A routine assignment for San Francisco cop Frank Bullitt turns into a personal crusade when the witness he is protecting is mortally wounded by gunmen with 'inside knowledge'. Against official orders, he takes the case into his own hands as he searches for the root of the corruption.
Not the most original of plots, folks, but in many ways this was the original - the first modern cop thriller, the one that practically kicked off a whole genre way back in 1968. From the stylish opening titles to the tense finale in an airport, it's a class act. Detective thrillers would never be the same. The visual stylistics, the taciturn nature of the script and the almost existential feel of the film made it a movie that would influence cop thrillers throughout the seventies. The shooting style was fresh and daring. The actors are often pushed to one side of the frame with an object or an activity taking centre stage. Often the action will happen off screen, so you see the aftermath rather than the actual event. In one scene, Bullitt visits a potential witness leaving his girlfriend in the car. He opens the door of the apartment and it then cuts back to his girlfriend sitting in the car. Nothing happens, then we hear sirens and see rushing policemen. She gets out and runs to see what is going on. The camera follows her as she enters the apartment. Only then we see what Bullitt has discovered, as if we are also a witness. This detached feel gives Bullitt an edge that similar films lack. Of course, you can't mention Bullitt without referring to the famous car chase and I'm pleased to say it's still an exciting sequence. Sure, it's now surpassed by several others, decades later, but this has no CGI fakery or over edited sleight of hand; this is just a pair of unwieldy, gas guzzling, American muscle cars being filmed chucking their weight round San Francisco at 120 mph! It's actually the lead up to the chase that I find particularly skilful. Peter Yates builds up the tension with a well-edited sequence of cat and mouse where Bullitt's car is first tailed but then disappears only to reappear in a rear view mirror. The baddie grimaces and clicks his seat belt on and like the flick of a switch it all kicks off, tyres squealing. Clunk-Click! Brilliant directing. The thing is though, the car chase, while ground breaking in it's day, is only a small part of the film, anyone expecting an adrenaline fuelled romp will be sorely disappointed. This is a detective story, and the plot unfolds in a well paced manner, never rushed but not overlong either. The action is emotionally driven and has ramifications. There are only a few set pieces and each one has a reason in the story, they're not just there for flash bang entertainment. Bullitt, for instance, rarely takes out his gun; and the locations, dialogue and formal police procedures gives the film a very authentic feel. While he is able to maintain a relationship and has a strong bond of loyalty with his team, he is still an alienated and despondent man. When we first meet Bullitt he is shivering and yawning in his pyjamas, not the most striking of introductions but once Bullitt gets going, striding round town in sharp clothes tracking down the baddies, we very quickly see why Steve McQueen was considered 'the coolest man in Hollywood'. He plays the role quite impeccably, under playing the physicality and portraying Bullitt as a wily and intelligent puzzle-solver, rather than a maverick hardman. The supporting cast excel as well. Robert Vaughn is reptilian and conniving, playing a power hungry District Attorney and you are never quite sure of his motives or his honesty as he continually hounds Bullitt demanding answers. The smaller roles are played by a mixture of character actors like Robert Duvall, Don Gordon and, according to the commentary, genuine stuntmen. Jacqueline Bissett's role as Bullitt's girlfriend is underwritten, but she also gives a good supporting performance.
While the plot occasionally misfires, the film doesn't, Peter Yates' stylish directing gives both Bullitt the character and Bullitt the film a laconic, cool manner that makes grade-A Hollywood entertainment.