There was never a better city for crime pictures than San Francisco. Much of this reputation comes from Bullitt and the enduring cool of its hero Steve McQueen. He had many great films and he was a part of some truly epic ensembles including The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, but Bullitt is unequivocally ruled by “The King of Cool.” There is no other focal point.
Frank (McQueen) and his partner Delgetti (Don Gordon) have an authentically antagonistic relationship running deep. Because they know, without saying anything, they have each other’s backs. However, the ensuing events lay out a premise that will test them incessantly. Self-aggrandizing political hopeful Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughan) is intent on presenting his key witness Johnny Ross (Felice Orlandi) before the Senate to spearhead his clamp down on organized crime. He’s handpicked Bullitt to give his valuable asset around-the-clock protection until he’s called upon to testify. He knows the cops exploits are popular with the local press and for Chalmers, every decision is an attempt to vie for candidacy.
For Bullitt, it’s just his job and so he Delgetti and a family man named Stanton take on the assignment ready to sit it out with Ross in a two-bit hotel room feeling like sitting targets with the large windows inviting prying eyes. Even as a certain of apprehension is maintained, the police set up watch and tell Ross to get comfortable. But the status quo was not to be. Stanton’s shift gets disrupted by a brutally unsentimental hit on a hotel room.
Ross gets blown through with a shotgun by two fugitives and Stanton is left for dead as well. Things truly ignite as Bullitt looks to pursue the culprit and feels the residual heat from Chalmers who is ready to make Frank’s life a living hell. Buying time, he hides Ross’s body to keep it out of the news and goes after the men he knows will lead him to his elusive answer.
Aside from his motorcycle riding in The Great Escape, Bullitt‘s car chase is McQueen’s finest hour as an action star. Though he shared stunt driving duties in both films with industry-pro Bud Ekins, there’s little doubt his persona was well-deserved and he plays the part well.
10 minutes bouncing and thudding through the streets of San Francisco. Epic panoramas of the chase, swerving through traffic and careening around street corners leading to a straightaway where we get to see The Dodge Charger and Mustang really fly.
The enigmatic nature is the key to the rhythms the story settles into. It’s this sense of uneasiness mixed with pavement and payphone realism as Bullitt does the heavy lifting involved with chasing leads.
The beats of the procedural feel methodical and genuinely authentic while never obscuring the fact this is a thriller with pulsating ebb and flow. Because the best action movies are exactly that: action. Not simply in the climactic moments but the mundane. They rarely get weighed down by exposition or dialogue that we have to slog through. And as a result, they are won and lost in the ambiguity.
Director Peter Yates was hand-picked for the project based on his work on Robbery from the year prior, complete with its own defining car chase. Then, screenwriter Alan R. Trustman works with Harry Kleiner to follow up The Thomas Crown Affair, his other vehicle for McQueen.
Bullitt became the standard neo-noir cop film to measure all others from William Friedkin’s French Connection, its East Coast rival, to Dirty Harry and many of the later works of David Fincher including Se7en and Zodiac.
The film is blessed with unprecedented access to San Francisco, which would be all but unheard of today. From streets being closed off, to shooting in full hospital wings, and taking over SFO airport for an evening. These authentic locations all throughout the city not only guarantee a certain degree of authenticity, they also meant Bullitt needed no sets.
Because at the time the picture was shot, S.F. was not necessarily a film mecca though films such as The Sniper, The Lineup, and of course Vertigo were shot there. But Bullitt and other equally atmospheric projects captured its shading for all posterity in the subsequent years. It became so much a part of the cultural consciousness Peter Bogdanovich would very purposely do a sendup of the chase in his neo-screwball What’s Up, Doc.
Handheld Arriflex cameras allow Yates a fluidity and a similar intimacy with the real world that all but plants us in the environment. Steve McQueen racing across the tarmac to nab his man, ducking and diving under oncoming planes taxiing out masks nothing. It feels real and fearless in a way that’s hardly for show. McQueen embodies this type of tenacity.
In the end, it’s not much of a spoiler that we see another bloody body, this time with wounds inflicted by the police and we’re reminded how similar they look. Yes, one was committed as an act of crime, the other an attempt to maintain public safety but they both lay there horribly mangled.
If the film began with an unsentimental gut punch then it’s safe to assume it would not change and thankfully it does not. Bullitt is the quintessential police film with grit and violence, forged through by a cop who’s willing to go rogue and stand in the face of powerful men to uphold his responsibility. He’s not looking to make a name for himself. Even as he pushes back against the establishment, he’s reined in by his own moral compass. It’s what guides him.
Jacqueline Bisset is enchanting as his girlfriend though she isn’t given much of a purpose in the film except for providing him someone to go home to. She is a much-needed person to draw out the more sensitive side of his normally guarded self. But she’s also the one to put into question his line of work: “Do you let anything reach you? I mean, really reach you? Or are you so used to it by now that nothing really touches you? You’re living in a sewer, Frank.”
Here is the conflict I imagine within most any police officer. This internal tug-of-war between wading through the refuse to clean up the streets and becoming one with it. Of becoming so used to evil, you’re soon callous and cynical toward all good. When the only way to fight violence is with violence in an equal and opposite direction.
At the very least it spells a compromise of integrity and morals and of a belief system. If that’s getting a little too moralistic, know Bullitt is just about the best police procedural we ever had. It certainly holds a well-deserved place in the pantheon of crime genre archetypes. With or without morals.