Appellate Judge Dave Ryan's Frisbee team nickname was "Bullitt". Long story, but it had a lot to do with the fact that he, too, drove around in a Karman Ghia with Jackie Bisset.
"Frank, we must all compromise."
Wanted: Dead or Alive made Steve McQueen a household name. The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape made him a superstar. But it was Bullitt, released in the tumultuous fall of 1968, that made him an American icon.
Bullitt is like few other films of its era: it's a film that humanizes the police in a time when they were viewed as corrupt "pigs," or, by some, as thuggish enemies of freedom; it's a drama with less dialogue than the typical French art film; and it's a motion picture that looks and feels more like a very, very well-made television show than cinema. If it only had a decent story, it would be a landmark film. Instead, it winds up being a film that is less than the sum of its parts. But damn, those parts are good…
Facts of the Case
Lt. Frank Bullitt (McQueen) is a no-nonsense San Francisco cop with a scorching hot architect girlfriend named Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset, The Deep) and a non-trivial chip on his shoulder. He and his partner Delgetti (Don Gordon, Peyton Place) are assigned by their supervisor, Capt. Bennett (Simon Oakland, Psycho), to "babysit" a Mob informer named Ross, who is scheduled to testify about his role in the Chicago syndicate. Ross's testimony is a feather in the cap of a local politician, Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn, The Man From U.N.C.L.E.), who has national ambitions. Hence, Chalmers is paying very close attention to Ross's well-being.
When Ross and one of the SFPD detectives assigned to guard him are gunned down by Mob hit men, Bullitt makes it his mission to bring the killers to justice. Of course he doesn't follow proper channels in doing so, earning the ire of both Chalmers and the Chief of Police (Norman Fell, Three's Company). A lot of things just don't add up. Why did Ross unlock the door when the killers appeared at his hotel? Is Chalmers hiding something? And is that Dodge Charger following me?
By 1968, Steve McQueen had sufficient clout in the film industry to begin producing his own films. Bullitt, the first film made by his Solar Productions, wound up being the most successful film of his entire career. It was an odd choice—Bullitt's original script, by all accounts, was so thin in plot that it was thought by some to be almost unfilmable. But in another sense, it was the perfect role for a Method actor like McQueen: when there's nothing on the page, the storytelling has to come from within the actor him/herself—which is the very essence of Strasberg's teachings.
Sure enough, McQueen threw himself into the role—and the film—with Methodist gusto. His "commitment to realism" (the title of the contemporaneous featurette included here as an extra) permeates the entire project. The film was shot entirely on location; no sets were used. When you see a scene set in a hospital, it's a real hospital. If the scene is in a hotel, it's a real hotel. Ditto the on-screen characters. Except for the handful of actors in the cast, what you see is what you get. Nurses are real nurses; cops are real cops; Cathy's co-workers are real architects. McQueen spent hours with the San Francisco police going over the practical aspects of police work, such as how to catalog evidence, to make sure his actions in the film conformed to proper police techniques. The effect is to make the film immersive, but not so immersive that it begins to feel like a documentary. And shockingly, Steve McQueen—superstar—manages to blend in with his surroundings.
But that doesn't mean McQueen is easy to ignore. Far from it—his performance is used to instruct actors in how to act. (Really.) There is so little dialogue in this film that if you took any out, you'd have a mime performance. That places the burden on McQueen to create the film's atmosphere, backstory, and tension all by himself, all through his acting. He does so in spectacular fashion. McQueen was always an actor who could say more without speaking than with, but here he's off the charts. Through glances, frowns, furrowed brows, and every other trick in the Method book, McQueen fills in the numerous blanks in Bullitt's script. Even better, he's paired with another actor who's great at that kind of acting, Robert Vaughn. Vaughn doesn't have many lines either, but his slime and ambition come through loud and clear. McQueen and Vaughn actually had a very good professional and personal relationship in real life—but here, their characters' obvious and burning contempt for each other is just scintillating to watch. Vaughn is really terrific—this character is about as far from Napoleon Solo as you can get, but he pulls off the villain role effortlessly. As great as Vaughn is, though, this is still McQueen's film, and he is its core and heart.
