Never have the hilly streets of San Francisco been subjected to such extensive rubber-burn, and unwittingly produced quite so much tire smoke, than in Bullitt, a movie fondly remembered for featuring one of the most influential (and bouncy) car chase sequences in cinematic history. Thirty years on since the death of its star Steve McQueen, is the movie which cemented his status as a Hollywood icon still as cool as ever? The answer is a resounding yes, and Bullitt offers so much more than that car chase.
San Francisco Police Lieutenant Frank Bullitt (McQueen) is asked by ambitious politician Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn), to guard Johnny Ross, a Chicago based mobster who is about to deliver crucial evidence against a criminal organization. Ross is placed under the custody of Bullitt’s unit for a period of 48 hours. But when a fatal incident occurs early during the watch, Bullitt takes it upon himself to catch those responsible.
For the twenty-first century viewer, there are no machine gun-laden fights, thirty-three car pile ups or any other special effects which are nowadays associated with the police-action genre. What Bullitt does have however is an engaging plot, intriguing characters and a whole lotta late 1960’s cool. Oh yeah. The dialogue is direct and to the point – McQueen, an actor of few words but with eyes that could articulate every emotion – and every bit of coolness – proves once again that acting is much more than delivering a few lines from a script. His portrayal of Bullitt as a slightly anti-establishment, rogue cop is skilfully set up against Vaughn’s bureaucratic alter-ego Chalmers. Vaughn provides excellent support, and his character supplies a source of conflict and tension for McQueen’s Bullitt. Even the musical score is cool – slightly jazzy, nonchalant compositions that complement the scenes perfectly. Oh and there’s a car chase at one point, too. It’s been elevated to the status of legends, and rightly so, featuring fast bumps, screeches and turns; sharp editing and impressive stunts; fantastic use of the city landscape; and setting the precedent for all future movie car chases. And did I mention that it’s cool?
Some viewers may find the movie to be a little slow-burning at times – there’s not quite as much action as there might be expected from a police action-drama as the main focus is ultimately the characterisation of Bullitt. But with McQueen embodying all that was cool about the late 1960’s, Bullitt is the original rogue cop movie that paved the way for the likes of Dirty Harry. So buckle up, hit the gas pedal and be careful not to hit your head speeding over those hills!
Best bit: Well, it has to be the car chase, really. The final showdown at the airport is a very close second.
Best line: ‘Don’t be naive, Lieutenant. We both know how careers are made. Integrity is something you sell the public.’
Watch this if you liked: Dirty Harry (1971), The Great Escape (1963)