A man makes a daring escape from a group of gagnsters in alarge building one San Francisco night. His pursuers almost get the better as drives away at full speed, bullets from firearms crashing into the vehicle’s windshield. The cuts occur in uber cool fashion with the next frame appearing within the outline of the opening credits as they zoom towards the screen. What exactly is going on? That isn’t fully explained until a few scenes later, but Bullitt certainly opens with a cool first scenes to grab the viewer’s attention. You want to find out more? Very well, then stay a while as San Francisco detective Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) is set on a case with mystery, tension and some great action.
Woken up early after a long night of work, Frank Bullitt is summoned to meet the district attorney (Robert Vaughn), who charges the detective with keeping a gangster defector alive until his testimony on Monday. Keep the witness in a safe hose with officers on rotation throughout the weekend. As you may have figured out, the witness is the same man the viewer followed at the beginning. Sounds simple enough really, but the mob has ways of finding ways, and before long Frank is working on the case on a far grander scale than originally anticipated. When simply keeping a witness alive eventually leads to games of hide and seek within hospitals and airport corridors, as well as a high speed chase along the San Francisco highway, one knows they earned more thn was bargained for.
Director Peter Yates and star Steve McQueen collaborated very closely on the project to provide a movie experience that, while thrilling, would nonetheless be grounded in reality as much as possible. The hospital location, where much of the middle section of the film takes place, is a real hospital. The doctors and nurses who operate on the witness after the latter is shot are real doctors and nurses. The airport chase sequence which closes the movie was filmed in areal airport. The explosion that ends the fantastic car chase is real. Jacqueline Bisset’s sex appeal is absolutely real. Steve McQueen’s hair is real. The gunshot wounds are real.
Perhaps not the last element, but one can never be too sure.
This devotion to authenticity by the filmmakers does provide Bullitt with, well, a realistic aesthetic. Nothing flashy or too fanciful, but rather an adopted grittiness that some films might sometimes overlook. The department where the directing shines however is in the editing and cinematography, particularly during the action sequences, such as the much heralded car chase. Yates’ camera has a pacing during these moments of tension and danger which is excellent in producing a satisfying build up, followed by the obligatory high octane cues. The subtler game of cat and mouse between Frank’s car and that of his pursuers (who quickly become the prey, thanks to clever driving from Bullitt) is a joy to behold, with shots in which one vehicle suddenly appears in the rear view mirror. Each edit is executed with care and an attention to detail. Car chases, I can only imagine, must be infinitely complex to prepare and eventually capture on camera. The geography of the situation must be made clear enough for the viewer in order to assess and feel the danger, the proximity of the vehicles from one another, and the expert driving performed by the stunt men. The chase from this film has been lauded by many and it certainly merits the praise. Once the warm up is over with however, the cars take off like thunder. It’s a visual style that commands some respect, wherein a very grounded and realistic world is captured and subsequently edited for film to produce a very cool experience.
Arguably, what may hold the film back in the eyes of some is the story, of which there isn’t much admittedly. Bullitt receives an assignment, that assignment goes up shit’s stream. To make up for it, Bullitt sticks it to the district attorney while eventually catching up with the gangsters. This all sounds rather simple, perhaps even mundane and lacking originality. The pleasure of the film is definitely found in the interactions and behaviours of the characters, most notably the rivalry that quickly builds between Frank and the district attorney, given how their personalities and methods certainly do not mesh well together at all. While he doesn’t go completely Dirty Harry crazy, Bullitt does bend the rules by smuggling the corpse of the informant without the district attorney’s consent in order to by time and solve his sabotaged case when smuggles, and at one point goes so far as to suggest (in a subtle way, mind you), that Robert Vaughn might be working from the inside to aid ‘the organization’ as the villains are referred to in the movie. McQueen can have a steely look of determination, act groggy when waking up in the morning , or act casual while enjoying a dinner with his lover at a restaurant. McQueen was an actor with great range and skill at inhabiting the moment. The film is therefore deceptively simplistic: it plays like a straightforward cop and gangster movie, but the acting is stellar, which in turn creates fascinating character relations, thus elevating the proceedings a notch. Robert Vaughn delivers the acting chops the way he should when an actor is called upon to play the stuck up district attorney. He’s on the side of good, yes, but he is also very much a villain insofar as his job and plan interfere with those of Frank, the latter whom is clearly accustomed to working in the field and making quick decisions which may or may not always respect protocol. The former is a desk jockey, who earns the wrath of the viewer with his slimy, pushy and very confrontational mannerisms. Frank is therefore caught a rock and a hard place, with hurdles to overcome on all fronts, including on his side of the law.
For these reasons, Frank Bullitt is most likely this film fan’s favourite movie cop. He’s tough and gritty, but not to the point where his demeanour becomes questionable. If need be, he’ll find his own way to finish the case, but not by going totally rogue. There are moments, albeit brief ones, that show a more human side to the character, particularly when he is in contact with his girlfriend, played by Jacqueline Bisset. Because those moments and scenes don’t last long, a strong actor is required to bring that side to life. Steve McQueen, an actor whose filmmography I have yet to explore in depth, is bloody brilliant in the role. His presence encompasses toughness, intelligence, even a joy de vivre when the situation permits. He played a great variety of characters, but Bullitt will always be one of his more popular roles.
Possibly another knock against the film may be the lack of a well defined villain. The movie spends almost no time at all with the members of the organization. There is the opening scene which we described earlier, and but a few other moments during which the camera reveals their faces. No names and virtually no dialogue for any of them. The movies functions a bit like ‘Frank’s crazy weekend on the job.’ The might disappoint some who enjoy multi dimensional adversaries but, as you may have determined already from the Steve McQueen love fest I’ve been writing, this aspect has never bothered me nor harmed the viewing experience the viewer can appreciated from Bullitt.
Film can capture our imaginations for all sorts of reasons. In the case of Bullitt, it is the title character who owns the show. There’s good camerawork, marvellous editing, a solid supporting cast and some fantastic tension and action, but Steve McQueen’s Bullitt simply dominates the screen.