A real car guy movie Based on the novel Mute Witness by Robert L. Pike, the film is one of Steve McQueen’s most famous performances.
The two hitmen slowly ease their Dodge Charger down the San Francisco hills. The baddies scan the roads looking for their mark. The camera zooms out and tilts up — a Ford Mustang appears in the rearview mirror like a shark stalking its prey. The two hitmen buckle their seatbelts as they stop at a stop sign before throwing their Dodge into a brutal left turn and tear off down the street.
That is how one of the most iconic car chases in American cinematic history began. In 1968, Steve “The King of Cool” McQueen starred in Bullitt. The dramatic thriller film went on to become chosen for preservation in the United States Film Registry in 2007. Bullitt is easily one of the most recognizable and memorable films to come out of the 1960s. Based on the novel Mute Witness by Robert L. Pike, the film is one of Steve McQueen’s most famous performances.
In it, he portrays the character of Bullitt, a stoic and collected lieutenant in the San Francisco Police Department. He and two of his colleagues are assigned to protect a key witness who is to testify against the mob. However, when the witness is killed and one of his colleagues is seriously wounded in the process, Bullitt takes it upon himself to unravel the web of mystery that seems to permeate the events that transpired.
The film itself is centered heavily around its star, McQueen, who does an excellent job of portraying a tough cop who has been hardened by years on the grind. McQueen almost seems to underplay his character, showing little emotion and keeping Bullitt as professional as possible. Even when his coworker takes a shotgun blast to the leg, his reaction is to split his resources between protecting the resources and getting his fellow officer to the hospital, only showing frustration when the witnesses’ attorney attempts to place the blame on the police. This incredibly subtle performance is actually what lends a lot of the excitement to the film. The dichotomy between the high stakes situations and the calmness with which Bullitt approaches each scenario keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat.
Everything about the film seemed minimal. There was no real musical score, the two hitmen in the film hardly uttered four sentences between them, and the dialogue was incredibly terse. Even during the famed car chase, the two hitmen said literally nothing as they swerved through city streets and took potshots at Bullit’s car. But somehow I kept finding myself on the edge of my seat hanging on to every word and trying to piece together the puzzle.
The plot of the film was quite intricate and filled with many twists. It kept me guessing and puzzled with each new discovery. The only real questions in the film are ‘Who killed the witness?’ and ‘Why?’—but director Peter Yates manages to use those simple queries as a foundation for a storyline filled with intrigue and excitement. It isn’t until the final minutes of the film that one is able to put a face to the main antagonists in the film.
The most exciting part of the film was hands down the car chase. In it, two hitmen attempt to tail Bullitt but find that the tables have turned after some crafty maneuvering. The ensuing chase begins on the hilly streets of San Francisco and eventually spills onto the highway before coming to a fiery end in the desert. The chase had been called revolutionary and one of the most exciting chase sequences in Hollywood during the time of its release. Even today, the chase is incredibly exciting and holds its own against modern high tech and CGI enhanced chases. The entire grittiness of the chase scenes and the fact that the sequences were conducted in real life without any technological enhancements makes it that much more intense. Furthermore, the fact that two classic American muscle cars were roaring up and down the city for what seemed like a half hour added to the fun. Getting to see a 1968 Mustang and a 1968 Charger in action when they were in their prime was a real treat and did not disappoint. Those vehicles exhibit a very real sense of power even when being observed on a television nearly 40 years later. The roar of their engines, the lurches as the drivers shift through the gears, and the smoke drifting away as the tires burn all brought the scene to life. Hands down it was one of the most exciting and fun chases that I’ve ever seen.
However, as I kept watching, the film seemed to drag on and I began to feel incredibly out of place watching it. Bullit was clearly a film unlike one I had seen before. It was much older, lacking a consistent musical score, used stiff camera angles, and the dialogue seemed rehearsed and choppy. I could see how this movie is a classic and how it could be loved by so many, but as I watched it, I began to realize that it was a classic from a different time. The film was fantastic and I thoroughly enjoyed it, but its stark difference with modern films made watching it a bit…unsettling, if you will.
My personal discomforts aside, Bullitt was a great film. I finally got around to seeing all the stars that I had merely heard about, McQueen, Duvall, Bisset. The car chase and McQueen’s performance are really what made the film so great to watch. Overall, it was a terrific film that held my attention and was a real pleasure to view.