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Bullitt (1968)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

BULLITT (1968)

Starring: Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn, Jacqueline Bisset, Don Gordon, Simon Oakland, Robert Duvall, Norman Fell

Written By: Alan Trustman, Harry Kleiner, Robert L. Pike (novel) Directed By: Peter Yates

The Short Version

Also known as “the movie with the car chase,” and yes, the chase is still one of if not the best.

Beyond that rockin’ chase, Bullitt is not a flick for loud noises, but it doesn't need them.

The director lets his images do the talking for him.

Steve McQueen is playing a guy named Bullitt; seriously, do you need any other reason to watch?

There’s just no excuse to not own Bullitt.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


Hot, delicious awesomeness with a layer of grit.

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Brewed in San Francisco since 1896.

“Frank, we must all compromise.”


And that, ladies and gentlemen, marks the first time that the word “bullshit” was used in a major studio release motion picture.  Really.  Call it another milestone to add to the extensive tab of Bullitt.

It would take the story of another San Francisco cop by the name of Dirty Harry Callahan to create the true template for the modern action film, but Bullitt is the stepping stone that made it possible.  Bringing grit of a different color than old school noir and a nasty edge to the standard police procedural – not to mention a hot V-8 Mustang – Bullitt pushes the envelope without quite tearing it open.  It’s very much a thinking person’s action flick, and as such, it has more than stood the test of time, and remains quite capable of wiping the floor with much of what has followed.

Welcome to Chicago, circa 1968.  A mob accountant named Ross has been caught cooking the books, and he needs a way out with his hide intact.  That way is offered by Senator Chalmers (Robert Vaughn, The Magnificent Seven), who promises protection in exchange for the man’s testimony at a series of hearings to be held in San Francisco.

After arriving in San Francisco and being put up in a little dump of a hotel selected by the Senator, the star witness is placed under the care of Lieutenant Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen, The Blob) of the SFPD for the weekend, in anticipation of his testimony the following Monday.

So, who thinks it’s going to be a quiet weekend in San Francisco?  Anyone?  Yeah, that’s what I thought…

It’s very difficult for the uninitiated audience to truly appreciate the full flavor of Bullitt with modern eyes.  This isn’t to say that most people can’t or won’t appreciate it – quite the contrary – but almost four and a half decades on, there’s some context that’s no longer readily apparent.  By modern standards, much of what happens here might be considered tame; despite his name, the title character doesn’t actually pull his gun and shoot to kill until the very end.  He’s so polite even when being needled and berated that one might actually miss his finally getting annoyed enough to say “bullshit,” even though this was an enormous deal at the time, because no one had used that word in a major studio film before.  People actually complained about the fact that for most of the movie, Bullitt doesn’t wear a tie, even though he’s on duty.  (In fact, he adheres perfectly to the SFPD dress code of the time; he wears a tie when you first meet him on a Friday, but does not on the weekend, when a simple sport coat was allowed to suffice.)  At a time when we’re used to seeing plainclothes cops in muscle shirts and jeans, this can seem silly.  And that’s even before one starts digging into the barely concealed racism and general atmosphere of social unrest that was the reality of 1968 America and that a lot of the Hollywood Establishment still didn’t like to acknowledge.  Believe it, folks: Bullitt is edgy from the get-go, and its success is the barrier breaker that paved the way for Dirty Harry to define the action genre for decades to come just a few years down the road. 

Its place in history aside, though, the most important thing then as now is the simple fact that Bullitt is a damn good movie. 

And at that point, you have to start with the car chase, because really, that’s the way it happened.  Once Steve McQueen and his production company were on board for Bullitt, The King of Cool went out of his way to recruit director Peter Yates for the project based almost entirely on the strength of a chase sequence he’d done for a film called The Robbery the year before.  Then Ford went out of the way to makes sure that McQueen would be driving a Mustang while the folks at Dodge had to settle for their Charger being the car that eventually gets its ass kicked.  Tack on an unmatchable track in the form of the often near-vertical streets of San Francisco and all the views they pass – edited together with Oscar-winning perfection – and the end the result was the same then as it is now: ten full minutes of pure adrenaline that has never been equaled.  Indeed, when composer Lalo Schifrin (you know him as the dude who wrote the “Mission: Impossible” theme) was given the chase footage to score, he went back to the director and said “forget it,” because the roar of the engines and the grit of tires on pavement was all the sequence needed in the first place.  Music would just get in the way of that kind of raw power, and four and a half decades of time gone by have proven Mr. Schifrin right.  There’s a reason that every single person who has ever filmed or evaluated a car chase since 1968 keeps referring back to Bullitt, and that’s because this chase is still the best, period.  Even if there were nothing else going for it, the ten minutes that make up this sequence would make all of Bullitt worthwhile.

