Wednesday, March 31, 2010

REVIEW: Bullitt

Director: Peter Yates
Year 1968

Bullitt is a respectable cop thriller that came out in 1968, bringing about one of cinemas greatest car chases and possible the most famous. Now if you can believe it, this is actually my first Steve McQueen movie and I absolutely loved it. I've always been interested in the actor because of how highly Kimberly over at Cinebeats praises his work. She actually just recently posted a write up on Mr. McQueen in honor of his 80th birthday, so please check it out. She's always got a plethora of valuable info to spill.

In Bullitt, Steve plays a strong, but mostly silent San Francisco cop named (you guessed it) Frank Bullitt, who's searching for an underworld kingpin that's killed his witness that he was sworn to protect. The premise is simple and it takes its time to build, letting you get to know Bullitt as an officer of the law and as a human being. Peter Yates directs this film and he balances the screen time between Bullitt's business and personal life quite exquisitely, giving you enough information to care about the character.

Meet Bullitt, played by the iconically cool Steve McQueen.

The only other movie that I've seen by Peter Yates, was the 1983 fantasy film Krull, and the two movies couldn't be any further from each other in style and substance. Both are great films, but Bullitt is so calm and cool in it's delivery that it really sets it apart from the intrepid style of Krull, with its constant bombardment of fantastical shots and grandiose adventure.

In Bullitt, Steve McQueen's character never loses his cool no matter what the situation. He always attacks each problem with a long cool stare before he assess the situation. It's a mile apart from the frantic actors of today, but it's surprising and much appreciated to see such a classical approach to such a fervent role.

Bullitt gets the low down on the situation from assistant DA (Prick) Chalmers.

Bullitt's assignment involves protecting a witness for assistant DA Walter Chalmers, played by a ruthless Robert Vaughn. Chalmers tells him that it would benefit both their careers if every thing goes without a hitch, but Bullitt doesn't care about furthering his career in that sense. He prides himself on doing the job and doing it right, so Chalmer's underlying threats fall on deaf ears.

On the first night of protecting the witness, Bullitt feels like there's something wrong. He doesn't like the location of where their keeping the witness and has a strange feeling that this will be anything but a routine job. He leaves his officers in charge and goes to dinner with his girlfriend Cathy played by a striking Jacqueline Bisset, when the unthinkable happens. Two hitmen show up at the apartment complex where their keeping the witness, and blow the smithereens out of the officer on duty and the key witness. 

It's not a good day to be a key witness.

The sequence where this all goes down is shot with style and we're given clues as to how the hitmen get into the room, but these clues reveal for more questions on who helped them to gain access. It really is a great mystery that they set up and it's what sets our main character Bullitt into doing whatever it takes to find the answers no matter if it costs him his job.

A gruesome but beautifully filmed shot.

Luckily the officer and witness survive, but barely. They're both on life support and are each hanging on by a thread. Chalmers threatens Bullitt again, but this time he comes right out with it with no play on words. He blames the whole debacle on him and tells him that if the witness dies, he's going to have a field day with his career. After that great motivational speech from Chalmers, Bullitt heads off to follow the footsteps of the witness and to see what he did 24 hours before he was gunned down, hopefully leading him to the identity of the shooters themselves.

We are then given some amazing sequences of Steve McQueen traveling around San Francisco as he looks for clues to help him solve the case, all while driving around in a beautiful highland green 1968 Ford Mustang GT 390 Fastback. Now I have no idea what all the fancy talk means, but my father in-law could talk shop about this car for days and show you how to take it apart and put it back together again blindfolded. All I know is that this is one impressive looking car and it's one of the main things people remember about this film. Well, the car and the legendary car chase that follows.

Steve McQueen, as he amps up the cool factor in his Ford Mustang.

Now we've reached the main event, the car chase. I was expecting some over the top crash course tour of San Francisco, where people are diving out of the way of the two cars as they topple over parking meters and send old ladies and their grocery bags flying into the air, but luckily what I got was a really down to earth car chase, stuck in reality and filmed lovingly as it showcased the practical stunts on display. We've become so saturated with the hollywood car chase and all its CG glory, that we've forgotten that the real thing is just as spectacular and quite majestic as we watch the two metal wonders skim across their concrete terrain at break neck speeds.

McQueen tails the bad guys.

The most impressive part about this chase sequence is the fact that Peter Yates keeps the editing to a minimum. We are treated to long shots of the cars weaving through traffic and climbing the steep streets of San Francisco. The city is a great playground for the chase to take place in and Yates uses the unique location it to its fullest by placing the camera inside of the car and giving us a first person view of the action from behind the wheel. We feel the car plummet down the street only to be yanked up violently as it hits a flat intersection. It's a wild ride and there's nothing like it.

Look at that baby go!

