Bullitt – A Cinematic Review

Bullitt is a 1968 thriller film, directed by Peter Yates, and starring Steve McQueen as a San Francisco detective ordered to protect a witness with evidence that could bring down a powerful mobster in Chicago. The witness, Johnny Ross, has been accused of stealing $2 million from the Mob and attempting to flee, and has gone to the San Francisco police with information that could help bring down his brother. But all hell soon breaks loose when Johnny Ross is located and targeted by hitmen who gun down Ross and his protecting officer with a Winchester pump-action shotgun. Frank Bullitt, played by Steve McQueen, is then charged with locating and identifying the hitmen. But all may not be as it seems with Johnny Ross…

For a movie which contains a significant amount of action, Bullitt is surprisingly character-led. Filmed in the streets of San Francisco with real people going about their lives in the background, the film immediately takes up an authenticity which is further bolstered by the realistic performances of its stars, and the research into police and medical procedure which is frequently demonstrated throughout the film. There’s a distinct lack of hammy acting, a lot of the communication in the film being expressed by those almost-imperceptible body movements which people often take for granted.

Steve McQueen puts in a sterling performance as Frank Bullitt, as an impersonal character who stands as a contrast to the opportunist – almost self-serving – Walter Chalmers. Indeed, McQueen goes through much of the film saying little at all, seeming effortlessly and ineffably cool throughout the whole film. However, the film does a good job of demonstrating that sometimes that coolness is a cloak for depersonalisation – as exhibited in a scene where Bullitt and his girlfriend encounter a strangled body, where Bullitt barely flinches while his girlfriend runs off, upset at the sight unfolding before her.

Really, though, in a modern context, it’s difficult to watch Bullitt for anything but the car chase – and what a car chase! Taking place through the slanted streets of San Francisco, the chase between the green Ford Mustang driven by Bullitt and the black Dodge Charger has become part of film legend, and probably represents the film’s greatest contribution to cinema.

Unlike previous films, which used speeded-up film of cars chasing each other at relatively low speeds, Bullitt has two cars going at full speed, including all of the associated danger of driving ludicrously powerful and ill-tempered muscle cars at such speeds. What’s more, it really demonstrates the focus on realism which both the director – a former racing manager for Stirling Moss, of all drivers – and McQueen – an accomplished driver and motorcycle rider in his own right – were determined to achieve.


Awesome-looking cars, V8 rumbles and smoking rear tyres – a recipe for automotive success!

The car chase therefore includes all of the smoking rear tyres and low bass rumbles of American V8 engines that a car fan could want, and has the added bonus of having Steve McQueen at the wheel during part of the chase. Both of the cars come very close to crashing several times during the scene, prompting the directors to hire Bud Ekins, formerly working with McQueen in The Great Escape, to perform the more risky stunts – without McQueen’s prior knowledge.

Ultimately, with the police movies of the 1970s, including the tour de force that was Dirty Harry in 1971, Bullitt seems to stand today more as a progenitor of a genre than its own self-contained film. The “cowboy cop” character represented by Frank Bullitt would later become a significant trope and later a cliché, while the realistic action of the car chase cemented that sort of action into the public consciousness.

Bullitt is still a strong film today, and there isn’t much that you could point to when talking about flaws of the film, although the relationship between Frank Bullitt and his girlfriend seems to be yet another case of that forced Hollywood pairing that so often exists in movies, with her dialogue seeming a lot more stale than everybody else’s. At the very least, though, the relationship is defined before the film starts, which is rather an improvement over the current model of shoehorning romance for the sake of it, rather than any actual connection between the characters.

Bottom Line: Bullitt is a solid introduction to the police thriller genre which proliferated during the 1970s, with a car chase which is difficult to top. Sometimes a bit slow for modern audiences, but overall a decent film.

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