But of course, there’s more than just the car chase, which shows that Steve McQueen – and the rest of us – got a lot more out of Mr. Yates than promised.  For more than anything else, it is the visionary direction of Peter Yates that gives Bullitt its post-noir grit and gives a gut punch of the seedier side of reality to a genre otherwise prone to a little more apology and gloss.  Indeed, under Yates, Bullitt becomes an expression of the full possibility of what a motion picture can be beyond simply a stage play wherein there’s more freedom of movement and better scenery.  As the film progresses, you’ll notice that Frank Bullitt doesn’t really say very much, and neither does anyone else, and that Mr. Schifirn ended up getting more than just that ten minutes of car chase off his plate.  Yates lets the pictures and the ambient sounds of the scenes he’s filming tell as much of the story as possible, and those pictures truly are worth a thousand words.  The extra moments that Yates spends showing the audience the hospital speak volumes more than three times as many minutes worth of dialogue of ever could, as do the various exchanges of looks that occur after the Senator – in the background – tries to get the young black doctor replaced with someone more “experienced.”  When Bullitt goes to a hipster coffee house, Yates take a lot of time to set the scene, even though it is, theoretically, a throwaway location, and that’s because he doesn’t buy into that theory.  Instead, he recognizes the city at large as a character in and of itself, which makes setting up the coffee house no less vital regardless of how many or few lines of dialogue are actually spoken there.  This is a movie with style, folks.  Dark, groovy style.

And hey, Steve McQueen doesn’t hurt, either. 

I won’t participate in the holy wars about whether or not Bullitt deserves to be considered one of his best performances – I think that’s a matter of taste – but it certainly is one of his most memorable, and not just because he’s really driving that Mustang for a significant portion of the chase sequence.  McQueen’s portrayal of Frank Bullitt may not quite fit the mold of his “King of Cool” persona (though it does flicker through sometimes), but there’s an intensity to it that just can’t be denied.  Even when he’s not talking, he owns the screen whenever he’s present (even in the background), and his eyes are always speaking volumes.  But at the same time, he’s also grounded in such a way that the audience never stops being able to relate to him.  That’s a pretty neat and very rare trick to pull off, my friends.

I will however, weigh on the holy war that is the most popular complaint that has been weighed against Bullitt over the years, and that is the inclusion of the character played by Jacqueline Bisset (Murder on the Orient Express).  That character is, of course, Frank Bullitt’s love interest – stable, though without any apparent jewelry involved – and is also given a scene as an unspoken conscience that some critics have said he shouldn’t have.  For my part, I reject the fuss.  Just because the character having a love interest feels inconvenient to a formula that would develop later, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.  Personally, I rather like the idea of allowing the hero to have a real life, and think it only serves to strengthen both the character and the film.  Leave the nice lady alone.  (And besides, what sane person wouldn’t want Jacqueline Bisset in their movie?)

And if you’re wondering about the story, it’s quite well done, and contrary to some opinions, isn’t so convoluted as to make one’s head hurt.  If anything, you’ll probably figure out the major twist a little bit before you’re supposed to, though your first guess will almost certainly be wrong.  With that said, even if you do guess what’s really going on, it won’t spoil your ability to enjoy the movie.  Bullitt is just too good on every level for that.

Bottom line, everyone may remember Bullitt for the car chase – and they should – but there’s so much more to it than that.  As the stepping stone between what came before and the movie that would change everything three years later, as a gritty depiction of America circa 1968, and just as a damn good cop flick all around, Bullitt is a movie that deserves to be seen again, and to be owned.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, February, 2012

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