Bullitt (1968) … Remembered
Bullitt is a 1968 muscle-car crime movie starring Steve McQueen, who will be forever remembered for this tough-guy role. The film is known today for its car chase, but relies on realism and gritty crime-drama, which works. It dwells on these two things for so long and for so much that the movie really begins to embody them and society in the day. But it is stylistic realism, emphasized by the director’s off-beat shot selection and angles. The film was directed by Peter Yates, who did a lot of television, such as The Saint starring Roger Moore. The Saint is a not a well-remembered show, but it had a cool car like this movie does, and it had James Bond Roger Moore in the starring role. Can’t go wrong there.
Some of the style can be seen at the beginning of the movie, where we get a slick getaway, some moody lighting, and some shady characters meeting in an underground parking lot. It isn’t film noir though, it is crime noir, I guess, where a police detective tries to wrangle the truth out of a complicated crime. Steve McQueen plays his cool anti-authority role well. We first see his character lying in bed and walking about in his pajamas at the beginning of the movie. Could you imagine Humphrey Bogart walking around in his pajamas in his crime movie? This is the director’s idea of realism in crime drama and Steve McQueen milks it for all its worth.
After the movie establishes Frank Bullitt as the everyman cop, it contrasts this tough-guy style with another. Frank arrives a women’s social where we meet Robert Vaughn’s character, who is the opposite of an everyman. Vaughn plays Walter Chalmers, an aristocratic politician, a role similar to every other movie he’s in. To say Vaughn was type-cast is an understatement, but that’s just me. He played an unlikeable guy in the A-Team, a snooty evil-guy in Superman III, a jerk in The Magnificent Seven, and an off-beat character in just about everything else. He’s the perfect contrast to Frank Bullitt and Chalmers demands Frank’s best work, putting him on a job. Later, we can see that Frank doesn’t have much regard for this new protection job, as he classifies it merely as “Babysitting”, which is typical of a realistic tough-guy and smart-ass. The movie has great characterization and dialogue right there.
Bullitt and his buddies arrive at a hotel to protect Ross, the important guy we met at the beginning of the movie. As Bullitt waits for his “shift” on the protection job, he chats it up with Jacquiline Bisset’s character, Cathy. She is mostly there for window dressing. Most of the shots in this part of the movie are tone or mood shots, shots from behind a wooden railing or in the midst of a restaurant where a band plays cool jazz. I was wondering if the movie was trying too hard here. Don’t overdo it boys!
After two thugs gun down Ross and his police protection, Bullitt gets serious. They really stress the seriousness in the hospital scene. The typical “I wanna talk to you, Frank” happens at this point, where Bullitt’s Captain puts his foot on him to “deliver results”. The snooty Chalmers goes even further, threatening Bullitt. The whole scene turns up the tension and it really works. It was a little slow at first, but ramps up quickly. There are many tight shots, following Steve McQueen as he chases one of the assassin thugs on foot. The thugs have no character. They are just evil guys and plot devices. That’s okay with me.
Bullitt next tries to draw out the assassins and squirm his way around trouble at the same time. We can see a black 1968 Dodge Charger following him during this part in the movie, teasing us with the upcoming chase scene as it spies on him. It is also styled to characterize the assassins. The car just looks like something an asshole would drive.
As the chase scene begins, the Charger is actually still following McQueen’s famous green Mustang, but he quickly turns the tables and chases them. The Charger shoots across streets and the Mustang pursues. The famous chase scene takes the tone of the movie, hanging on realism. A car loses a hubcap. Cars get dented, scratched and skid out. They are not overly painted and shown for any glory shots. There is no music or dialogue. Just muscle cars trying to out-muscle each other. That’s what we wanna see. After some back and forth, the Charger barrels into a highway gas station and explodes.
We then get some detective work as Bullitt discovers Ross was not Ross at all. The last part of the film is maybe the slowest, but resolves the film nicely. It pits Bullitt against the man the film has centered around, and who was trying to con everyone, even the mob. It is obvious Bullitt doesn’t like this jerk and likes the slimey Chalmers coming to his defense even less. McQueen comes off strong.
There is no epilogue to this movie, only a shot of McQueen staring at himself in the mirror, as if questioning his role in a world of violence. The film rolls out with smooth jazz. Yeah baby. Roger Ebert gave this film four stars and I have to agree. It is loved by many, including my father. Watch this movie and have a good time. I did.
I love you dad.