BULLITT (1968)

By Marc S. Sanders

The car chase with the movie attached to it is Bullitt from 1968, directed by Peter Yates, featuring Steve McQueen in the title role.  Why do I phrase it that way?  Well, as far as I can tell in the three or four times that I’ve seen the movie, the main attraction is the well-known, and pioneering, car chase at the crux of the film.  Otherwise, the plot is very thin, with characters that have next to no complexity or dimension.

Frank Bullitt has been summoned on a Friday afternoon to the home of a prosecutor/politician named Chalmers (Robert Vaughn).  He’s been requested to guard a key witness over the weekend ahead of giving a deposition on Monday morning that will expose “The Organization.”  Frank lays out the shift schedule with his precinct partners, and soon after the witness is gunned down and sent to the hospital with life threatening injuries.  Now it’s up to Frank to find out how the organization located the witness and who is behind the conspiracy. 

Bullitt moves at a slow pace.  There are some foot chases through the hospital.  Chalmers gives the standard frustration with how the protection assignment has fouled up, and plenty of close ups are given to the marquee actor, McQueen.  For some sex appeal, Jacqueline Bisset appears as Bullitt’s girlfriend offering up a speech that shows resentment for his occupation amid a world of death and violence.  A better monologue of this sort would come later in Michael Mann’s Heat with Diane Vinora expressing her disdain for Al Pacino’s determination as an obsessed detective.

Nevertheless, Bullitt is an important film to watch, if for nothing else then to see what it has inspired since its time.  The legendary car chase between Bullitt’s dark green Ford Mustang and the silent villains’ black Dodge Charger is nearly ten minutes long, and still holds as one of the greatest ever filmed.  The fact that the film takes place in San Francisco only lends to the scene.  The best car chases take place among the sloping streets of San Francisco.  Fortunately, the chase is not accompanied by music, but rather by well timed sound editing of burning rubber and screeching tires, revved up engines, side swipe banging and chassis slams on the hilly pavements. Yates also includes good close ups of McQueen and the villains in the Charger.  They were not always driving the cars.  There were stunt doubles, but I’m not seeing the difference while I’m watching.  I might see the cars pass by the same green VW Beetle three times, but the editing is so perfectly assembled here that it is fair to argue this is one of the greatest scenes in film history. 

In later years, directors would pull moments from Bullitt to use in their own films like the Dirty Harry pictures, The Seven-Ups, and Heat.  One moment during a foot chase in an airport seemingly inspired moments for later films like The Fugitive and Skyfall.  The hero is looking amidst a sea of crowds for the antagonist.  Peter Yates films bystanders in this moment going from one walking face to another.  He cuts back to McQueen moving his eyes from left to right and back again, looking and looking.  The bad guy that Bullitt is trying to find is just an ordinary white guy with brown hair; no discernable features like you might notice in an Alfred Hitchcock movie or a James Bond entry.  So how do you find the guy who just looks like everyone else?

Bullitt sets up a twist or two.  Honestly though, I can’t recall where those moments are resolved.  The witness being protected undoes the chain lock on the door just before he’s gunned down.  Why?  What was the exact purpose to do that?  As well, who exactly gave away the secret location of the witness, and again, why?  These questions weigh on my mind after watching the film.  Bullitt is not a confusing or multi-layered movie.  It’s pretty simple with very minimal dialogue and works like a showpiece for scenes.  So, I have yet to uncover where I got lost or what I missed that could answer those questions.

Best I can say is that if you’re a film buff seeking out where certain standards started, it’s best to watch Bullitt.  After you watch Nicholas Cage supposedly drive a yellow Ferrari through the streets of San Francisco in The Rock, you’ll at least say, “Uh uh.  Bullitt did it better the first time.”