Bullitt

Bullitt ★★★★★

I may have mentioned Bullitt once or twice in the course of these chronicles, and it’s number 37 on the list of my fifty favorite films. So it’s probably time I should say more about the film. I liked Bullitt a lot when it was released but had varying responses when seeing it every few years afterward. I remember not liking it once, perhaps because of mood. I may have felt it was lacking because there is so little dialogue. Silly me. It wasn’t until after I had seen a few Jean-Pierre Melville films that I truly appreciated that Peter Yates, much like John Boorman with Point Blank the year before, was trying to give his film a European sensibility in which behavior is much more important than talk. Once I realized Bullitt has an existential spin, I began to see it as the masterpiece it is. Following is an explication of the film, with spoilers.

Lalo Schifrin’s score is good throughout the film, but the jazzy opening during the credits sets the tone for the rest of the film. The music is a perfect accompaniment to the distorted images of what we know immediately are bad guys. We don’t have any idea what is going on in this opening sequence other than someone is after someone for some reason and that the intended victim escapes. A major complaint about Bullitt is that we never truly know what is happening. More about that later.

After we see who we assume is the intended vic from the previous scene arrive in San Francisco and identify himself as Johnny Ross, we are introduced to our hero, Lt. Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen), roused from his bed to open the door to his apartment for his partner, Delgetti (Don Gordon). One of two notable things about this scene is that Bullitt is wearing pajamas. It’s hard to accept McQueen as a pj man, but he does have to get up to open the door in the obvious cold so it’s best to have something more than skivvies on. The other thing is how realistically McQueen conveys that he’s cold and still half-asleep. Gordon, a close friend of McQueen since their days as struggling actors in New York in the 50s, has praised McQueen’s realism in this scene. Everything that follows has a stylized realism.

Then we meet Bullitt’s arrogant antagonist Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn) at a reception the politically ambitious assistant district attorney is giving for some clearly well-to-do older women. It always slightly bothers me that all the women are wearing hats, as most are later in the airport scene. I lived in three states in three sections of the country in 1968, and I don’t remember seeing any women wearing hats, though headscarves were common. Movies and TV shows of this period have people wearing hats long after real Americans stopped doing so. Anyway, there is some realism here with our hearing the ladies’ small talk while Bullitt waits to talk with Chalmers.

Chalmers wants Bullitt to protect a witness testifying before a senate subcommittee meeting in San Francisco. Arranging said testimony is intended to boost Chalmers’ political prospects. This subcommittee is investigating what is always referred to as “the organization.” The witness, Johnny Ross, is named Rossi in the film’s source, the novel Mute Witness by Robert L. Pike, a pseudonym for Robert L. Fish.

Bullitt is to guard Ross (Felice Orlandi) at a fleabag hotel whose rooms go for $1.75 a day. Ah, the olden days when cheap things were truly cheap. Why such a hotel was selected is never explained. In the novel, recently read by your humble correspondent, we’re told it will be easier to protect Ross in a small hotel with fewer people coming and going.

Bullitt goes out to dinner with girlfriend Cathy (Jackie Bisset) and some friends, but we hear nothing they say, only the jazz played by musicians in the restaurant. Yates and screenwriter Alan Trustman want us to see that Bullitt has a life beyond his work, but what is said socially wouldn’t reveal much about his character. McQueen had Trustman write the final version of the screenplay because of the writer’s work on The Thomas Crown Affair.

Back at the hotel, Ross turns on the radio, and we hear that ersatz rock so prevalent in movies and TV shows in the 60s. Did Schifrin write this awful crap that sounds nothing like real rock? If so, he should be ashamed. The next time the radio is on, we hear jazz.

When someone suspicious is announced as coming to Ross’s room, Ross unlocks the door. Why he does so continues to be a major question, especially since it leads to his being shot. When the gunmen approach Ross, he says, “No. Wait. They told me . . . .” Who told him what? In his just published Cinema Speculation, Quentin Tarantino says we never understand what is going on and that it doesn’t matter because McQueen is so cool and the mood established by Yates is so sublime. In the novel, this Ross is an imposter hired by the real Ross and his brother Pete to impersonate the hood. He is killed so that the bad guys from whom Ross has stolen $2 million will think he’s dead, but won’t they still want their loot back? Why the impersonator agrees to this deception is not clear in either novel or film. What does he except to happen? The deception is clearly explained later in the film, but it does have a hole or two in it.

