Bullitt (1968) directed by Peter Yates and starring Steve McQueen
What’s it about?
Johnny Ross (Pat Renella) is an erstwhile mobster fleeing his brother, who is pursuing him to stop him revealing crucial information to the police about The Organisation. He is taken into police custody and holed up in a hotel with 24/7 guard as an interim measure while moving him to witness protection. That night, two mob hitmen get into the room and discharge a shotgun into both Ross and the cop guarding him.
Both are taken to a local hospital. With Ross in critical condition, Lieutenant Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) is made responsible by Senator Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn) to ensure this important witness is guarded until he is able to testify in court. When Ross succumbs to his wounds, Bullitt covers up his death to avoid repercussions bring carried out by Chalmers on his department. To add to his problems, a phalanx of mobsters is closing in.
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Why is it significant?
It was the first Hollywood production for the journeyman British director Peter Yates, whose debut was, believe it or not, the Cliff Richard vehicle Summer Holiday. He also helmed a number of episodes of the TV espionage serials The Saint and Danger Man. However, it was the 1967 heist thriller Robbery - in particular, its early car chase - which brought him to the attention of screenwriter Alan Trustman. The latter successfully persuaded both star Steve McQueen and the film’s producers that he was the right man for the job.
Ironically, despite impressing most viewers who have seen it, the aforementioned chase in Robbery has (fairly or not) gone down as a footnote in cinema history, while the one in Bullitt which was inspired by it has gone on to become one of the most famous of all time.
The film won an Oscar for Best Film Editing (for Frank P. Keller) and took over $42 million at the U.S. box office on a $5.5 million budget.
How does it hold up?
Bullitt is one of those movies that may have been groundbreaking at the time, but frankly now looks like an averagely solid police procedural with a few flashes of style and a somewhat underwhelming story. The trouble is that most of the best aspects here have been endlessly copied and effectively built upon since.
The prime example of this is the iconic car chase. Sure, it’s a tightly-constructed sequence with some effective use of POV shots, lots of hair-raising screeching around 90 degree corners and speedy leaps from intersections. However, when compared to later car chases in the likes of Ronin or The Blues Brothers (or even the one in The French Connection three years later) it seems rather tame. It doesn’t help that it has one of the most infamous continuity errors in cinema history as the cars rush past the same green VW Beetle multiple times.
Likewise, the bloody gun violence was considered shockingly realistic back in 1968 but now looks rather passé. The documentary-realistic approach to police life and procedures is still somewhat fascinating - for instance how they caution Ross to stay away from the windows to avoid being targeted by shooters from a nearby expressway, or Bullitt performing his grocery shop by mechanically piling up some TV dinners to put in his basket. However, in the time since then this approach has also been well covered by the likes of William Friedkin, Michael Mann and others on both TV and in the cinema.
Style over content
Peter Yates’s direction has an undeniable sense of style. The opening credits are a prime example, with faces of a group of mobsters standing poised ready for action, a tricksy reflective shot in a metal light fixture, and the cast and crew names flying out of the screen alternating the images between colour and monochrome as they pass. Many scenes take place without dialogue, and the action sequences effectively imbue a sense of genuine danger - not just the car chase but also the airport finale which features the actors ducking and diving around taxiing aircraft.
The trouble is that neither the storyline nor the actors really make much impact. The three main stars (McQueen, Bisset and Vaughn) are possessed of the kind of late 60s/early 70s “cool” acting style that leaves them all coming across as excessively self-absorbed and unable to generate any sparks with one another. The main focus of the story is on the interdepartmental politics, represented by the beat cop Bullitt and him butting heads with senator Chalmers, a smooth operator who sees nothing but the opportunity to walk away with a high-level win. It feels more like an interesting sub-plot that’s been over-expanded to fill the centre of the film. We never get a full grasp of the stakes involved in failing to deliver Chalmers his “star witness” as he calls him, beyond the vague “it will make the department look bad”. The scenes of the relationship between Bullitt and his girlfriend Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset) also seem fuzzy and underdeveloped.
Bullitt is still a pretty good watch despite the issues which come to light when seen in retrospect. However, to my mind Yates’s earlier Robbery and later The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, both taking place from the point of view of the other side of the law, are superior films with more developed storylines.
Runtime: 114 mins
Dir: Peter Yates
Script: Alan Trustman, Harry Kleiner, from a novel by Robert L. Fish
Starring: Steve McQueen, Jacqueline Bisset, Robert Vaughn, Don Gordon, Simon Oakland, Robert Duvall, Pat Renella