Bullitt's visual style is distinctive, too. Director Peter Yates's style is, like virtually everything else in the film, almost minimalist. He'll linger on shots for a beat or two longer than you'd expect, or film things from atypical angles. (For one scene where Bullitt is dining out with Cathy, Yates films from outside, through the restaurant's windows.) The film is crisply edited, too. Uniquely, almost every edit in the film is a straight cut—there are almost no wipes, dissolves, pans, or other techniques used. In poor editorial hands, this could make the film seem jumpy or disjointed, but Bullitt flows very well. To the extent it generates tension, the film keeps things at a constant slow boil; there's no jumping between conflict and catharsis like in a typical thriller. Overall, this gives Bullitt a very TV-like feel. But it's more the feel of contemporary TV; television cop dramas in 1968 felt somewhat different than today's dramas. Having said that, I still think the easiest way to describe Bullitt is: "it's like the best episode of Hawaii Five-O ever made, with Steve McQueen instead of Jack Lord." That's a good thing, mind you.
Oh yes—there's that little car chase, too. Those who actually remember Bullitt today usually don't remember it for McQueen's brilliant acting, or for the great pairing of McQueen and Vaughn, or even for Jackie Bisset—the Liz Hurley of her era—and her unfathomable hotness. No, they remember it because two classic muscle cars spend 15 minutes tearing through San Francisco at ludicrous speeds about 65 minutes into the film. There are car chases, and then there are The Car Chases. There are only two of The Car Chases, and this is one of them. (The other is Popeye Doyle's rampage under the El in The French Connection, of course.) So what, pray tell, distinguishes your generic car chase—say, all of The Fast and the Furious—from The Car Chase? Well, in the case of Bullitt, it's three things.
(1) The Cars Involved
In 1968 Warner Brothers had a promotional agreement with
Ford, so Ford vehicles were used in all of their films. Hence, Bullitt drives an
olive green '68 390 Mustang GT fastback. The 'Stang, as auto aficionados know,
was Lee Iacocca's brainchild and one of Ford's landmark automobiles—a
muscle car that was small and cheap, one that the average buyer could afford.
Introduced in the 1964 model year, it sold like hotcakes, and created an
entirely new automotive style: the "pony car." Ford kept on putting
bigger and bigger engines into the Mustang; Bullitt's vehicle had a 390 cubic
inch V-8. (That's 6.4 liters for you metric types—in other words, the wee
little Mustang had an engine substantially bigger than those Dodge
"Hemis" you see advertised on TV.) Mustangs were fast. Very fast.
When it came time to film the car chase (which was the last thing shot for Bullitt), McQueen thought it would be stupid to have two Fords chasing each other. Where's the fun in that? So despite the Warner agreement with Ford, they brought in a couple of Dodge Chargers to serve as the Mustang's foil. The Dodge Charger was bigger than the Mustang—it was a midsized car, based on the staid Dodge Coronet. Dodge brought it out in 1966 to fill a gap in Chrysler's lineup, slotting it in between Plymouth's pony car, the Barracuda, and the big, more upscale Plymouth GTX. It not only filled that gap, but became one of the most popular stock cars on the NASCAR circuit. The '68 Charger R/T used in Bullitt was a beast of an automobile—it packed a 440 cubic inch (7.2 liter) Magnum V-8 under the hood, and had a menacing grill with recessed headlights, that looked like a giant black bar (or mask) across the front of the car.
So this isn't just any car chase we're talking about—this is a car chase with two legendary muscle cars going mano a mano. The gas crisis of 1973 pretty much killed the muscle car era, and you just don't see cars like this any more. Today's performance cars have more efficient high-torque engines that pack a lot of power in smaller, more fuel-efficient packages. Back in the day, though, performance was a matter of brute force. And these are some pretty forceful cars.
(2) The Speeds Involved
This chase doesn't mess around. From the moment the bad guys buckle up and floor it, the speeds in the chase hover in the 70-80 mph range. Until they get out on some open stretches of road, when the needle passes the century mark. To accentuate the speeds involved, director Yates doesn't use any music over the chase. Instead, the only soundtrack is the roar of the cars' engines, turning over at very high RPM.
