Release Date: October 17th, 1968 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Peter Yates Actors: Steve McQueen, Jacqueline Bisset, Robert Vaughn, Don Gordon, Robert Duvall, Norman Fell
ased on the novel “Mute Witness” by Robert L. Pike, “Bullitt” is a precursor to just about every overly violent, rogue, vigilante, tough-guy cop, from Dirty Harry to Popeye Doyle to John McClane. Remembered chiefly for a realistic car chase through the San Francisco Bay Area, the film is actually more of a character examination of a hard-boiled man dehumanized by his submersion in the sewers of crime and violence than a straightforward adventure flick. The action is sparse and the organization of events is procedural, but Steve McQueen handles the title role with care, making sure that he’s believable without completely living up to the unnaturally macho insinuations of the name.
When Johnny Ross turns state’s evidence to rat on the Chicago crime “organization,” he becomes a babysitting assignment for Lieutenant Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen), personally requested by politician Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn), who is looking for praise before local elections. When professionals attack Ross, holed up in a hotel, Frank is asked to play it by the book. But getting the job done is slightly more important than following the letter of the law – and he really isn’t the officer to play by bureaucratic rules. He’s the kind of unprincipled guy who eats frozen TV dinners, hangs with worrisome eye candy Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset), steals newspapers, hangs up on phone calls from police captains, and plots to cover up murders. Oddly enough, audiences don’t find out too much about Bullitt (including his manly last name) until the main premise is well under way.
Public crucifixion means nothing to Frank, especially compared to the task of outsmarting another attempt on Ross’ life. And protecting the witness results in the commencement of the chase. It’s mostly brooding and observational as the plot progresses, leaning away from suspense and excitement. It’s also a little bit bloody. During every action sequence the music completely stops in favor of sound effects and gritty realism, leaving the jazzy music by Lalo Schifrin to compliment only the quieter moments. The renowned and lengthy car chase scene itself is purposefully edited too – it’s a high-speed pursuit in which the hunter becomes the hunted, complete with tire-squealing and rubber-burning, a behind-the-wheel viewpoint, frequently airborne vehicles, engine-revving, metal-crunching, and grand destruction.
Very minor characters are given screentime and dialogue unnecessarily, including doctors and nurses with routine hospital lingo, family members, and squeeze Jacqueline Bisset, who delivers a painfully generic speech on Frank’s increasing callousness, due to constant, unpleasant interactions that are the very nature of his career choice. Resultantly, “Bullitt” is slow moving more often than it should be. But despite pacing problems and the pedestrian villain’s questionable efficiency, the story is intriguing, the character study is brilliant, the editing and camerawork are wildly innovative (the film won an Oscar for Best Film Editing), and McQueen perfects the renegade cop template.
– Mike Massie