Tuesday, June 25, 2013

It Hits the Target: Bullitt (1968)

Steve McQueen
Battling Crime and Being Cool
Peter Yates' Bullitt, starring Steve McQueen, is one of the seminal modern crime films, renowned for its influential car chase sequence.  Less well-known (except perhaps to mystery fans) is that it was the winner of the Edgar Award for the best film of 1968, beating out Francois Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black and Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, as well as The Boston Strangler.

Co-scriptwriter Alan Trustman also authored the screenplay for Steve McQueen's and Faye Dunaway's 1968 caper film The Thomas Crown Affair (more on this to come). The script was an adaptation of Robert L. Fish's crime novel Mute Witness (1963), written under the punning pseudonym Robert L. Pike.

Robert Fish won an Edgar for best first novel for The Fugitive (1962).  I have to admit, however, that I have read neither of these novels.

Though Bullitt feels to me very modern in reference to that which came before it, often you read people on the internet today commenting that they find the film boring (though of course the film has very committed supporters as well).  Not me!  I'm sure I could watch Bullitt once a year for three decades and still be riveted by it the thirtieth time.

The great car chase still holds interest today (the absence of cgi is genuinely refreshing, I find), though I regret never having seen it on a theater screen (I was two when this film opened--I never actually saw a Steve McQueen film at the theater in my life).  But besides the car chase I love the San Francisco setting, the period style, the fine actors and, yes, even the sometimes criticized plot.

The period that Bullitt represents, the late 60s, is often ridiculed as the age of plaid and polyester and the fell word groovy, but everybody and everything looks so cool and stylish in Bullitt (it sounds cool and stylish as well, due the jazzy score by six-time Oscar nominee Lalo Schifrin).  Yet it's not overly-stylized as arguably is The Thomas Crown Affair.  There's a serious air of documentary-like realism to the acting and filming of Bullitt that I found very appealing.

Bullitt in a run-down hotel--no doubt thinking that
those window treatments could be vastly improved

This sort of film is tailor-made for Steve McQueen and he is utterly masterful as Frank Bullitt, a tough, honest and dazzlingly efficient cop (and so very stylish dresser).  As his posh girlfriend Cathy, Jacqueline Bisset is stunningly beautiful--she gives new meaning to the word "leggy"--though she doesn't have too much to do in the film besides enjoy intimate moments with Bullitt.

naturally Cathy color coordinates with her car

Nevertheless, Bisset does get to drive Steve McQueen about a bit in her color-coordinated canary yellow Porsche and later to complain that his job is making him callous.  "What will happen to us in time," she wonders, giving old Steve the chance to reel off this rejoinder: "Time starts now."  I'm still trying to figure that one out, but it seemed to work for Bisset, so I'm cool with it.

Besides Bisset, women figure in the film professionally as nurses and stewardesses--nary a policewoman is seen, even one who does nothing more than, say, carry cups of coffee to the men (times, happily, have changed).

"Time starts now."
Love means never having to say you're sorry
that you let me see that awful dead body
at that dreadful old crime scene.
The sterling supporting cast is comprised most notably of Don Gordon (Bullit's partner), Simon Oakland and Norman Fell (Bullett's superiors), Robert Duvall (a taxi driver), Georg Stanford Brown (a conscientious doctor) and last but certainly not least, Robert Vaughn, who plays Walter Chalmers, a supremely oily, arrogant and unscrupulous politician.

I think this was the role that typecast Vaughn as this sort of character for years to come (he is indeed very good at it).Vaughn's almost immediately antagonistic relationship with McQueen is really well done.

The intense duel that ensues between these two men who absolutely loath each other is central to the film and a true pleasure to watch.

Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughan) is up to no good
Norman Fell--Mr. Roper to us 70s kids--looks on, gloweringly

I'll leave off a discussion of the engrossing mystery plot for those of you who may not have seen the film yet.  The enigmatic ending leaves the audience anticipating a sequel that never came, sadly.  I suspect that the idiosyncratic McQueen turned down the chance to make a sequel (he seems to have turned down more great scripts than any actor in film history). Still, at least we have one Bullitt.


