“Bullitt”, a crime/action movie, starred Steve McQueen and Robert Vaughn. It’s a much more intelligent film than you might expect, which is what makes it a classic. Police lieutenant Frank Bullitt (McQueen) is asked by politician Walter Chalmers (Vaughn) to guard a mobster until a Senate hearing into organized crime, where the man will give evidence. When assassins attack the hotel where the witness is being kept and Bullitt’s team is blamed, Bullitt investigates to find out what has gone wrong.
One of the main things that really struck me was how believable this film is. When it comes to action these days, we tend to be suspending our disbelief and watching a series of highly improbable car chases, gun or fist fights, and explosions. You will not find any of that here (thankfully). From the prologue where the mobster in question is seen evading the men who’ve been sent to kill him, there is tight, believable action throughout. The hero is not constantly waving his gun around, there is only one car chase (and I’ll come back to that), one explosion, and no punch ups! Instead we are treated to some very believable police work as the protagonist and his partner investigate the events and piece together what is really going on. For example, there is a scene where Bullitt finds the taxi driver who the mobster used when first arriving in San Francisco (played by Robert De Niro), and asks the man to take him to the same places he took the other man. This is how Bullitt finds out that there is a possible witness. The politician, meanwhile, uses a combination of bribery and threats on the people above Bullitt to try to keep tabs on the hero and find out what he’s up to. All the way to the finale, there is no point at which we are shaking our heads and thinking this can’t happen. More importantly, at no point are we bored. It’s laid out for us like a jigsaw puzzle, which we put together along with Bullitt.
If you’ve seen this already (or even if you haven’t), you may be aware that the car chase in “Bullitt” is considered one of the best in cinema history. It starts very low key, as the assassins start to follow Bullitt, hoping he will lead them to the mobster. Shortly the assassins lose Bullitt, only to find that he’s spotted them and has managed to come up behind them. Realising they’ve been spotted, they attempt to lose him. The filming of this sequence is fantastic. Unlike the short cuts we might expect, there are quite log takes of the cars driving, interspersed only with shots of the interior of the cars. As the criminals become increasingly worried, the chase, which started out sedately, becomes faster and faster. (There is a shot of the criminals fastening their seat belts before they speed up.) In the San Francisco area where this film is set, cars driving at speed encounter the steep roads of the area, leading to the continuous thumping of the vehicles as they go over hills and come down hard on the road, no doubt doing horrendous damage. One of the men fires off two shots at Bullitt just before the end of the chase, but in the entire nine minutes of this chase sequence not a single word is spoken. There is no incidental music. It will have you on the edge of your seat with tension.
The scripting of this film is beautifully minimalist, and it is not afraid of silence. Bullitt himself is a man of few words. When confronted by obnoxious people (such as Chalmers) he doesn’t engage at all, just gets on with what he’s doing. To a character like Chalmers who is extremely self-important, this is very aggravating. Conversations between the policemen are very to the point, keeping focused on their work. Body language often speaks loudest in this film. For example, in the car chase sequence, the interior of the criminals’ car is viewed several times. However they don’t talk to each other. We see their escalating worry through facial expression, body tension, and the gunman eventually getting out his shotgun towards the end.
Actually I love the hitmen. So often in film assassins are depicted as flashy and egotistical, with elaborate weapons and mouthing off a lot. Not these fellas. They are ordinary, nondescript. They would not stand out in a crowd. The weapon of choice is a shotgun, nothing fancy. They do not look to create more bodies than necessary (hence the wounding of the policeman at the hotel, who they could have easily killed.) They are older men, very experienced and professional, taciturn. We can believe these men would be successful killers.
The oily Chalmers is superbly played by Robert Vaughn, who said later that this film is his personal favourite. This man is all about power and prestige. He butters up people by telling them that helping him will be ‘good for their career’. When that doesn’t work, he moves to threats about ruining careers and blackening names. We find ourselves really hating this guy, and so the actor has been successful in creating an unlikeable character. McQueen, often referred to as the ‘king of cool’, was ideally suited to the role of Bullitt. He embodied the focus, professionalism, and dedication, of the main character. They are ably supported by an excellent supporting cast. Jacqueline Bisset, playing Bullitt’s girlfriend Cathy, unfortunately has the same problem faced by many female actors playing the ‘love interest’, not enough to do. However, she does have a moment in a scene where she sees a murder victim when she follows Bullitt into a hotel. She is very convincing in the shock and distress she feels, and also in her concerned question to Bullitt about what seeing that kind of thing constantly would do to him.
This is a truly excellent film, for fans of action, thriller, and police-procedural film. It’s better than many of this genre you would see today, managing to be both believable and exciting. I highly recommend it.