Fewer actors have obtained the legacy of cool that Steve McQueen has attained, and perhaps out of all the films he’s has starred in, few are mentioned as often as Peter Yates’ 1968 police-thriller, Bullitt. In April 1968, Johnny Ross (Felice Orlandi), the brother of a Chicago mobster, escapes two attempts on his life and flees to San Francisco where he is placed in protective custody by politician Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn), an opportunist who hopes to use Ross to further his own aspirations.
To protect Ross from further attempts on his life, Chalmers asks the SFPD to assign Detective Lieutenant Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) and his partners to guard Ross in a nondescript flophouse until the high-profile trial that Ross is set to testify in next week. However, during the early hours, Johnny Ross and one of Bullitt’s partners is killed by a shotgun totting hit-man, making things very awkward for both Bullitt. With an angry Chalmers threatening to ruin Bullitt’s career over the matter, Bullitt must smoke out the hit-men and uncover the mystery all before Chalmers goes through his career-ending threat.
Besides the presence of Steve “Too Cool” McQueen, Bullitt is perhaps best remembered for its extended and tense car-chase near the film’s climax. Unlike modern action film chase scenes, which utilize a lot of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it-edits and CGI in order to create tension, Bullitt‘s chase scene prefers to use long cuts, giving one a more realistic car chase filled with tire-smoke, squealing rubber, short stops, and leaving nothing out of the chase. There is nothing slick and glossy about this film’s car chase, and for that reason, it feels less artificial and safer than the high-octane races of today’s films.
Another aspect that separates Yates’ film from more modern-day cop-dramas is that the performance of its lead actor features less dialogue than today’s catchphrase-savvy heroes. Bullitt doesn’t go around asking punks whether they feel uncharacteristically lucky or not, nor does he turn to his somewhat more laconic partner and scream ‘oh hell no’ at the top of his lungs. Bullitt the character is a taciturn and reticent detective, spending much of the film expressing his feeling through his facial features and posture rather than his wit, making him a much quieter version of the pulp-fiction hero.
And though Bullitt is a well-edited and well-acted picture, there are a few noticeable flaws within its scripted coolness that deserve mention. While there is nothing wrong with punctuating a gritty police drama with a few non-dynamic scenes, some of the shots that Yates includes in his 114 minute film can be labeled as being a bit self-indulgent. It’s true that McQueen’s Bullitt doesn’t have to be threatening someone or driving a fast car in every scene, but there are some sequences in Yates’ film that could’ve been shorted or edited-down without effecting the film’s tension or drama.
And though McQueen and most of the principal cast do a wonderful job playing their respective roles and characters, Jacqueline Bisset–who plays McQueen’s girlfriend Cathy–seems somewhat out of place. The problem isn’t Bisset herself (who does well-enough with what the script gives her) but rather it’s the character herself that seems to be problem. Cathy doesn’t seem to add anything to the story, nor does she do anything for the audience, except maybe remind us that a guy who looks and acts like McQueen would have no trouble getting a girlfriend (like we really needed reminding of that fact).
But such mistakes and flaws hardly have any lasting or monumental impact on the film as a whole, and Bullitt‘s hyped-up reputation remains, more or less, deserved. So if you’ve grown tired of the CGI-laden, MTV-stylized action films of today’s cinemas, why not check out a police procedure film that takes things a little bit slower and more cerebrally, and stars one of the coolest men who ever lived?
Find the nearest Blockbuster near your home so you can rent this film almost immediately. Or, if you prefer that movies came to you instead, set up a Netflix account and start your ordering as soon as possible.