Bullitt (Peter Yates, 1968)

by Douglas Buck August 24, 2021 7 minutes (1712 words) HD streaming

With my three-week sojourn to Cali coming up fast, I thought I’d try and cajole my daughter (who is joining me for a two week leg of the trip) into viewing a few West Coast cinematic classics with me (especially as a few film location pilgrimages are naturally gonna be part of the trip), and while she was (theoretically) into the idea, a busy schedule and the changing whims and fickle nature of a 16 year old ended up precluding us from watching much together… so it ended up me alone revisiting this ol’ acknowledged urban neo-noir milestone (though at least on my big projector system, which is finally up and running at mi nuovo casa).

I hadn’t seen the film in at least twenty five years (in fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it from beginning to end in a single sitting, rather catching it piecemeal off syndicated television, where it was a staple back in my formative years) and a fully engaged screening (sans daughter, alas) ended up garnering an interestingly mixed bag of results – I mean, there is gobs to admire in the filmmaking, but there’s also a tad lacking, as far as a resonant experience that stays with you, due, it seems to me, to not only the overly simple narrative that doesn’t quite go far enough in any kind of commitment to a righteous ideological position (Clint Eastwood would brilliantly see that and call it for his Dirty Harry films), but also due to — yes, I have to say it – the overly laid-back performance by at-the-time box office superstar, and beloved King of Cool icon, Steve McQueen.

McQueen with Robert Vaughn

But let’s start with the (considerable) good stuff… there’s the quasi-documentary shooting style to the police procedural elements (including a fascinating sense of realness to the people and faces that populate the various crime scenes), with that flavor of verisimilitude effectively embellished by director Peter Yates, guiding subtly under-played performances from the actors playing the ‘working stiff’ heroes of the film (with the cops and the hospital workers and all the others attached to life on the ‘street’ being the good guys, in general focused on their moral obligations with professional precision while emotionally surviving the chaos by sublimating feelings of concern and caring, and the rich politicians in their mansions, the Machiavellian figures of evil, with the Police Captain stuck in the middle, navigating these worlds, belonging to neither any longer, yet somehow managing to retain a level of moral dignity), like much of the film, must have felt so mind-blowingly fresh at the time, helping catapult the familiar elements of the classic urban crime neo-noir(ish, anyway) film into the modern tougher, grittier version that flourished not only in the 70’s, but for the next bunch of decades (before being supplanted by the slicker, anti-working-class, corporate-friendly Hollywood Gibble product that dominates the landscape today).

I know it’s common in film circles to exalt those other late 60’s, post-Hayes code films like Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider for re-inventing filmic codes and ushering in a whole new, more ‘real’ style of cinema (and delicious permissiveness, on the ol’ sex and violence front), but, seeing Bullitt again, I’d argue, while not a great film (not that that matters… I mean can anyone argue Easy Rider as a great film?? Methinks not… ), it was almost equally as influential, certainly in setting the bar for how to approach this type of genre film (and was also a box office hit at the time while doing it).

Obviously, you can’t talk about Bullitt without at least mentioning the nine minute long, thoroughly out-of-control, bare-knuckle, death-defying car chase sequence through the crazy hill-bound streets of San Francisco that, again, became a template, this time for every car chase sequences for decades to come (with the ante upped just a few years later by that greatest and ballsiest – or perhaps just the most dangerously irresponsible, next to director John Landis, who managed to kill a couple of kids to get a shot for The Twilight Zone — of all the New Hollywood directors, namely William Friedkin, who with his car chase in The French Connection moved the action straight out into the streets, stealing shots of cars going 80 plus mph through the tight New York roadways, with unsuspecting endangered pedestrians looking on, slack-jawed)… and the thing is, the scene holds up today as it did then (it’s a monumental achievement of not just stunt work, editing and choreography, but, perhaps most defining, of sound design, something the greats like Friedkin recognized quickly for their own later versions).

Where the film starts to lack a bit, likely speaking to why (other than the car chase sequence) it isn’t as appreciated, or discussed, as it should be for what it brought to the cinematic scene, is a missing central core, emotionally and narratively, which later films and filmmakers would recognize and resolve within just a few years (for instance, the ever-clever Clint Eastwood and director Don Siegel would work the Bullitt template by 1971 in the also San Fran-set Dirty Harry, taking it further along the populist route, with his Inspector Callahan operating within the same urban milieu, only defining the battle lines along a clear liberal vs conservative divide, with his Inspector Callahan a hero for the reactionary Right and the corrupt politicians examples of the liberal elite Left enabling a breeding ground for hysterical, sexually-ambiguous serial-killin’ nutsos like Scorpio, while the broader-minded existentialist Friedkin would wrap his version around a much more compellingly crafted central figure than McQueen’s Lt Bullitt, with Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle destructive obsessive nature driving the film’s narrative.