But wait, you say—I drive 70-80 mph in my car on the highway! How the heck is that exciting? Well, true—the speeds aren't that high, relatively speaking. Until you consider…
(3) The Location of the Chase
These guys aren't driving 70-80 mph on the oval at Indy—they're doing it on the streets of San friggin' Francisco. Let me try and communicate the significance of this. If you live or work in a multi-floor building, picture the stairs between floors. Got it? Okay. Now picture driving on them. At 80 miles per hour. With pedestrians and parked cars.
I'll give you a few minutes to change your underwear, which I assume is now soiled…
Okay, we're back. I've been to San Francisco. I've driven in San Francisco. It is an absolutely beautiful city; one that almost defies description. It is also the absolute worst city to drive in on the North American continent. If you can average 20 mph on those streets, you have my admiration. And that's not because of traffic (which is bad enough)—it's because most of those friggin' streets have slopes of, oh, about 85 degrees. If they were ski slopes, they'd be double diamonds. If they were water slides, they'd be closed for safety reasons. And yet they're actual streets; thoroughfares that we mortals are expected to travel—and park!!!!—on.
But no; these guys tear through San Fran at 80 miles an hour. That is impressive. And very fun to watch.
There are a couple of other reasons to single out this chase. First, of course, is the fact that McQueen did all his own driving. But if you have even a passing knowledge of McQueen, you probably already assumed that. The chase was parodied (with a twist) in The Dead Pool. But more interesting is the fact that this chase could never be filmed today. Leaving aside the fact that no insurance company would ever provide coverage for it, the Bullitt crew had access to the city of San Francisco that just wouldn't be available today. At that time, the film industry pretty much ignored the city by the bay. This was before Coppola, before Lucas, before The Streets of San Francisco. The city was very interested in attracting more film work. When McQueen brought Bullitt to San Francisco, the mayor, Joe Alioto, literally gave them the run of the town. Today, no film production would be given an entire wing of a city hospital for filming. The city wouldn't agree to close down multiple streets over two weeks to film a car chase sequence. And there's absolutely no way that a crew would be allowed to take over San Francisco International Airport at night. It would be very hard to duplicate McQueen's commitment to realism today, especially when it comes to the car chase.
This two-disc Special Edition of Bullitt replaces a perfectly acceptable, if a bit bare-boned, one-disc (and presumably non-special) edition from 1997. If you own the original DVD, is this new edition worth subjecting yourself to double dipitude? Absolutely.
The disc touts a "new digital transfer" of the film. Leaving aside that ALL transfers to DVD are, de facto, digital, this is actually a nice transfer of the film. It's presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, with solid colors. Bullitt is a dark film; much of it takes place at night. The darker scenes tend to be ever so slightly grainy—but that's more a function of the photography than the transfer. (Contemporary high-speed film wasn't available at the time, and many of the scenes just couldn't be lit properly at night, so the film was "pushed" in the laboratory to compensate for the lower exposures. This tends to bring out the grain in the film, and make the image look less crisp.) It doesn't look as beautiful and pristine as Seabiscuit, but then, this is a 37-year-old film. Suffice it to say that the image is, all things considered, darned good.
The box claims a "Dolby Surround Stereo" audio track—but we all know that's an oxymoron. In fact, audio comes in a stereo track with a LFE channel mixed in. Technically that's "surround." But let's be real here—it's a stereo track. The rear and center channels are completely unused here. Whatever you want to call it, it's decidedly unexciting, although perfectly competent. The engine noises sound good; I guess that's really all that matters. A mono French track is included, plus subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.
The real value here is in the extras included. First up is a decent commentary with Peter Yates (who also directed Breaking Away and Mother, Jugs & Speed—how's that for a resume?). He's clearly proud of his work, and splits his comments between anecdotes about the cast and technical points about the film. Much of it is interesting, although he tends to repeat himself. But hey—the guy is 76 years old now; I think I can cut him some slack. Unfortunately, he says very little about working with McQueen, instead commenting mostly on his strengths as an actor.
