Thursday, July 9, 2020

Classic Movie Review: Bullitt (1968)

Bullitt (1968) 
Directed by: Peter Yates.
Written by: Alan Trustman and Harry Kleiner based on the novel by Robert L. Fish.
Starring: Steve McQueen (Bullitt), Robert Vaughn (Chalmers), Jacqueline Bisset (Cathy), Don Gordon (Delgetti), Robert Duvall (Weissberg), Simon Oakland (Captain Bennet), Norman Fell (Baker), Georg Stanford Brown (Dr. Willard), Justin Tarr (Eddy), Carl Reindel (Stanton), Felice Orlandi (Renick), Vic Tayback (Pete Ross), Robert Lipton (1st Aide),Ed Peck (Westcott), Pat Renella (John Ross), Paul Genge (Mike), John Aprea (Killer), Al Checco (Desk Clerk), Bill Hickman (Phil). 
Bullitt is primarily infamous for the car chase sequence that is right in the middle of the two-hour film. If you’ve never seen that chase, than watching it is thrilling – it really is one of the greatest car chases in cinema history – a chase that starts as a game of cat and mouse of the streets of San Francisco, and minute after minute builds its tension, excitement and speed – heading out to the freeway, and ending in explosions. It is a long car chase – and director Peter Yates let it play out for all that time. The style is the opposite of the quick cutting that dominates today’s action sequences – shots often last seconds at a time (Michael Bay averages under a second per shot) – and its all the more exciting for it. When movie car chases are mentioned – Bullitt’s almost justly ranks alongside the likes of William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971) as the top two in history (depending on the list, either can take the top spot).
What’s strange about watching Bullitt though is the rest of the movie around that car chase – which has about 50 minutes on either side of that chase. In it, Steve McQueen plays the title detective in San Francisco. He is assigned to protect a witness at the behest of a politician – Robert Vaughn – who shows up repeatedly throughout the movie to remind everyone he needs this witness alive. Unfortunately, he’s dead pretty early on in the film – dead of Bullitt’s watch. But Bullitt doesn’t want to give up that easy – and disguises the body as a John Doe, and throws it in the morgue, as he tries to figure out what really happened. In terms of plot, well, there’s both a lot of it in Bullitt, and yet it doesn’t really matter. It’s not overly complicated – it could probably easily be the plot of a one-hour police procedural TV show, and not a particularly memorable one at that. What’s interesting in the rest of the movie is McQueen himself.
But this point in his career, McQueen was one of the biggest movie stars in the world, with one of the biggest egos. What’s interesting about his performance in Bullitt is how uninteresting a character Bullitt is. He is an emotionless void of a character – McQueen does nothing to try and bring him further into focus. In one of the most thankless roles in movie history Jacqueline Bisset plays Bullitt’s girlfriend Cathy – who complains about Bullitt and that emotionless void I talked about – and he cannot even really argue with her.
Perhaps this sounds like a criticism of McQueen – and to be fair, with most actors it probably would be. But not with McQueen – who could make even playing an emotionless void interesting. He plays Bullitt as a man with no emotions – one who is dead inside, who has seen it all, and none of it affects him anymore. I’m not sure you could find a better example of that mid-20th Century American male tendency to not show weakness, to bury all the feelings deep inside, and not let anyone see it than McQueen in general, but certainly here.
The film was directed by Peter Yates – one of the better journeymen directors of the 1960s-1980s – making films like Breaking Away or The Dresser, along with my personal favorite The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) – featuring the best late period Robert Mitchum performance. He perfectly handles that car chase – which is probably the single reason why the film won the editing Oscar that year – not to mention its climax, which almost certainly influenced the climax of Michael Mann’s Heat (1995). But he also knows just what to do with McQueen – who could take what could have been a dull role, and imbued it with something altogether different and interesting, by draining all the emotion out of it.

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