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"Look, you work your side of the street, and I'll work mine."
Nineteen sixty-eight definitely saw a an uneasy drawing of lines, some on the side of old school law and order, and some who had determined politicking came with both a price and a payoff. And while a certain "police action" was still underway and had further divided the American consciousness, everyday citizens were determining just who could be trusted to do the right thing. In the streets of San Francisco, only one man could make the collar, maintain a clean conscience, and keep it cool—Frank Bullitt.
Facts of the Case
Steve McQueen plays Officer Frank Bullitt, a steely-eye San Francisco P.D. investigator who's all business without the bravado. When a Mafia informant, Johnny Ross (Pat Renella, Riot on Sunset Strip), escapes being rubbed out in Chicago, he makes his way to the City and becomes the charge of Bullitt and his partners. Ross is to be granted 48-hours of police protection, and Bullitt is hand-selected by aspiring politician Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughan, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) to keep watch over Ross until he can serve as the surprise witness in a Senate hearing. Ross, however, is critically shot up, along with one of Bullitt's partners, in what appears to be a double-cross. Despite Chalmers' insistence that Ross be transferred into his own care, Bullitt rebuffs the politician's threats, certain that something isn't quite adding up here. With a personal vendetta driving him, the brooding Bullitt sets off to find the hitmen and the boss that hired them. His personal campaign is played out through the streets of San Francisco, in the wards of the S.F. General Hospital, and within the crowded concourse of the S.F. International Airport.
Immediately, you'll find Bullitt to be a period piece, a sullen and stoic film that is entirely disaffected by its situation. That is, while America was mired in the Viet Nam conflict and politicians seemed to be more criminal than those who committed social offenses, the growing sense of despondency left many citizens feeling ineffective and exploited. In Bullitt, the dialog is remarkably sparse, director Peter Yates wisely allowing his iconic star to convey so much more through numerous dialog-free close-ups. As we watch McQueen, we sense we can hear his thoughts, whether he's confronted with the bloody aftermath of the hotel room shooting or studying the evidence afterwards. Yates allows viewers to essentially hear what they want—or perhaps need—to hear from a beleaguered hero who struggles to speak out against the atrocities at hand, those committed by thugs as well as those perpetrated by self-interested politicos. His shots are utilitarian and free of distracting style, meaning he presents the action through efficient set-ups and leaves the audience to linger upon character close-ups in a slightly overlong situation that causes us a bit of unease. Upon viewing the film, you'll also notice there's little soundtrack music. Even though venerable Lalo Schifrin delivers some appropriate jazz cues, the majority of the film is played without such punctuation, further emphasizing the starkness of Bullitt's world. Notice, too, the pervasiveness of the city sounds—the perpetual and claustrophobic din of traffic, the clamor in the crowded airport, and the piercing cacophony of jet airliner engines—and you'll further experience a culture being overwhelmed and ultimately diminished by its own machinations.
Of course, mention must be made of the oft-cited car chase, the 10-minute pursuit that is still one of the best you'll find. Steve McQueen does his own driving, helming the '68 Mustang GT fastback equipped with a 390 cubic inch V-8. Stunt driver Bill Hickman drives the sinister black Dodge Charger that barely contains its 440 cubic inch Magnum V-8. This particular chase is notable not because it's so wildly filmed and frantically edited beyond the point of believability, but rather because it takes place in and around the crowded streets of San Francisco. The portions where the camera is positioned to look out the windshield quickly give us a queasy feeling that rivals that of roller coaster ride-alongs. And, there is no high-powered score upstaging this action; we only hear the throaty roar of the car engines and the squealing tires.
Another vintage Warner Brothers catalog title newly minted in high definition, this Blu-ray disc looks very impressive. At the outset, expect to see a steady level of film grain, but of the sort that provides authentic texture. The grain never becomes distracting save for a single nighttime scene on the SFO airport tarmac. Otherwise, this has a great honest look that is preferable to any grain-reducing meddling. The colors are on the drab side, preserving the original production design, which was muted for tonal reasons as noted previously. Detail is excellent, though, proving again that vintage films can benefit well from a high-definition treatment, here encoded in a 1080p / VC-1 transfer, framed at 1.85:1.
The audio, however, doesn't hold up quite as well as the video, the onboard Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix feeling confined and compressed. The fidelity of the track is sub-par, dialog veering a bit up and down in volume level. Mostly the mix is well balanced but the source material simply shows its age.
Extras are quite plentiful here, the majority of the features from the previous two-disc DVD being ported over to this Blu-ray issue. These begin with the generally informative audio commentary from Yates. He lapses into many quiet moments, yet, for a fellow in his later years, he still manages to provide a good amount of details about this four-decade-old film. Next is a decent vintage featurette, Bullitt: Steve McQueen's Commitment to Reality, that runs 10 minutes and provides on-set looks at the use of real locations and real professionals (nurses, doctors, architects) in the making of the film, along with decent looks at the filming of the famous car chase. Steve McQueen: The Essence of Cool is the 86-minute Turner Classic Movies production that exhaustively traces the career of the iconic actor. The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing is a well-chosen extra, presented in 1080p with 5.1 audio and originally produced by the Starz/Encore cable channel, that discusses the history and use of editorial style in film (Bullitt won the 1968 Oscar for Best Editing). Last up is an original theatrical trailer for Bullitt.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As radiant as Jacqueline Bissett is, here playing Bullitt's girlfriend, her character just doesn't fit. As emotionless as Bullitt is, it makes little sense that he'd busy himself with a female companion, appearing to be the sort that would quickly wave off a turn under the covers when a case is yet to be solved. She exists, it appears, as the voice of analysis, charging that Bullitt has become entirely desensitized to the violence he wallows in day after day. The analogy to the effects of the lingering war are obvious, but in Bullitt's world, it seems inappropriate and unwanted that a character would presume to make such an assertion to the cool and calculating cop. It ultimately plays out in the final scene, but we find it difficult to believe that Bullitt could be affected by such sentiment.
While Bullitt won't likely compare to the hyperactive police pursuit spectacles of recent years, it excels in reflecting the tone of an emotionally embattled nation of 1968. For those interested in seeing McQueen at the top of his game in a film that refrains from glamorizing dire situations, Bullitt is recommended viewing.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Director's Commentary
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