Far more valuable are the two, count 'em, two feature-length documentaries included on the second disc. First up is Steve McQueen: The Essence of Cool, a very comprehensive biography of McQueen (which aired on Turner Classic Movies in June). Clocking in at about an hour and a half, it touches on virtually every important event in McQueen's life, using a gaggle of interviews to tell his story. Although the documentary isn't afraid to highlight McQueen's faults (his drug abuse and womanizing) and personal troubles (his failed marriages to actresses Neile Adams and Ali MacGraw), it soft-pedals them a bit. Conspicuously absent from the interviews is MacGraw, who arguably would be the one person most people would like to hear from on this subject. Adams and Chad McQueen do show up; Chad's stories of struggling to get to know his father, and struggling to deal with his cancer and death, are quite emotionally moving. The documentary is generous with footage from McQueen's films, too—it serves as a great career overview as well as a good biography of the man. It would be worth a purchase if released on its own; as a bonus feature for Bullitt it's icing on the cake.
The other feature documentary included is a Starz/Encore production, The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing. Narrated by Kathy Bates (Misery), this is a gem of a documentary for students of film and potential filmmakers. This detailed and comprehensive explanation of film editing has lots of examples of editing techniques through history and insight from real live editors and directors. I learned a lot from this documentary—who knew the Russians were so influential in the history of editing? I mean, I knew that everyone and his uncle rips off visual and thematic elements from The Battleship Potemkin, but I never knew that Eisenstein's cutting technique became a template, too…Anyhow, this one clocks in at about 90 minutes, and again would be worth a purchase on its own. (What's its connection to Bullitt? Well…Bullitt won the Oscar for Best Editing in 1969, so it's sort of appropriate to say a few words about editing, I guess…)
The aforementioned 1968-vintage featurette "Bullitt: Steve McQueen's Commitment to Reality," which was the main extra on the original DVD release, also makes an appearance here. It's slight, but worthwhile, if only because it contains some unedited takes of scenes from the film, and footage of McQueen and stunt driver Bud Elkins racing the Mustang and Charger on a Northern California racetrack. The film's theatrical trailer rounds out the extras.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Bullitt has a truly horrible story. It's not that the story itself is bad, per se; it's just that there's so little of it. The underlying plot is barely sufficient to support a 48-minute television drama. Bullitt is nearly two hours long. To add insult to injury, what story exists is fairly difficult to follow. It took me a couple of viewings to really figure out everything that's going on. Things aren't complex, just unexplained. Plus, the viewer isn't allowed to figure out the mild "twist" in the film on his/her own. No evidence about the truth is presented in the first half of the film, then Bullitt finds some evidence, which leads him to figure out the twist. Boy, that's exciting for us. Thank goodness that an actor of the caliber of McQueen was involved with this film. If it weren't for his ability to be interesting just by being on the screen, this film could be nearly unwatchable.
Mainly because of that, Bullitt just doesn't add up to the sum of its parts. McQueen and Vaughn are fantastic. The visual style and pace of the film are unique; Yates's direction is solid. The car chase is tremendous. The climactic chase on the tarmac at SFO is frightening. (I still worry about Steve being sucked into one of those jet engines, even though I'm fairly sure he didn't die in 1968. Unless he did die and was replaced by an android Steve McQueen, like they did with Paul McCartney…Hmm…) But taken as a whole, Bullitt just isn't a great movie. It's a good movie that's worth watching, but it clearly doesn't belong on any Top 20 lists (save for Top 20 Car Chases, of course). It's a shame that McQueen's finest performance—by far—didn't come in a better film.
Bullitt was a success because it was a solid, entertaining film with a lot going for it. But it wasn't a great film. On the other hand, this Bullitt Special Edition is a great package. The inclusion of two valuable feature-length documentaries makes this a terrific value for your purchasing dollar. Warner appears to have made this the keystone of their Essential Steve McQueen Collection; it's certainly got the best extras package of the bunch.
In the final analysis, Bullitt is Method acting at its best, and McQueen at his coolest. He carries this film like a pack animal. Without him, this film is literally nothing. A great film—no. A spectacular film—yes, because of the dominant performance by its star.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Director Peter Yates
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