  1. I absolutely agree that this is a film you can watch repeatedly without it becoming boring. I have seen it about 15 times so far, and each time I will spot another detail I had previously never noticed which adds to my understanding of the plot. I have no interest in cars or car chases, but I still think there is much about this film to recommend it, such as the music, the complexity of the plot, the acting, the locations they used around San Francisco, and a kind of space you get in films from that era when that they didn't feel the need to fill up every scene with too much action.

    I have read Mute Witness (it is Penguin no. 2999), and I would never recommend it. The film it inspired is a much better prospect.

  2. Hi Karyn, great to hear from you!

    Yes, yes, yes, to everything you said (except I like the car chase too--the primitive male in me gets a real thrill every time I see Bullitt's car appear on the horizon--it's like the gunfight at the O. K. Corral!).

    There's a kind of atmospheric texture to this film that is really rich, isn't there? And I agree about the plot. I've read people complain that it's confusing, but it's like you say, you can watch it repeatedly and pick up new details each time.

    I didn't know this was a Penguin edition, but you would know of course! Interesting that the film is superior. Given how much I like the film, I can believe it.

    1. I should add that I can understand why people think the plot is confusing, and I suspect you have to watch it a few times to begin to understand the story properly. For a start, you have to watch the action taking place behind the opening credits to understand what follows, and who ever thinks of doing that the first time they watch a film? I guess that could be considered a flaw of the film, but once you have invested the time in re-watching it a few times, you begin to appreciate how intricate the plot is - and it becomes something you have to decipher, something you can have long discussions about.

      And while I don't enjoy car chases at all, I do have some affection for that one. I like the use of the music, the way you can see the car in the rear view mirror, and watching for the reappearance of the Volkswagen.

    2. Yes, the opening credits are so stylishly done, one could miss some plot points! I believe the late sixties was the period when filmmakers really loosened up opening film credits.

  3. Well, at least you do not speak only about Mystery in your beautiful Blog, Curt! Bullit even, one of the finest action films ever! With a wonderful Steve McQueen and a beautiful, at the time, but even now, Jacqueline Bisset!
    Another film starring Steve McQueen that I love is The Getaway, a 1972 American action-crime film directed by Sam Peckinpah and starring Also Ali MacGraw. In truth, I must say that the filmmakers I loved were Sam Peckinpah and John Frankenheimer. Currently I love Ridley Scott, Oliver Stone, Wim Wenders ... as directors, of course. :-)
    Ah, Curt, I sent you a new email : read it, and then, answer about !

    1. I have to admit that I have never seen The Getaway. I know it's based on the Jim Thompson book, one with a very dark ending, and some Thompson fans feel Peckinpah and McQueen turned it into a McQueen film rather than a Thompson film. Yes, will be getting back to you on the email.

  4. I agree, this is a great movie Curt - beautifully made, utterly chic and great to look at and listen to (one of Lalo Schifrin's best jazz scores). I think I is very wise to stay away from the plot however - I have often found it to be nigh on impenetrable and virtually impossible to summarise anyway! The BBC adapted the book for radio and in an hour did manage to make it much easier to follow but couldn't replicate the film's sheer class and style.

    1. LOL, Sergio, that probably is true about the plot, I suppose in part I didn't want to invest the time in describing it! But like Karyn I was actually paying quite a bit of attention to it too--my detective novel brain, I suppose!

      I do love the music in the film. For example, the scene which is devoted to McQueen's dinner date with Bisset, which is nothing but visuals and the music of the jazz quartet.

      There's a blog entry devoted to that scene--a wine blog of all things ("Sediment")!


  5. Once again my husband saw this post first and urged me to take a look. He loves this movie. He thinks I don't like it but he is wrong. I like the actors and the mood. I may have found it confusing the first time I watched it, but we have watched it many times, and it makes perfect sense to me now. How could anyone find it boring? It has been a few years since we last saw it, it is time to watch it again.

    Great post. It would entice me to watch it if I had never seen the movie.

    1. Hi Tracy,

      I'm really pleased the both of you are enjoying this blog! I do think there are multiple things about this film that can appeal to people, like you say the style and the mood as well as the car chase. The car chase is what you read about it usually, but there's a lot more going on too!