#487) Bullitt (1968)

#487) Bullitt (1968)

OR “Mustang Stevie”

Directed by Peter Yates

Written by Alan Trustman and Harry Kleiner. Based on the novel “Mute Witness” by Robert L. Pike (aka Robert L. Fish).

Class of 2007

The Plot: San Francisco Police Detective Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) is assigned by Senator Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn) to protect Johnny Ross (Felice Orlandi), a mob informant scheduled to testify against “The Organization” at a senate subcommittee. When two professional hitmen shoot Ross in his hotel room, Bullitt is determined to find out who’s responsible before Chalmers finds out and the case is taken away from him. But this mystery has a few twists to it, mainly the twists and turns of the city streets as Bullitt chases a lead into film immortality.

Why It Matters: The NFR gives superlatives to McQueen, Yates, Lalo Schifrin’s “superb” score, and of course, the chase scene, which is hailed as both “exhilarating” and “arguably the finest in cinema history.”

But Does It Really?: We all know why we’re here: “Bullitt” makes the list for its iconic chase scene through San Francisco (more on that later). Thankfully, the rest of the movie is exciting and entertaining enough not to be overshadowed by 10 minutes in the middle. “Bullitt” arrived at the dawn of the New Hollywood era, and Yates’ energetic direction presaged the sleek, gritty aesthetic of 1970s studio films. “Bullitt” is by no means an untouchable classic, but does feature an untouchable movie moment, and has endured as a shining example for all action movies to follow.

Everybody Gets One: British director Peter Yates got his start directing in the theater and serving as assistant director on such films as “The Guns of Navarone” and “A Taste of Honey”. His 1967 film “Robbery” (which also includes an extended chase sequence) caught the eye of “Bullitt” screenwriter Alan Trustman, who brought him to the attention of Steve McQueen and the film’s producers. “Bullitt” was Yates’ first American directing gig. And shoutout to Felice Orlandi as Ross, aka “the vic”…or is he?

Wow, That’s Dated: Much of the film’s story points hinder on such outdated things as cabs, phone booths, and a brand new Xerox Magnafax Telecopier, one of the first facsimile (or “fax”) machines. Also dated: “Thank you for choosing Pan American. Please, for the love of God, keep choosing us.”

Seriously, Oscars?: “Bullitt” was one of the most successful movies of 1968, and in a very crowded Oscar field, still managed to take home the prize for Frank P. Keller’s editing (presumably for the chase). Warner Bros.’ sound department was also nominated, losing Best Sound to the Columbia team for “Oliver!”.

Other notes 

  • The novel “Mute Witness” was set in New York, and although the city was considered (along with Boston), “Bullitt” was ultimately filmed in San Francisco, thanks to some lobbying from then-Mayor Joseph Alioto. “Bullitt” was one of the first studio films to shoot entirely on location, which ultimately cost the film an additional half million dollars.
  • Even the opening credits are sneaky. Shoutout to Pablo Ferro and his team.
  • Did Bullitt ever work with Dirty Harry? Speaking of, “Bullitt” came out just after the Miranda Rights were implemented, and while the film never goes to the “Dirty Harry” extremes, Bullitt is definitely a cop who doesn’t play by the rules. I kept waiting for the film to play into those “hand in your badge” clichés, but thankfully it never did.
  • Just a few years away from “The Godfather“, Robert Duvall shows up here as cab driver/witness Weissberg. Duvall’s later fame makes his appearance here a little distracting, and tips off too early that his character will be important later.
  • I assume Senator Chalmers hired Bullitt and his team because Skinner was too busy making Steamed Hams.
  • Steve McQueen is so close to being Paul Newman. I see why they were always up for the same parts. McQueen’s acting is sometimes dismissed as too stiff, but it works well for this character; a man desensitized by the violence that surrounds him.
  • As Bullitt’s live-in girlfriend Cathy, Jacqueline Bisset gets virtually nothing to do (other than look sexy), but it’s good to know that this movie was a launching pad for more substantial work (I enjoy her in “Murder on the Orient Express”). And while we’re here: it’s pronounced BISS-et, not Bis-SET.
  • Among the countless character actors in “Bullitt” are future sitcom stars Vic Tayback and Norman Fell, “Psycho” outlier Simon Oakland, and actor/director Georg Stanford Brown, progressively cast here as an African-American surgeon. Who isn’t in this movie?
  • And now the moment you’ve been waiting for: the chase between Bullitt’s first-generation Ford Mustang and the bad guy’s Dodge Charger through the hilly streets of San Francisco. The bumpy landscape and driver POV shots give the whole scene the sensation of a roller coaster (the film’s “Variety” review compared it to the opening of “This Is Cinerama“). Also aiding the excitement is the natural claustrophobia of San Francisco’s streets: already intimidating while going the speed limit, but especially terrifying at 100 mph. The sequence is a classic for a reason, and still a fun watch over 50 years later. My one gripe: the chase is geographically impossible. How the hell did they end up in Brisbane from the Marina District?
  • While we’re talking about the chase, shoutout to the stunt drivers. An accomplished race car driver, Steve McQueen did his own driving for the closeups (at his own insistence). The long shots of the Mustang were done by McQueen’s regular stuntman Loren James, legendary stunt coordinator Carey Loftin, and McQueen’s “Great Escape” motorcycle double Bud Ekins. The Charger was driven by stuntman Bill Hickman, who was driving right behind James Dean at the moment of his fatal car crash.
  • Nothing ever tops the chase scene, but the mystery is well-crafted enough to hold your interest. The film’s finale at SFO is an interesting mix of “Airport ’68” and “Where’s Waldo?”. Though perhaps the most exciting element is all the pre-9/11 airport procedures, which seem quite casual to a modern viewer. Hell, back then if you asked nice enough they’d let you fly the plane.
  • Oooh, Bullitt said “bullshit”. You earn that M rating, movie.
  • Also incredibly dated in 2020: the lingering shot of a “Support Your Local Police” bumper sticker. About that…

Legacy 

  • Everyone benefited from the success of “Bullitt”. Director Peter Yates would go on to direct such films as “The Deep” (also with Jacqueline Bisset) and “Breaking Away”. Producer Philip D’Antoni would later win an Oscar for producing “The French Connection“. Hey, there’s an iconic chase scene in that movie, too! What are the odds?
  • “Bullitt” still gets referenced from time to time, almost always for the chase scene. Runner-up: the title is occasionally a cultural short-hand for erratic driving (“Okay Bullitt…”).

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