“BULLITT” (1968) Review

Below is my review of the 1968 classic crime drama, “BULLITT”, which starred Steve McQueen and was directed by Peter Yates:

”BULLITT” (1968) Review

Many fans of Steve McQueen seemed to revel in their view of him as some kind of epitome of 1960s Hollywood cool. And his starring role in the 1968 crime drama, ”BULLITT” seemed to symbolize this viewpoint more than any of his other roles – before or after. As much as I feel reluctant to embrace the idea of coolness of any kind, I must admit that McQueen did project some kind of aura in the film that made him such a strong screen presence . . . just like any film star worth his or her weight in gold.

Fortunately, ”BULLITT” also happened to be a first-class crime thriller that was directed with style, energy and competency by Peter Yates. Based upon Robert L. Fish’s 1963 novel, “Mute Fish”, the movie told the story of a San Francisco lieutenant named Frank Bullitt (McQueen), who is assigned by a haughty and well-born local politician named Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn) to protect an informant (Felice Orlandi) from the Chicago mob. Chalmers hoped that bringing down the Chicago mob would lead to an improvement in his political standing. However, the assignment turns into a murder mystery that resulted into some surprising twists.

The head of Warner Brothers-Seven Arts studio had originally planned for ”BULLITT” to be shot on location in Los Angeles, California. But director Yates felt that the City of Angels had been seen quite enough in previous crime dramas and mysteries. He also had no desire to shoot the film under the studio’s constant eye. So, Yates convinced the studio to allow him to shoot the film on location in San Francisco. As much as I love Los Angeles, I am glad that Yates made this choice. San Francisco proved to be a perfect setting for the movie and its surrounding hills provided the perfect backdrop for the movie’s car chase that became one of the most influential car chase sequences in movie history.

Speaking of the car chase, I understand that McQueen took lessons in stunt driving in order to perform some of the stunts in the chase sequence. Now, McQueen only drove a little in the scene. Most of his stunt driving had been performed by Bud Ekins, famed stuntman and motorcycle racer. And I have to give kudos to stunt coordinator Carey Loftin for creating an exciting and memorable sequence. Another favorite action sequence of mine proved to be the final showdown at the San Francisco International Airport – a scene filled with both tension and superb action. Yates’ direction and Frank P. Keller’s film editing proved to be the decisive factors that made the above scenes first rate. Keller went on to win an Academy Award for Best Film Editing.

Screenwriters Alan Trustman and Harry Kleiner did an excellent job of adapting Robert L. Fish’s 1963 novel, ”Mute Witness” for the screen. Not only did they managed to re-create a murder mystery that proved to be somewhat complex with great competency, the two writers also managed to delve into Frank Bullitt’s persona. And this is a job that could have proven to be nearly impossible, due to the character’s subtle and reserved personality. The Mystery Writers of America rewarded Trustman and Kleiner for their work with a 1969 Edgar Award for Best Mystery Screenplay.

Although many fans tend to view ”BULLITT” as a showcase for Steve McQueen, I noticed that he had been ably supported by a talented cast. Robert Vaughn (another actor who became a 1960s icon for his starring role in the television series, ”THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” ) expertly portrayed politician Walter Chalmers as a charming, self-involved and arrogant man who expects the world to revolve around him, due to his wealth. Portraying Bullitt’s girlfriend, Cathy, was a 24 year-old Jacqueline Bisset. Just a year earlier, she had a brief appearance in the James Bond spoof ”CASINO ROYALE”. The role of Bullitt’s girlfriend, who fears that he might love his job more than her, not only hinted the talent that would make her a star, it proved to be a career-making one for her. Don Gordon (who also happened to be a close friend of McQueen’s) gave a quiet and solid performance as as Sergeant Delgetti, Bullitt’s right-hand man. Simon Oakland also gave solid support as one of Bullitt’s police superiors, Captain Bennett. The movie also featured brief appearances by future stars such as Robert Duvall as a local cab driver, Norman Fell as Police Captain Baker – Chalmers’ toady – and Georg Stanford Brown as a young, hospital doctor.

As for star Steve McQueen . . . he practically owned the movie. Hell, he deserved to own the movie. Not only did he provide his usual magnetic screen presence, McQueen gave what I believe to be one of the best performances in his career. I had heard on the movie’s DVD featurette that McQueen did not really view himself as an actor. Instead, he saw himself as a mere reactor to his co-stars’ lines. I wish . . . I hope that someone had told him that reacting is one of the qualities that marked a first-rate screen performer. And McQueen did it very well. Hell! He could be a first-rate actor when words came out of his mouth. In the case of ”BULLITT”, his character turned out to be not particularly verbose. Which left McQueen to express Frank Bullitt’s emotions via facial expressions and in his eyes. What I liked about McQueen’s performance was that he did not simply portray the character as some epitome of 60s cool. He portrayed Bullitt as an intelligent and quiet man whose no-nonsense personality seemed to lack patience for either incompetence or egotistical types like Chalmers.

Thanks to critics, some moviegoers and organizations like the American Film Institute (AFI), the public is expected to accept their prevailing views about any movie . . . regardless if they view a movie as either a classic, mediocre or simply terrible. Because of my nature, I have a tendency to ignore the prevailing view and form my own opinion. ”BULLITT” seemed to have the reputation as a classic crime melodrama. And Frank Bullitt is viewed as one of McQueen’s best roles. In the case of ”BULLITT” and McQueen, I would heartily agree.