Bullitt, a 1968 film directed by Peter Yates and starring Steve McQueen, is nothing short of revolutionary. It changed the way of making crime/thriller movies, and countless films are indebted to it, including Dirty Harry (1971), The French Connection (1973), and even the recent Drive (2011) and Baby Driver (2017).
Bullitt’s story is as simple as possible. San Francisco: Lieutenant Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) is tasked by the powerful politician Chalmers (Robert Vaughn) with the protection of a man whose testimony could be the key to bring down a Chicago criminal organization. He has to remain alive for the weekend before the trial scheduled for Monday. Things quickly go awry, and Bullitt goes to great lengths to find out the persons to put behind bars.
What about this film? Its incredible realism stands out. Don’t expect two hours of non-stop action, but rather a succession of events in which the action scenes accelerate the rhythm and mark crucial moments of the plot. Actually, there are only two action scenes in total, come to think of it: the famous ten-minute chase between a Dodge Charger and a Mustang GT through the streets of San Francisco, and the finale at the airport. The car chase looks still dynamic and very modern today as it was one of the first to be filmed with a relatively small camera that could fit inside the car together with the driver (to be precise, it was an Arriflex 35 IIC).
The two action scenes aside, the rest of the film shows cops and doctors doing their job in great detail, and Frank Bullitt grappling with the difficulties of a couple’s life (his girlfriend is the beautiful Jacqueline Bisset). Yates took his time to show how a cop’s life really looked like, and even on a busy weekend it’s not like 24’s Jack Bauer.
The sense of realism is accentuated by having shot everything in real places, and often with many extras who worked in those same places. The scenes in the hospital, for example, are not only shot in a functioning hospital, but doctors and nurses … play doctors and nurses in the film! Great credit also goes to McQueen who personally did many of the stunts that can be seen on the screen, both at the wheel of the Mustang and in the airport among the 747s moving on the runway.
But in addition to this aspect of the film, the soundtrack is also notable, using syncopated jazz-rock-prog tunes in the most adrenaline-fueled moments and softer melodies in the rest of the movie.
On the other hand, there are some shortcomings. The plot, despite its simplicity, is sometimes unclear. Some actors didn’t do an amazing job (above all, I thought that Simon Oakland was really bad in the role of the captain), and Jacqueline Bisset is underused in a film that practically has no space for an important female character.
Another ahead-of-time characteristic of the movie (but maybe it wasn’t the first one to do so) is that McQueen plays the classic tough cop who goes against everything and everyone to enforce (his personal view of) the law. Well, not really against everyone: his captain helps him all the time, and his partner Delgetti (Don Gordon) also plays a relevant role. But he has to clash with the system in the person of Chalmers, and that conflict creates a lot of tension. Virtually all police and detectives in post-Bullitt US action movies will be modelled after Steve McQueen’s character… And that’s just one of the many reasons to see this film! Ciao!
PS: and what about Robert Duvall in a microscopic particle? It’s one of his first non-TV roles for him!