Dir. by Peter Yates - 1 hr. 54 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
"Bullitt" is a very famous movie, and it's justifiably famous for one reason in particular. The drawing card is the car chase, as in the car chase of all time. Whether or not it holds first place ever is something I'll get around to addressing, but the bigger question is what's going on outside of that nearly eleven minute sequence? Is it all window-dressing until the main course comes along?
Bullitt (Steve McQueen) is a detective tasked with protecting an important government witness, who just has to survive the weekend. When it goes afoul, leaving both Bullitt's partner and the witness in the hospital, both clinging to life, Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn), the politician who hand-picked Bullitt for the task, is furious (moreso because of his missed career advancement), and tries to hang the whole thing on Bullitt's head. But there are some leads to be followed, including tracking down the guy who shot the two men in the first place, and Bullitt must navigate around Chalmers' meddlesome careerism to figure out just what is going on, and to hopefully bring someone to justice.
There's really two movies here, which makes "Bullitt" feel like a very disjointed film at times. On one hand, like "The French Connection," which came after this, there's a ton of very low-key police procedural material. It's not that it's not edited down to the essentials, but it's also not edited down to misleading brevity, either. This sort of material makes up the bulk of the film, which produces an interesting effect. As a viewer, you kind of settle into the tone of the film, which is mostly not explosive, but definitely under the pressure of looming threats. Things occasionally happen, like when the gunman breaks into the witness's hotel room and guns down people, but it's not out of the blue. There's a call from the front desk clerk telling the policeman that there are people wanting to come up, so Director Peter Yates clearly prefers building tension to merely shocking people with abruptness. Generally speaking, the tone of the movie is watching people go about their work, which is mostly quiet, thoughtful, and involves just doing stuff. One of the reasons that Robert Vaughn's character is so annoying (in a fantastic way) is that he just rolls into scenes, demands that everyone stop what they're doing and pay attention to him until he's satisfied or successfully blown off. You can feel every character in the movie mutter "asshole" under their breath whenever Chalmers walks off.
So once you're accustomed to just watching Bullitt and his cohorts going about their business (which is interesting, I'm not going to pretend it's not), everyone just gets slapped in the face with one of the greatest, if not THE greatest car chase in the history of film. As it turns out, the entire film to that point has been slowly building tension, to be released in an iconic sequence. In retrospect, it all adds up. You've got two iconic examples of American Muscle: a Dodge Charger and a Ford Mustang, and they're tearing up a great film location: the streets of San Francisco. You also have Steve McQueen actually handling some of the driving himself for added authenticity. And you have Bullitt finally acting: McQueen's character is not very talkative over the course of the film, and it becomes apparent that instead of being sedate, he's capable of exploding into action. But all of this is just words, and you should probably just watch the sequence and understand exactly what I'm talking about.
You could make a case that this scene justifies the entire run-time of the film, but that would ignore the fact that the rest of "Bullitt" is a solid film. There's an angle between Bullitt and his girlfriend Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset)(I suppose, that's never exactly explained, but she's undressed and in his bed a lot), where she gets a taste of what he goes through on a day-to-day basis, and it doesn't go down smoothly. And then there's the matter of figuring out exactly what's going on with the witness. There's another extended chase scene (this time on foot, at SFO at night, dodging taxi-ing planes), and things end definitively, publicly, and bloodily. It's at this point the question that Cathy has posed to Bullitt early becomes relevant: when your entire life is spent with one foot in all of the ugliness that humanity has to offer, how do you keep the other foot clean? That question is not resolved as neatly.
"Bullitt" is a must-see movie, not because of sustained excellence, or because it's flawless from beginning to end, but because there's an all-time cinematic peak in the middle of a pretty good movie. I tend to think the car chase is #1, but "The French Connection" isn't far off. There's also Steve McQueen being an icon, and Robert Vaughn doing what he does best (playing arrogant, pushy d-bags), and the usual fun of seeing San Francisco on film. But it's also a solid detective story that gives a small taste of the tedium involved in such matters, without actually being boring, which is a nice feat. But seriously, go see that Mustang go.
4 / 5 - Theatre