Under the banner of Solar Productions, Bullitt was the first film Steve McQueen made with producing partner Robert E. Relyea. As their prospective director, McQueen had his sights set on Peter Yates, having recently seen the Englishman’s 1967 UK feature Robbery and been quite impressed by, among other things, that film’s sensational car chase. A repeat performance of this vehicular brilliance would figure in Bullitt as well, but for starters, Yates and McQueen had to launch their new film with what the director dubbed a “grabber.” Under sleek bold-face credits, artfully designed by the great Pablo Ferro, Yates leads off the picture with the nighttime getaway of Chicago criminal Johnny Ross, who absconds with some mafia money and makes his way to northern California. Placing the fugitive under the protection of San Francisco’s finest, ambitious local politician Walter Chalmers hopes Ross will be the star witness in succeeding testimony. McQueen’s Lieutenant Frank Bullitt is put in charge of the custodial arrangement, but when he’s away from the safe house one evening (actually a suspiciously vulnerable hotel room), the plan goes awry, the guarding officer is killed, and Ross is fatally wounded … or so it seems.
This is the set-up, the surface story, what motivates Bullitt the film and its eponymous protagonist. But the mystery of this dubious homicide and the race-against-the-clock quest is something of a pretense. It may be the underlying narrative crux, but what Bullitt is really about is what Steve McQueen does next, whatever he does next. This includes enlisting ill-treated hospital staff to smudge the records of Ross’ condition and contending with the calculating Chalmers, a quintessential politico played perfectly by a devious Robert Vaughn. But it’s also about McQueen just being McQueen; more than anything, Bullitt is a showpiece for his celebrated persona. On the heels of films like The Great Escape (1963), The Sand Pebbles (1966), for which he would receive his only Academy Award nomination, and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), the star was firmly positioned as one of Hollywood’s most popular and bankable leading men, and Bullitt is everything that made him the icon he became.
As a point of comparison, take The Thomas Crown Affair. While an entertaining and stylish film, written by Alan Trustman, who soon thereafter adapted Robert L. Fish’s 1963 crime novel “Mute Witness” as Bullitt, this Norman Jewison-directed feature falters in one key regard: for all the high-class clothing, transportation, and felonious savvy, McQueen’s Thomas Crown is scarcely representative of the actor himself. McQueen plays the part well, but for anyone who knows anything about what kind of man McQueen was, the role rings undeniably false. This surely can’t be said for Frank Bullitt. Bullitt is a man used to late drunken nights (or more precisely, early drunken mornings), waking up worse for wear in a sort of amusing, uncompromising stupor. He’s patently out of place at Chalmers’ swanky party, acquiescing to a suit and tie but never looking comfortable in such apparel; and soon enough, that wardrobe is abandoned for more casual attire. He revels in his underdog, shaggy-dog status, despite being a media darling (how could someone as effortlessly cool and attractive as Frank Bullitt not be?). He also bares an exterior detachment, a nonchalant carelessness that is in actuality part of a well-honed veneer, part of his hardened professionalism. He’s good with women, especially his girlfriend Cathy, who is played by Jacqueline Bisset in what is a pleasant but an ultimately thankless routine. She is key, however, to the recognition of Bullitt’s conflicted objectivity, his unhealthy assent to a world of violence. And in the end, it is she who provides a degree of leveling harmony. Bullitt’s everyman actions include stealing a street side newspaper and purchasing a bulk of TV dinners, but he is an honest cop, proud and responsible, displaying resonant guilt and regret when his partner is killed. He works hard and pushes others hard, yet he is capable of contented, unpretentious downtime, like humbly eating a PB&J and having a glass of milk.
Released during a contentious time when policemen were far from being the most admired figures in American society, Bullitt presented an officer who could still inspire confidence. McQueen modeled his character in part on San Francisco Inspector Dave Toschi, the soon-to-be-famous lead in the Zodiac killer investigation, working with the detective on the nuances of the vocation and adopting his exemplar’s shoulder holster. This occupational aptitude is indeed central to Bullitt, and it’s one part of McQueen’s performance that works so well. Artlessly moving in and around the film’s assorted settings (and among its many virtues, Bullitt’s location photography is invaluable to its realization of urban texture), McQueen enacts the law and order routine with utmost conviction. He was particularly good at exercising a quiet, reserved emotion, built on his preference for reacting over acting. Accordingly, and necessarily so, his eyes are often a conduit for spectator identification, reading the room, establishing an investigative vantage point that draws the viewer in and verifies a firm psychological conductor. And while the film contains a solid hospital foot pursuit and a masterfully-staged airport finale, it’s not all action all the time. Bullitt is just as riveting during scenes of more mundane detective work, piecing together the timeline, following a chain of phone calls, making diagrams, getting finger prints, visiting with the medical examiner, sifting through evidence, and waiting on a rudimentary telecopier. Still, McQueen is a natural through it all.
And yet, for all that Steve McQueen contributes to Bullitt, for as much as the film would define his image, there is at least a ten-minute stretch when he takes a backseat (in a manner of speaking) to his equally engaging co-star. First appearing about twenty-three minutes into the film, as Bullitt pulls up to the hotel crime scene, it’s a modest entrance for his Highland Green 1968 Ford Mustang GT Fastback. This is an impressive vehicle to start (one of two such models used in the film, a “hero” car for more casual driving scenes, as the Los Angeles Times’ Charles Fleming notes, and a “jumper” car for the dramatic shots), but what it means to the film—and for so many action films likewise dependent on a great car chase or two—isn’t realized until just over an hour in. That’s when McQueen takes a seat and sees across the street two bad guys in their 1968 Dodge Charger R/T 440. His eyes lock. He buckles his seat belt and starts the engine. Cue the music. What ensues is a thrilling high-speed cruise through the San Francisco area (albeit in a creative geographic portrayal), with the modified cars reaching speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour. McQueen did most of his own driving, though the full extent is up for debate, with some accounts saying it was the vast majority while others contend it was only in closer shots or on straightaways. In any case, although there was no chase in the film’s original script (which was set in Los Angeles), the resulting scene is a dazzling burst of speed, sound, and movement, with Yates assembling an exhilarating flurry of camera angles and a prevailing emphasis on the mechanics of the car—the squealing times, the crashing shocks, the revving engines, all punctuated by McQueen’s evident joy behind the wheel.
Steve McQueen and Peter Yates had assembled an excellent team for Bullitt, from editor Frank P. Keller, who won an Oscar for his work on the film, to cinematographer William A. Fraker, who also in 1968 helped generate a similarly evocative atmosphere (a tonally distinct one, to be sure) for Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. There is also Lalo Schifrin’s score, a jazzy counterpart to the film’s visual style and rhythmic velocity. Under Yates’ direction, these elements forge a riveting tempo as Bullitt moves from place to place, unifying the frenzied action and McQueen’s ability to convey a sense of exhausted control. Always primed and always on the job, that skilled consistency also means there is always the possibility for drama. Fittingly, then, the film proceeds economically with no fat, with an enduring potential for explosive violence, and an effective conspiratorial tension that goes from probable to undeniable. Then there’s that car chase centerpiece. As brilliantly executed as Bullitt generally is, some have argued it simply fulfills genre essentials and merely boasts this one much-hyped sequence, lasting less than a few minutes in a film that runs nearly two hours; it has a “vacuous script” according to Pauline Kael, and Dave Kehr writes, “There isn’t much here, and what there is is awfully easy.” They’re in the minority, though. And besides, even if Bullitt were nothing more than this proportionately brief vehicular contest, that would be ten minutes more exciting than the entirety of many other films. And they don’t star Steve McQueen.