Bullitt (1968) – Directed by Peter Yates – Starring Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn, Don Gordon, Robert Duvall, Norman Fell, and Jacqueline Bisset.
BULLITT is not what you think it is.
That is to say, if you haven’t seen Peter Yates’ 1968 crime flick but have heard about “the car chase,” then you might think BULLITT is a late ’60s version of a Michael Bay movie – a big, slick, action-centric conglomeration of set pieces and hyper-masculinity, complete with lots of guns firing, big explosions, catchy quips, and slow motion.
That’s not BULLITT.
Instead, BULLITT is much more the by-the-book police procedural that unfolds slowly and contains many, many mundane scenes that director Peter Yates is in no hurry to get past just so he can blow something else up. It makes for a refreshing watch because it’s such a confidently made film, but also because even more than a police procedural, even more than a crime film, even more than a car chase, BULLITT is a big, long character study of Lieutenant Frank Bullitt.
Reserved, quiet, laconic, an early impression of Frank Bullitt (McQueen) almost leaves you feeling like he doesn’t care. He gets assigned a baby-sitting assignment to watch Chalmers’ (Robert Vaughn) star witness at a Senate sub-committee hearing in which he aims to put a dent in organized crime. Bullitt and his two partners go to the crummy hotel to start their watch and Bullitt immediately hands the first watch over to Delgetti (Gordon) and goes on a date with Jacqueline Bisset.
This is what I’d do and this is likely what you’d do, but you don’t expect this from our hero, and if you do, you don’t expect him to seem so unfazed, or even bored with his job.
As a modern viewer, I’m thinking, “You’re leaving? But … but … there’s an action sequence about to unfold … and you’re gonna be on a date?”
The key to McQueen’s conception of Bullitt, however, is that his approach to his job is exactly that – it’s a job and he wants to do it well. He’s neither an avenging angel nor a hothead. He’s “just” a cop. He has no interest in the political machinations of Chalmers and doesn’t want the politician’s influence in his work, telling him, “You work your side of the street. I’ll watch mine.”
Bullitt’s laconic nature is fueled (or enhanced) by the people who get in the way of him doing his job. On this case, Robert Vaughn’s slick, image-conscious politician makes it tougher to do his job because he cares about all the things that Bullitt doesn’t. Where we’ve been trained to see our cops (be it Will Smith or Russell Crowe or Bruce Willis or David Caruso) get in Chalmers’ face, lash out, or even deliver a quiet threat (which, if delivered by Caruso, is immediately followed by him putting his sunglasses back on), Bullitt’s reaction is to withdraw, stare at his captain, and then get back to work.
Obstacles, to Bullitt, are something to endure and move past, not spend unnecessary energy raging against every speed bump.
Watching the movie becomes an exercise in watching McQueen deliver Bullitt’s reactions. There’s nothing over-the-top in McQueen’s acting here; instead, there’s so much about the character delivered in the way he simply looks around a room or listens to a conversation that it becomes a captivating performance in its subtlety.
This is not to say he never reacts strongly. Instead, Yates and McQueen use the rare spark of energy or anger or emotion to serve as the film’s “bang” moments. After absorbing all of Chalmers’ crap all film (and it’s more correct to say he absorbs Chalmers’ crap rather than saying he takes it, because there’s never any doubt that Bullitt doesn’t cede his agency to Chalmers, although he will cede it to his captain, on occasion), the politician goes one step too far towards the end of the film. There’s a whole body-switching plot with the star witness and they’ve tracked the real witness down to the airport and Chalmers, who tried to cozy up to Bullitt before he tried to scapegoat him, tries to get him to play ball with him and Bullitt finally snaps.
“We must all compromise,” Chalmers insists.
“Bullshit,” Bullitt snaps back angrily, but not demonstratively.
Bullitt’s relationship with Cathy (Bisset, who’s ridiculously gorgeous here and looks like Castle’s Stana Katic) runs in similar fashion. He’s a bit more open with her, but not much. There’s a bit of gentle teasing with one another when he visits her at work, but at dinner he doesn’t sit next to her and doesn’t lavish her with attention.
Yates has the dinner scene shot from outside so you see rather than hear the dinner. It’s a fantastic technique and Yates employs it several times during the film. We don’t really need to hear the small talk at dinner because the ambience of the scene tells us all we need to know. Bullitt doesn’t flirt with Cathy but his eyes are drawn to her with an intensity different from work.
Yates lets the music of the restaurant’s band serve as the primary sound during this sequence and then we cut to McQueen and Bisset in bed. Really, we cut to McQueen and then Bisset’s presence is revealed as the scene unfolds, but the look on Bullitt’s face as he lays on his back and looks to the ceiling tells you that he’s already shifted out of personal time and back to professional time.
While in bed, Bullitt gets a phone call about the case and Cathy asks about it, but he completely shuts her out. Later, she freaks out when she walks in on a murder scene and sees a dead woman’s body on the floor and Bullitt emotionlessly talking on the phone with another cop. It’s her first real experience with this part of his life and she tells him that she doesn’t know him and worries about how callous it can make him, but Bullitt just absorbs her emotions like he absorbs Chalmers, and there’s never any real doubt that she won’t leave him.
There is one big blast of energy in the film and it comes just after the halfway point and it is, of course, the legendary car chase through the streets of San Francisco.
Bullitt is driving his personal 1968 Ford Mustang and the the hitmen are driving a ’68 Dodge Charger, which is a bit too big and bulky for this kind of car chase, but sill works. There’s a lot of standard car chase shots – the camera mounted on the dashboard to look out through the front windshield, set cameras on the street for the cars to rush past, etc. – but Yates weaves them together wonderfully.
What makes the scene work more than anything, I think, is that there’s no score playing behind it, no trumped up musical soundtrack, no dialogue. All of the sound comes from the cars: their roaring engines, squealing tires, and crunching metal. Much like Cannonball Run‘s use of cars, BULLITT revels in the machinery. Yates treats the Charger and (especially) the Mustang as stars every bit on the level of McQueen and Bisset. There’s no need to jack up the scene with some rock song blaring loudly to tell us to get excited – Yates just lets the cars do all the work.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the other famous faces in the film: Robert Duvall and Norman Fell. Duvall plays a cab driver and because it’s Duvall you just assume he’s going to end up being the killer or the rat, but no, he’s just the cab driver. Fell is great as a police captain, acting as yet another tough guy in a suit for Bullitt to dismiss.
BULLITT may not be exactly what you’re expecting, but it is a truly great movie and McQueen delivers an understated but captivating performance.