BULLITT (1968 United States)

8767The first lone-wolf cop story plays by the rules of the genre it spawned, featuring a charismatic, outsider type who carries a badge and an attitude directed as much against the egos and hubris of his superiors as against the criminal element.

Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) is a detective lieutenant on the San Francisco police force who gets handed a “babysitting job” looking after a would-be Mob informant by ambitious politician, Walt Chalmers (Robert Vaughn). Things go wrong with an attempted hit that leaves the informant and his guard in intensive care and Bullitt on the wrong side of Chalmers, not to mention a pair of killer hoods who tool around in a Dodge Charger and have no respect either for stop signs or Mustangs.

“Bullitt” the movie is best-known for an automotive duel between the assassin duo and Bullitt, still championed by some as the greatest car chase in movie history. I think it’s been lapped myself, though I admire the long sections of real-time churn-and-burn since it flies in the face of MTV-style fast cutting we know today. The hoods Bullitt chase look like insurance salesmen, but of course they were really stunt men, and with McQueen doing a good deal of his own stunt driving as well, there’s a validity to the sequence that makes up for some slackness in the composition.

“Bullitt” is a better film for the things that occur around the car chase, not so much with the central mystery of Johnny Ross as with the scenes of Frank Bullitt in his element, like making coffee, talking with his superiors, eating a sandwich. McQueen’s acting was showcased better in films like “The Sand Pebbles,” but his star power was never more in evidence than it was here, especially in the scenes he shares with Vaughn, who plays the role of a corrupt politician to perfection, giving both McQueen and the viewer a foil more evil than the real crooks in this picture. Seeing Bullitt handle Chalmers’ baiting is a real lesson in how less is more.

bullitt-jumpThere’s a scene where a fingerprint check gives Bullitt the opportunity to let Chalmers have it, but instead of rounding on the jerk, he simply tells Chalmers the score as he makes for the door in one of the great underplayed lines ever filmed. Verisimilitude is everything in “Bullitt,” as director Peter Yates and screenwriters Alan Trustman and Harry Kleiner present it. Long scenes are shot in operating rooms, morgues, and hotel-room crime scenes as a way of presenting what we are seeing as real in a way no other film did then and few have done since. Every shot, as Yates explains on his DVD commentary, was shot on a real location, and you feel like he got it all down exactly right, getting the right mix of style and drab reality.

A shot cop moans while blood pulses through his wound, while a strangled woman is seen in such gory detail we understand another character’s need to throw up over it. Throughout there’s Frank Bullitt as only McQueen could play him, saying the right line the right way, jumping in an ambulance to fix a problem, telling his leggy girlfriend: (Jacqueline Bisset) “It’s not for you, baby” in a way that comes off utterly cool rather than glaringly sexist. I couldn’t figure out what was going on with the crooks – “the Organization” as they are blandly dubbed instead of the Mafia. One mob informer is killed while in police custody. There is little substance to this piece of the plot.

600px-Blt-coltsnub-3The other weakness is the annoying subtext of police work as dehumanizing, something our hero understands implicitly that this makes him a tool for the wrong sort of people. But everything else works so perfectly these are small quibbles. This movie is important as a historical document too; Society ladies showing off their trophy furs. Defunct airlines (Pan Am) and collapsed freeways (the Embarcadero). Cops without cell phones, or two way radios. Billboards showing how little has changed (“Need Money for Taxes ?”, “Mothers Day Brunch May 11, make your reservations now”) and how much (“ENCO” gasoline). Backstreet USA in all its slovenly glory. Moribund corner stores with fading signs.

And an airport where you walk in and out, no hassle from security people, past the luggage left standing unattended. No scanners or concept of terrorism. Before Bullitt, only the Europeans produced cinema that actually photographed society instead of re-creating it in a studio. With a few exceptions (The Conversation, The French Connection) Hollywood didn’t exactly pick up the ball and run with it. Hollywood makes money, not historical documents.

Watch this for the action and its background – and ask yourself if your time is better than Bullitt’s. But McQueen was a cinematic great, one who doesn’t get as much attention today but proves here why his image is so enduring. Yates credits the clothes McQueen wears, but Yates himself, along with his writers and a terrific supporting cast led by Simon Oakland as Bullitt’s tough-but-fair captain, create one of the great platforms for a movie tough guy ever built. A platform McQueen fills very, very well.




  1. Anonymous says:

    There’s a scene in “Bullitt” showing a billboard noting “Mother’s Day May 11.” Sunday, May 11, was in 1969, not 1968, when “Bullitt” was filmed.


  2. Well spotted. Maybe the studio felt the film more likely to be released the following year? Still, you wonder why they would do this.


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