Weekend Film Recommendation: Bullitt

Steve McQueen had an incredible run of hits in the 1960s, which put him in position to start his own production company. Solar Production’s original six film deal with Warner Brothers eventually fell apart and only resulted in one film, but *what* a film: Bullitt.

The first time through, what stays with most people about this film is the legendary car chase. 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 to look like a series of death-defying maneuvers.

But the thing to watch in the film is Steve McQueen, in one of his very best roles (the completely original Junior Bonner, which Solar Productions made later, is my other favorite). 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).

Robert Vaughn is also excellent and almost seems 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. Director Peter Yates is in top form and so is the City by the Bay.

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.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

6 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: Bullitt”

  1. What I found interesting is that police work is essentially the same. The cops sit around waiting for a fax to arrive. Is that different than cop shows today where cops sit around a computer waiting for a file to load?

  2. The thing I’ve most noticed over the years is how amazingly similar Bullit is to Dirty Harry. Both are rogue cops up against uptight supervisors in a very scenic San Francisco. They break the rules and the law to bring justice. Steve McQueen is cooler than Clint, of course, he drives a Porsche, wears turtlenecks and bangs Jackie Bisset, but appearances aside, they are really almost the same character.

  3. can’t remember the badCASH amount – $250K ? – but for that amount people schemed, killed and died, and risked it all. Nowadays, some people make that every month – if not wvwery week.
    The cash has changed tremendously.

    1. I have a feeling that there are many places in America where $250K is considered a sum worth killing for.

  4. I didn’t see ‘Bullitt’ for the first time until the mid-1990s – but the wait was worth it because that first viewing was on the big screen, at the greatly-missed Greater Union Pitt Centre cinema here in Sydney.

    At the time, what struck me the most about the famous chase sequence was how the cars sounded. Those engines didn’t just growl – they roared.

    It’s been too long since I’ve revisited this classic. Thanks for the recommendation 🙂

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