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Steve McQueen as "Bullitt" -- 'nough said
on July 3, 2006
It's not all about the most famous car chase scene in cinematic history, but that one extended scene does make Bullitt one of those rites of passage every serious movie fan must experience at some point in his/her life. This really is an unusual film in many ways; as much as it influenced scores of future films in the tough, gritty cop genre, it's still unique. More modern-day maverick cops spend half their time playing the fool, destroying half their cities, throwing random hissy fits, and posturing a lot. Steve McQueen didn't have to posture because he was the real deal. He could have gone through this entire movie without uttering a single word and still been hailed by fans and critics alike.
Bullitt sports an amazing cast: alongside Steve McQueen you have the lovely Jacqueline Bissett, Robert Vaughn, Robert Duvall, Norman "Mr. Roper" Fell, Victor "Mel" Tayback, and plenty of other actors I'm not familiar with serving up sustained dramatic brilliance. Let's hope they never try to remake this classic, especially since this movie's style would never pass muster at any Hollywood studio of the 21st century. Bullitt doesn't come right out and explain everything to you at the beginning, nor does it take the time to explicitly identify important clues as the investigation progresses. You can go several minutes at a time without hearing a word of dialogue. It's not a difficult movie to follow, but you do need to pay attention as a viewer. A few scenes seem superfluous, but I think that sort of adds even more to the Bullitt mystique. The final scene, for example, is quite subdued and unlike anything you'll find preceding any closing credits today.
As far as the story goes, Lieutenant Bullitt (McQueen) is assigned to guard a Mob witness set to testify against his old buddies. Walter Chalmers, a local prosecutor with political ambitions (Robert Vaughn, who's a natural at portraying sleazy politicos) is frothing at the mouth at the thought of all the publicity he'll get when his witness blows the lid on some major league players in organized crime. It turns out that the secret hiding place isn't a secret after all, and everything pretty much goes to heck, leaving the star witness fighting for his life while Bullitt finds himself in the crosshairs of an unhappy Chalmers. Already detecting the faint but undeniable odor of a rat, Bullitt truly takes charge of the whole investigation, even as Chalmers pressures the higher-ups in the police department to give Bullitt's lease several long, hard yanks. Now, as the action begins to ratchet up minute by minute, the plot gets curiouser and curiouser - and Bullitt's job more dangerous. The famous car chase up and down the streets of San Francisco is the highlight of the movie, but there's plenty of action all the way to the end.
The secret of the car chase's success is realism: no music, just tires squalling and engines revving (even if they're not always in perfect synch), with a great mix of external shots and point-of-view shots from inside Bullitt's Mustang, putting you right there zooming up and down the steep hills of San Francisco. The editing of this scene brought home an Oscar, and it's as thrilling today as it was in 1968 - despite the fact that several continuity errors are easily detected in the editing (that little green Doodlebug just keeps popping up, doesn't it?).
It's hard to really describe this film for others, although I can point out that, in terms of the action, it rejects melodrama in favor of authenticity. On the face of things, it sounds like a movie that shouldn't be all that special - but it is (at least for men; I'm not sure the movie will appeal to a lot of female viewers). The best way I can explain why this is so is to say this: Steve McQueen is the man.