Drivers’ Cinema: Bullitt (1968)
In 1968, Steve McQueen and Bullitt set a new cinematic standard for car chases. Peter Yates’ taut thriller is about tough-as-nails detective Frank Bullitt (McQueen), who is unexpectedly assigned the task of protecting gangster Pete Ross, due in court as a witness against the mob. But when Ross is killed, Bullitt must track down the murderers and break the case.
McQueen’s performance is low-key and subdued (when wasn’t it?) as detective Frank Bullitt. McQueen may not be the finest of actors in his role as anti-hero cop, but he’s certainly equal to Clint Eastwood in his (later) Dirty Harry franchise with dialogue like “You work your side of the street, I’ll work mine.” It’s not the line, but the look of contempt McQueen delivers so well to Walter Chalmers, a scheming politician played to perfection by Robert Vaughan. Furthermore, there is no bravado or sarcasm in McQueen’s portrayal as there would be from Eastwood. Body language takes over the acting, no additional dialogue needed.
At some point during the movie, you realize you’re hooked and along for the ride. But what a ride it is and what rides are featured in the film! Bullitt pushes his ‘68 Mustang fastback in fast pursuit of the villains’ ‘68 Dodge Charger. McQueen doesn’t even have to say anything, just maintain a placid expression while literally flying around those twisty, hilly San Francisco streets at over 100 miles-per-hour. Why talk anyway when you have a rip-roaring car to speak for you? Yates, the director, takes a minimalist approach overall and particularly for the famous chase scene. Once the two vehicles kick it into high gear, the music fades out completely and all you hear is those growling, throaty V8 engines.
The chase lasts eleven minutes and ends with a crash and explosion at a gas station. To this day it is one of the greatest car chases ever put to celluloid. McQueen, an accomplished driver, actually drove in many of the scenes himself, foregoing a stunt-double as the film did special effects. The stakes for the biggest and baddest action film have, and continue to be, raised in modern cinema with every subsequent production. But today something is missing. Today’s Bond films for example, are star driven with plenty of action, which isn’t necessarily bad; the Fast & Furious franchise are now completely over the top. It seems that many new movies try to compensate for poor story-lines through the use of special effects and technology. Bullitt is pin-point accurate on plot points rather than overwhelming you with action or effects, which is what films should be about, or maybe return to.
Bullitt, perhaps only by year, is anything but an old movie. It is still a slick and exciting crime drama with great visuals and perhaps the most iconic car chase of the ‘60s with great direction to match. If you’re into cop dramas then look no further than the number one with a bullet… errr… Bullitt.
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