Our Video Vault column is normally devoted to those films that we love and that we’ve seen dozens and dozens of times. I personally haven’t written one on what is considered to be a classic that I’ve only just watched for the first time recently. Until now that is.
Recently it occurred to me that I needed to take two hours and visit the 1968 Steve McQueen classic, Bullitt. Going into this film, my only knowledge of it, aside from it starring McQueen, was that it features one of the best car chase scene ever captured on film. Well considering I’m all for a great car chase, that’s all the information I needed. I had no prior knowledge of the plot, or the rest of the cast for that matter so when I sat down to finally watch it, it was all a surprise.
In what can be considered one of his most famous roles, McQueen stars as all-business San Francisco police detective Frank Bullitt. Bullitt and his partner Delgetti are tasked with protecting a star witness for 48 hours and deliver him safely to the courthouse to testify against an underground crime lord. However, while under their protection, the witness and Delgetti are gunned down. Bullitt decides to investigate the case himself, much to the chagrin of Senator Chalmers (Robert Vaughn), who tries to shut down Bullitt’s investigation.
Directed by Peter Yates and released in 1968, this film does show its age, while still also remaining timeless. This quality makes this film incredibly easy to watch without cringing at how different San Francisco was back then. In an age where our films are visually busy with effects, lens-flares, explosions and the like, this film calls back to an age where none of those things were necessary. Yates created a film where certain key scenes had no music, and little movement, yet those scenes were some of the most striking of the film. His use of angles and the way he used lighting and framing all lend to the undercurrent of intensity that runs throughout its entirety.
That intensity also applies to McQueen. He’s not so much playing a character as he is a presence. I’m not well versed in the world of McQueen but it seems to me that this role might have been close to what he was like when he wasn’t in front of the camera. On the surface he’s calm, cool and collected, but you can see a storm brewing just under the surface.
While there are some big names in this film, there is no doubt that this is McQueen’s film. Robert Vaughn, as mentioned above, plays the Senator that original tasked Bullitt, then tried to shut him down. We also get to see a young Norman Fell and Robert Duvall as well. The one role that I could have done without however was that of Bullitt’s love interest, Cathy, played by Jacqueline Bisset. It seems to me that this role was thrown in for that romantic aspect that wasn’t even necessary. Perhaps it was an attempt to bring some warmth to the character of Bullitt, but I found her to be more of a distraction.
Shot on location in San Francisco, this film does a great job of shining a spot light on the iconic city. With shots of the Golden Gate Bridge, the steep hilly streets and its personality at the time, San Francisco can also be considered a co-star of the film. The one other thing the city ads with those hilly streets, is the formula for a classic car chase.
I spent a good portion of the film trying to figure out just where that car chases was going to pop up. Finally about two-thirds of the way through, the wait paid off. What I saw was nothing short of amazing. To think that Yates was able to capture such an incredible chase scene like that in 1968 just boggled my mind. Most chase scenes these days involve the foreign racing cars that you see in the Fast and Furious films. Back in 1968, they used the hot rods of the time, a 1968 Dodge Charger and a 1968 Ford Mustang GT, both of which are good old-fashioned American muscle. This was a time where CGI wasn’t an option. This scene was filmed on a camera with the cars reaching speeds of up to 110 mph. That’s unheard of on the streets of San Francisco.
McQueen originally planned on doing his own driving, however after one part where he overshot a turn and burned rubber while in reverse, a stunt driver took over. That mistake however, remains in the film and lends itself to the fact that even though Bullitt’s a cop, he’s not an expert race car driver. He’s just a guy trying to do his job.
The entire scene runs almost 10 minutes and is done without the use of any type of musical score. There’s nothing more that engines revving, tires squealing and metal grinding as far as the soundtrack goes. There isn’t even any dialogue between the two bad guys in the Charger. To have a scene that contains so much, yet so little, be that entrancing is really something to behold.
Bullitt went on to win the Oscar for Best Film Editing, while also being nominated for Best Sound. It captured the performance that went on to define Steve McQueen and also set the bar for action packed car chase scenes. Looking at this film through fresh eyes made me appreciate the talent that went into making it. While I’m ashamed to admit that this was the first viewing for me, I’m also happy about that fact. Had I seen this film when I was younger, I may not have appreciated it as much as I do now that I’m an adult.
If you haven’t seen this film, do yourself a favor and rent it tonight. If this sounds like your cup of tea, I doubt you’ll be disappointed. Any and all film fans should take the two hours and watch it. I’m glad I can finally say “Why yes, I have seen Bullitt” and I foresee this film making its way into my collection very soon.
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