While few of these films have much room for strong female characters, Bullitt tries (perhaps as it’s still referencing earlier 60’s cinema) to push in a love interest in the form of Jacqueline Bissett. And I mean she’s hot and all, but all her shoe-horned-in part ends up doing is reinforce just how weak the role is for a star like Bissett (again, the always smart Eastwood would address this general rejection of strong women in the urban crime film milieu head-on, and in amusing fashion, in the luridly violent, super-entertaining 1976 Dirty Harry sequel The Enforcer, with Callahan forced to take on Tyne Daly’s Inspector Kate Moore as a partner).

Bullitt is wonderfully dotted with 70’s character actors galore all doing yeoman’s work in that serious, reserved acting style favored in the film (including one of my faves, Simon Oakland as the no-nonsense Police Captain doing his best to cover for his maverick Lieutenant, who would catapult into television Hall of Fame-level as reporter Carl Kolchak’s editor foil Vincenzo in the milestone monster-of-the-week series The Night Stalker, as well as perhaps my absolute fave, veteran and understated everyman Don Gordon, as Bullitt’s loyal partner, an actor who I was immediately smitten with as a kid watching him as a low level creep in a brilliant episode of The Twilight Zone, and stayed so right on into his later appearances, like as the drug-fueled party friend to Dennis Hopper’s character in Hopper’s The Last Movie, and as the right hand man of the Antichrist Damien Thorne, who eventually receives a killing blow from a hot iron to the face by his possessed wife in the not great but highly enjoyable The Final Conflict).

And then there’s the mercurial (at least for me) McQueen. I mean, there’s no doubt, the guy is a serious Star, with a capital S. He’s got so much presence and his performance is appropriately laconic… yet somehow, he’s almost entirely emotionally unreadable (empty?). The punctuation with odd mannerism now and then (such as a sudden uncomfortable smile while having a tense conversation with Robert Vaughn’s smarmy Mayor – with Vaughn being another of those great character actors I always dug, whose role may be a bit one note, but man does he hit that note, with Yates clearly giving him leeway in defining a character in that arrogant politician direction that Clint would later build on with his Callahan series – or contorting physically to shake off his hang-over with his partner having come over to rouse him from bed) seem more reminiscent of Dean (a way more masculine version of Dean, naturally) than, say, Brando.

McQueen with Jacqueline Bissett

Like Dean, while McQueen is fascinating to look at and try and read, he doesn’t give much. It reminds me of what Pauline Kael used to say sarcastically (‘cuz no one was more sarcastic than that bitch – and I say that old-school affectionately, which the late and unbelievably acerbic Kael assuredly would have appreciated) about certain reserved DeNiro performances, like in True Confessions; that he’s perfected the art of ‘non-acting’. I understand a theme of the film (as stated by Bissett in her one moment in the film) is how the ‘job’ robs the cops of their feelings but yet… great actors still show us the eternal life. And I can only wonder if McQueen wasn’t, like Dean, emotionally stunted (immature even), with little to really offer as a performer beyond a fascinating face punctuated by lots of intriguing ticks and mannerisms.

I mean, Eastwood is no great actor, but he took the Lieutenant character and created a righteous cop driven by reactionary justice against a corrupt system. Dirty Harry is laconic too, yet we clearly understand (and Eastwood shows us with his performance) every single (simple) emotion driving him, in every scene. Hackman, of course, is a great actor and, with his performance as Popeye Doyle, under the guidance of the greatest of craftsman Friedkin, brilliantly spiralled the character into a domain where the ‘job’ doesn’t just coarsen you emotionally, it spiritually sends you to purgatory (that’s why, as I’ve always said, there should have never been a sequel to The French Connection).

Either way, though, McQueen remains a captivating presence, and Bullitt is one enjoyable experience, with a decidedly kick-ass car chase (through the Streets of San Fran where I’m currently writing this, about to do a little location touring of those very crazily sloped streets!).

Bullitt (Peter Yates, 1968)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

Buck A Review   crime film   peter yates   steve mcqueen