to collaborate on Le Mans, another car caper that was to be the sequel to Bullitt. Yates explained: "I was afraid that no self-respecting actor would want to work with me if I did two 'machine' films together. Although action films are great fun, films about relationships are really much more satisfying."

He was not always so successful in making such films, however. His best efforts included John And Mary (1969), a gentle sentimental comedy which drew fine performances from Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow; Breaking Away (1979); and The Dresser (1984).

Breaking Away, an affecting study of teenage dreams built around cycle racing in Indiana, attracted four Academy Award nominations and prompted one critic to write: "For the first time Yates communicates considerable humanity as well as his usual efficiency as a director."

The Dresser (1984) won five further nominations and again steered clear of car chases -- the pyrotechnics confined instead to the acting of Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay.

Yates, who spent much of his life in New York, accepted that he was likely to be remembered as a reliable performer behind the camera. Of his own work, he said: "I put it somewhere below meals for the aged, but a little way above manufacturing toothpaste."

The Friends of Eddie Coyle, an unvarnished adaptation of the George V Higgins novel, was probably his best film, with Robert Mitchum outstanding in the title role.

To the end, however, Yates admitted that "chases continue to fascinate me". His formula was simple: "In the beginning you establish anticipation. The middle should confuse people so you're not sure where everyone is going. The end is where the good guys come out best."

Peter Yates married Virginia Pope in 1960. She survives him with three children.

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