Not only are we given the picturesque views of the metropolis, but the chase takes us out of the congested city and into the countryside as Bullitt continues to follow his prey. It really gives an epic scope for the chase when we're confined to the grid of the dense city streets and then are unleashed out into the open roads with nothing but clear skies in all directions. This is where we're shown just how powerful these cars are when their kicked into high gear.

Just one of the tense moments in this epic car chase.

There are so many great moments in the chase and they all come off in such a grand style. From the beginning of the entire sequence, when the hitmen are tailing Bullitt and then lose him only to be tailed themselves, up until the climactic ending, the pace of the entire whole builds until its traumatic crescendo where one of our cars meets its demise in a blaze of glory. It's such an amazing accomplishment and one that has stood the test of time and earned its place in cinematic history.

It didn't end so well for the hitmen.

Having killed the only leads to finding the mastermind behind the hit, Bullitt discovers that the man that he was ordered to protect wasn't really the right guy. Through some grounded in reality detective work, they pin point the guy and find out that he will be flying out of the airport that night so they decide to set up a sting.

McQueen knows his man is around here somewhere, but
until he finds him he's just going to continue to look cool.

Bullitt arrives at the airport and stakes it out. This sequence is done with a touch of paranoia as we are shown all the people walking by as they attempt to board their plane. It's another one of those tense moments made all the more clear by the intensity in the eyes of McQueen. You can see the dire need to catch this man under the cool disposition that he always carries in every scene of this film.

Finally, he catches a break and finds the man has already boarded his plane. Bullitt orders for the plane to be grounded and awaits for the plane to be emptied. As everyone exits the plane, Bullitt notices his man run out a back exit and Bullitt springs into action, chasing the man across the hazardous runway filled with jetliners as they threaten to flatten him. He loses him in the chaos and is then shot at by the man who sets off back to the airport's main building. Once there the man loses his cool and begins shooting at security guards after he realizes that the exits are locked and he's trapped. McQueen settles the commotion with a few well placed shots, ending the long and hard journey that he had embarked on to resolve the case.

The final death blow is delivered in style.

The airport scenes are a great choice for the final showdown and give plenty of interesting vistas for filming. The runway scene is especially atmospheric, with the runway lights the only thing illuminating most of the scenes. It gives a great sense of isolation for our main character as he hunts down this fugitive, grounding the character of Bullitt in reality. He had put his entire career on the line and if he couldn't bring this man to justice then he really would be left out in the cold, giving Bullitt consequences to his actions. The whole theme of integrity is what the character of Bullitt is grounded in. It was never about the fame or the glory that Chalmers enticed Bullitt with, but the fact of keeping his word and doing his job. That was what mattered most to him and that's what all noble characters are all about and I think what the center theme of the story is about. 

Don't think he's going to be coming back from that one.

Bullitt is a class above the rest when it comes to delivering a heart pounding action set piece by grounding it in the real world, with real consequences at stake. Yates focuses on the human characteristics of Frank Bullitt and I believe the film is better for it. You are able to see him struggle with each decision and recognize him as any normal man thrown into a situation that is extraordinary. He sticks to his beliefs and gut feelings and ends up coming out on top. Steve McQueen really earned his legendary status in this film and I for one will be checking out his entire catalogue in the future. If this is just a hint to the kind of performances he brings to the table then I've got a lot more pleasant surprises coming my way. As for the film Bullitt, this is a must see for anyone that loves a classic cop movie with a cerebral edge, teeth to bare, and tires to burn.

4 out of 5 stars      A film so cool only Steve McQueen could star in it.


  1. I can't believe you've never seen the Blob which stars Steve McQueen. Just don't plan on buying it because you might have to take a second mortgage on your house to afford the criterion version.

  2. Yeah I never really got around to watching the original Blob. Now the remake I've seen tons of times, but never had the opportunity to check out the original. I'll probably have to Netflix that one, don't need the second mortgage. Hahaha.

  3. Great review of my favorite film Jay.

    (arrived from your post on the imdb board)

  4. Yeah the movie is pretty cool. Glad you liked the review and thanks for checking it out.

  5. Bullitt was a slow, dated and boring film.

  6. To each his own film1922, sorry you didn't enjoy the film. The pacing is a required taste and it's a staple for how the earlier films were, before the advent of CGI and the concept of nonstop action for the sake of giving the audience a fun ride for an hour and a half of their time.

    I love a good action packed film that has nothing else to say then 'this is a kick ass ride', but I appreciated the slower paced films more like Bullitt that really take their time to create something special.

    Well we all have our preferences and thanks for checking out the review. We're all movie lovers even if we don't have the same opinions on what is good.

  7. Its hard to think that there is someone in the world who has not seen The Great Escape,where Steve got his nickname)The Cooler King). It's just such a fun story,based on actual events in WWII. If you want to see how McQueen can make a baseball iconic,..,see this one!
    OR, Junior Bonner for a really fun ride!