Based on the novel by Robert L. Fish and with an adapted script by Harry Kleiner and Alan Trustman, Peter Yate’s “Bullitt” (1968) tells the story of Frank Bullitt of the San Francisco Police Department (Steve McQueen,) who fails to protect crime witness Johnny Ross (Pat Renella) and must find the original criminal on behalf of Ross, lest he be punished. To buy time, Bullitt hides the body of Ross and takes things a step further by snatching his records. Furthermore, he seeks to avenge Ross.
As with many mystery crime films, I found the plot of “Bullitt” difficult to follow. Nevertheless, the film has some solid performances, as well as some aesthetic qualities worth pointing out. McQueen was born to play a stern, passive aggressive member of a police force. He is completely natural as someone who manages to be assertive without yelling or raising his voice, someone who can show regret over the death of a man with no more than open, nervous eyes and wavered lips, someone who looks like he’s about to cry but offers no more of a change in expression than a brief look down at the floor.
Robert Vaughn is similarly good is Walter Chalmers, a higher-up with the power to threaten Bullitt if he does something wrong. Just as it is Bullitt, not McQueen, who is calmly angry, it is Chalmers, not Vaughn, who drives home the fact that Bullitt has himself to blame for the assassination of Ross. His tone is that of a man who is clearly boiling below the surface but has the power to contain his frustration in order to scold a SFPD member who failed to do his job. Combined with a condescending expression from the actor who plays him, Chalmers is to be feared.
“Bullitt” has its high points of dialogue as well. Chalmers’s threat to “personally officiate at your public execution” and “not suffer the consequence of your incompetence” is scary but justified by his truthful assertions that “I’ve got a witness who can’t talk.” Bullitt tries to change the subject to get out of trouble and Chalmer notes that, “You blew it. You knew the significance of his testimony, yet you failed to take adequate measures to protect him.”
Jacqueline Bisset is more than convincing as McQueen’s girlfriend Cathy. Her character genuinely feels like an artist of the 60s, and her performance peaks when Cathy suggests that Bullitt’s job as a police officer has emotionally desensitized him, in turn made him something of a jerk and that she cannot handle his hardened personality. Like Bullitt and Chamber, her words show that she is angry, but she shows that she is sane because her actress constantly speaks in a calm tone.
On top of the performances, “Bullitt” has its share of impressive shots. One of the earliest is the second of the film, a trippy image accompanied by riffs from the brass family that signals a drop off from calmness to trouble. In one scene, Bullitt appears from behind a fence and is thus separated from the audience. One of the most aesthetically pleasing visuals is a low level one of the hills of San Francisco, surrounded by towering buildings on either side and topped by a blue (but noticeably grainy) sky.
The most pleasantly surprising shot, arguably the most fascinating, is one shown from the inside of a car in a car wash. To let you enjoy it, I will not describe it. There were many more I enjoyed, but it would be a shame to spoil them here.
Accompanying the well-done camera work is a menacing musical score that never feels too epic for a relatively realistic drama. Following the riff mentioned earlier, a symphony of instruments is soft, but with a tone that rivals viewers. An underground chase receives an unnerving score and drums that are suspenseful. An excellent, powerful, steady, relatively fast paced score accompanies the most famous scene in the film, which I will discuss more later. The scene immediately before the confrontation between Bullitt and Cathy has enjoyable piano, drums and flute, none of which are inviting, but at least the lattermost which is enjoyable nonetheless. When McQueen is about to confront a criminal at the end of the film, the music is uninviting, and it becomes scarier, louder, more action packed and angrier once that confrontation takes place.
“Bullitt” is not a perfect film. To anyone who, like me, has a hard time following a mystery film or gets bored when he or she is not sure what is going on, “Bullitt” is boring at some points. Indeed, not every moviegoer thinks of shot composition and music, and so many quality elements of “Bullitt” will fly over the head of some. Nevertheless, they can be spotted in any film, including this one, if looked for.
With the consideration of the good and the bad, “Bullitt” is worth watching if only for two scenes: Firstly, an opening credits sequence that is mesmerizing with its music (mentioned earlier) and wipes that transition from the second camera shot into the third and so on, and secondly, a car chase scene that, even more than half a century later, is considered by many to be the greatest in film history. As aforementioned, the musical score is great. The moment Bullitt gets on the road the scene is tense. The first real shot of the chase is captured in a shot that lasts more than half a minute and shows both cars taking off. At one point, the enemy car gets ahead of Bullitt’s and he must catch up. Several shots in the chase show intense sideways angles of the focused faces of the men in the enemy car. Cars driving so fast they jump off the streets of San Francisco is a sight to behold, and that’s only the beginning. If you want to see the rest, buy or rent the film.
P.S., the final duel is pretty good as well.
Cal Sylvia can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org