It's sad that with the obituaries following Peter Yates' death, his career as a film director already appears to becoming defined primarily by the car chase in Bullitt (though that is probably preferable to the mainstream's second-choice, Jacqueline Bisset's wet-T shirt in The Deep, which won't stop my using a photo of it below). It's not that Bullitt isn't an interesting film without the car chase; in many ways Yates and Steve McQueen showed the way for Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry. And it is a great car chase, which inspired William Friedkin's (with the same stunt driver) New York version in The French Connection, and was probably topped by the auto-decapitation in Philip D'Antoni's Seven-Ups. But Bullitt was by no means Yates' best crime movie, and the McQueen's Mustang is not probably not even Yates' best chase scene.
That latter would be Dennis Christopher, on his bicycle in Breaking Away, chasing the visiting Italian cycle team he idolises, and having that idealism shattered along with his bicycle's wheel. Or if not that one, Christopher's race with his friends in the Little 500 that is the climax of that excellent film about growing up, friendship and, incidentally, sports. To me, Yates was a director primarily interested in character, who got miscast by Bullitt into being thought of as an action man. His problem was that his 'serious' movies where he tried to examine 'adult' issues, never quite clicked, whereas he does an awful lot with Bullitt's character by letting Steve McQueen simply be, and letting Bisset (again) and others react to him. It makes sense if you think of Robbery, his first feature, which, for all its moving-train action, and the London car-chase that got him hired for Bullitt, is really about Stanley Baker's relationships with his gang members and pursuers. It's noticeable how much Baker is very much a silent-type like Bullitt, and Joanna Pettet a very effective Jacqueline Bisset. It's interesting, because for a while on You Tube, before they disappeared for the inevitable copyright and intellectual 'property' issues, I was watching early episodes of The Saint and Danger Man, the two TV shows where Yates first made his mark, and you can often see how the economies of scale in television result in some very subtle exercising in character. And in Patrick McGoohan's John Drake, you see the same sort of detached cool that McQueen would show as Bullitt.
When taken out of the genre context, Yates' 'serious' work seems just slightly off-the-mark, though some of the knock-off stuff, like The Deep, tries to be better than it is. I think of films as varied as John & Mary; Mother, Jugs, and Speed, Murphy's War, or Eleni, none of which really convinces, and some of which miss by a lot. The exception is The Dresser, but again I think it is the structure of Ronald Harwood's play which helps Yates get to the characters, and get to them he does, with Finney and Courtney delivering epic performances. Yet even at his peak, between Breaking Away, and The Dresser, Eyewitess (written, as was Breaking Away, by Steve Tesich) fell flat, despite a good premise and strong cast. Another promising crime film, House On Carroll Street was perhaps too derivative of its period, and ended flatly, but it was an interesting attempt by Walter Bernstein to put that period into some sort of context, and remains an overlooked but interesting film.
Yates real legacy should lie in two very different crime films based on classic books by pantheon writers. The Hot Rock was scripted by William Goldman from Donald Westlake's first novel featuring the Dortmunder gang, comic caper crime played for laughs but always with Westlake's real crime sensibility not far from the surface. Yates caught it almost perfectly, with a seemingly mis-cast Robert Redford eschewing glamour to portray the permanently-jinxed Dortmunder, George Segal and Ron Liebman perfect as gang-members Karp and Murch, and Zero Mostel an unforgettable foil. Compare it to the sequel, Bank Shot, with George C Scott, to see just how sure a hand Yates had.
His masterpiece, of course, was The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, adapted beautifully by Paul Monash from the understated, dialogue-driven prose of George V Higgins' first novel. There's a bit of noirish inevitability in Eddie Coyle's fate (again, foreshadowed somewhat by Baker in Robbery), from which Robert Mitchum draws out all the emotions, and like The Hot Rock, his supporting cast is wonderful: Peter Boyle as his 'friend', the bartender Dillon, a young Richard Jordan as the Fed, Foley, Steven Keats as the gun-dealer Jackie Brown, and Alex Rocco as the bank-robbing Jimmy Scalise, providing the sort of energy Liebman did in The Hot Rock. Eddie Coyle is one of those magnificent adaptations of a small but perfect novel; like Huston's version of The Maltese Falcon the dialogue simply jumps off the page onto the screen. But as with all his best work, Yates was fascinated by Higgins' concern with the relationships (signalled by the title), the levels of trust and lying, friendship and business, that delineate Coyle's world. The actors get it; they don't play for sympathy from the audience, they play their parts in a world of give-and-take, a world where you make your choices and take responsibility, and what you don't know is your own fault. It's one of the greatest of all crime movies, it's Yates' best, and it's that, not a Steve McQueen car chase, that constitutes his true legacy.