Movies We Like
It’s rare when you can so clearly see it, but when that monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey dropped in on Hollywood in 1968, the police film also made a clear evolutionary jump with Bullitt. The year before is often cited as the year "New Hollywood" fully kicked off, with the releases of The Graduate and Bonnie & Clyde. That same year the police drama would get the mixed-race/cop-buddy film In The Heat of The Night, as well as the "ultra-violent criminal as hero" in Point Blank. The big screen cops of that era, though, were still closer in spirit to TV's Jack Webb busting hippies on Dragnet 1967 than they were to the characters in the French New Wave inspired Bonnie & Clyde. With the old studio system dying a slow death, the standards were relaxing a bit; therefore actors like Richard Widmark in Madigan, Clint Eastwood in Coogan’s Bluff, David Janssen in Warning Shot, and Aldo Ray in Riot on The Sunset Strip may have seemed a little edgier than usual (Frank Sinatra in The Detective even added an [in its day] shocking homosexual plot line), but those cop flicks still felt closer in style to the ones of the '50s with Glenn Ford or Kirk Douglas. Like an atom bomb Bullitt changed everything, and the policeman movie was never the same.
Actor Steve McQueen was already a big star with The Great Escape and The Cincinnati Kid, and a year earlier he got his only Oscar nomination for The Sand Pebbles. But ’68 was the year he became a mega-star thanks to the two giant hits: Bullitt and The Thomas Crown Affair. With Bullitt, McQueen’s own production company bought the rights to Robert L. Fish’s novel Mute Witness, and then brought in the little known director Peter Yates, having seen his minor heist film Robbery. Here McQueen plays the very cool San Francisco police Lieutenant, Frank Bullitt (with a name like that, how could he not be cool?). He and his guys are given the assignment of babysitting a minor criminal who is going to be the star witness against the mob in a Senate hearing (staged in San Francisco, for some unclear reason) that is being run by an ambitious politician (Robert Vaughn). While Bullitt is out wooing his pretty British girlfriend (Jacqueline Bisset) the safe-house is hit, and a cop and the star witness are fatally wounded. After the witness dies in the hospital, Bullet and his sidekick, Delgetti (Don Gordon), sneak the body out to the morgue so the hit-men will think he’s still alive, turning the film into a series of chases: on foot through the hospital, outside an airport, and most famously in cars through the hilly streets of San Francisco, which is what the film is still mostly remembered for. Along with The French Connection, any great car chase list will forever include Bullitt’s ten minute game of cat and mouse, which brought an authenticity to the car chase using real locations and cameras in the cars. The car chase alone helped win editor Frank P. Miller an Oscar and is still studied today by many a fledgling film maker.
Dialogue-wise, Bullitt is almost a silent film. McQueen makes Eastwood look like a chatty-pants. He says very little. But he’s so cool, speaking with his face and body language. Interestingly, the famous car chase aside, Bullitt is less an action film and more of a police-procedural-flick in the tradition of Akira Kurosawa’s 1949 Stray Dog, and the makers take pride in the cutting-edge technology used by the cops here. There are long, almost dialogue-free scenes of detectives tracking clues and using a sort of proto-fax-machine. Motivations and plot are not spelled out as clearly as cop films usually were, nor is the line between good and bad guys, as audiences were used to being spoon-fed then.
The film also reflects the rebellious spirit of the country in ’68. As people were beginning to question authority, Bullitt managed to combine both the pro-cop ideas that the then campaigning Richard Nixon ran for president on, as well as the counter-culture’s anti-authority stances. Bullitt shows only contempt for his bosses and the corrupt politicians who are always poking at him as he tries to do his job. Both of the political views and attitudes would be turned up to eleven in Eastwood’s series of Dirty Harry films, and, to some extent, in The French Connection, John Wayne’s McQ in ‘74, and most edgy police films that have been made since. McQueen turned the clean-cut cop character into a lone-wolf, anti-bureaucrat workaholic. He’s obsessed with getting the job done even if it means jeopardizing his career and his relationships outside of work. What was ahead of its time, even rather disturbing, in ’68, has now become the standard cop hero. Though The Great Escape may be McQueen’s best film, Bullitt is his most influential, and the film that has helped keep him a cool-icon, even decades after his death.