In 1967, a then-unknown British director named Peter Yates helmed a taut crime caper that included a hair-rising car chase. The movie, Robbery (RBC Recommendation here), didn’t do much business in the United States, but did come to the attention of the right person: Steve McQueen. After an incredible run of hits in the 1960s, McQueen had the money and influence to start his own production company (Solar Productions) and he was looking for the right project to launch it in partnership with Warner Brothers. He had an excellent script in hand by Alan Trustman and Harry Kleiner, and when he saw Robbery, he knew he had his director. The result was this week’s film recommendation: Bullitt.
The plot: Politically ambitious District Attorney Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn) has secured devastating legal testimony from a stool pigeon witness for an upcoming trial against the bosses of organized crime. Chalmers charges the San Francisco Police, in the person of Lt. Frank Bullitt (McQueen), to protect the witness, but things go terribly awry. Bullitt has to crack the case while simultaneously stopping Chalmers from ruining him.
The first time through, of course what stays with most people about this film is the legendary high-speed car chase through the streets of San Francisco. If you watch carefully, you will notice how cleverly and economically the sequence was filmed. The slow-driving green VW bug that keeps appearing is the tip-off: The same incredible driving stunt was filmed from many different angles and then seamlessly edited by Oscar winner Frank Keller to look like an entire series of death-defying maneuvers. And it certainly didn’t hurt this jaw-dropping 11 minutes of cinema that superstar cinematographer William Fraker was willing to be strapped to the outside of the car to take incredible hand-held camera shots!
But this movie has much more to offer than that unforgettable sequence. Steve McQueen is magnetic in one of his very best roles (the completely original Junior Bonner, which Solar Productions made later, is my other favorite). It’s a testament to McQueen’s presence that he could play a sweater wearing cop with short hair during The Summer of Love and still come across as the coolest of cats (The film gave him some help by making every bad guy look like a 1950s dad). McQueen didn’t have the range to be called a great actor, but he was a great movie star and the part of Frank Bullitt was right in his sweet spot. He is a man detached. With loud, free and colorful 1968 San Francisco all around him he is quiet, controlled and dark. Bullitt has closed himself off emotionally to cope with the horrible things he sees as a police officer. As a result he is almost completely alone in the world (In this sense, the character is not unlike McQueen himself).
Yates also draws strong performances from the rest of the cast in parts large and small. Robert Vaughn does some of his very best work here, almost seeming to compete with McQueen over who can underplay his part more. Jacqueline Bisset, in addition to being easy on the eyes, delivers the goods in her dramatic scenes as the one person to whom Bullitt is willing to be somewhat vulnerable. Lalo Shifrin’s jazzy score is another major asset of the film.
Bullitt works as a detective story, as an action film, and as a character study all at once. And it holds up very well under repeated viewings, so even if you’ve seen it before you can treat yourself again to a classic piece of American cinema.
p.s. This would make a good double feature with another prior RBC recommendation from the same period that demonstrate how American crime films were fundamentally changing in terms of how they portrayed graphic violence, and, how they staged and edited action sequences: Bonnie and Clyde.