Fish’s novel, by the way, is a conventional procedural. There are no chases, no Jackie. The protagonist’s name is Clancy, and he is nothing like Bullitt, just a plodder. And it takes place in New York. Trustman and the preceding writer Harry Kleiner worked miracles in transforming this well-written but ordinary tale into something special.

Bullitt is less concerned about Ross than about the condition of Stanton (Carl Reindel), the cop wounded in the hotel attack. Chalmers doesn’t care. He’s bad. Bullitt’s good. Chalmers keeps threatening Bullitt. He’s really bad.

Bullitt’s boss is played by Simon Oakland, whom I never like. QT, who has good taste in actors, doesn’t care for him either. Oakland usually plays a shouting bully, but he’s much quieter here and is better than usual. Still, I would prefer someone else in the role. The same is true for Norman Feld as the cop cosying up to Chalmers. See kids, even masterpieces are rarely perfect.

At the hospital, Chalmers wants Willard (Georg Stanford Brown), the doctor treating Ross, replaced because he is “too young and inexperienced.” We wonder if he’s being honest because Willard is an African American. Have I mentioned that Chalmers is a creep? In the novel, Willard is a blond who gets up to some hanky panky that complicates the plot.

Then one of the hitmen (Paul Genge) enters the hospital intending to finish Ross off, and we have the first of three chases as Bullitt pursues him through the building, with Schrifin’s suspenseful music adding to the tension.

After Ross dies and Bullitt has him anonymously stored in the morgue, Bullitt goes to a small grocery and loads up on TV dinners to show that he’s a no-nonsense, just-folks type like those of us in the audience. What are TV dinners? As John Lurie explains in Stranger than Paradise, that’s what Americans eat while watching TV. That’s part of what makes them Americans.

“Take care, lieutenant.”

When Bullitt puts on his blue turtleneck, we know he means business. I’ve spent years looking for a turtleneck just like this. I have one, but the blue isn’t quite the same dark shade. Anyway, we have arrived at the big scene, the piece de resistance, what QT might call the big kahuna: the car chase. McQueen chose Yates, a former race driver, to direct Bullitt after seeing the chase near the beginning of the director’s Robbery. I thought that chase was the best I’d ever seen, but Yates tops himself here, though this classic scene has some defects.

What makes the chase magical is the music, the editing, the blank (existential) faces of the bad guys, with veteran stuntman Bill Hickman driving a Dodge Charger, and the roar of Bullitt’s Mustang. They are following Bullitt, but then suddenly he is behind him. Ain’t he cool? The problem with the first part of the chase, up and down the hilly streets of San Francisco, is that it’s a cheat. There are few other cars on the street, and most of them are spaced out to make the movements of the Charger and the Mustang easier. Then there’s that green VW Beetle they pass four times—one of the most notorious editing blunders in film history. In the final ep of the 2012 TV series Alcatraz, there’s a tongue-in-cheek tribute to this chase complete with ubiquitous Beetle. I mentioned once before that a female cabbie took your humble correspondent and Mrs. yhc on a wild ride up and down these hills. She must have thought she was Frances Bullitt.

The chase gets faster, louder, and more dangerous once the cars leave the center of the city and the mud streaks on the Mustang mysteriously disappear. This part of the chase is exciting, though it ends too abruptly when Bullitt suddenly forces the Charger off the road and into some gasoline tanks. I expect more from Yates, as well as a better shot of the death car.

Two Mustangs were used during the film, with one being banged up considerably. The other, purchased by an ordinary citizen, was auctioned in 2020 for $3.74 million.

With his car gone, Bullitt is driven to see the phony Ross’s wife by Cathy in her beautiful yellow 1964 Porsche 356 C Cabriolet. (QT calls it a VW, perhaps confusing the car with Goldie Hawn's yellow Beetle in Foul Play, also set in San Francisco.) If we weren’t already in love with Jackie, we certainly are now. The wife is murdered by the real Ross (Pat Renella) just before they arrive. I love the way Bullitt shields Cathy’s view of the body before whisking her away. Their following one-sided argument again underscores Bullitt’s humanity.

“You sent us to guard the wrong man, Mr. Chalmers.”

The final chase takes place at the airport where the real Ross hopes to escape. Again, the pacing, the editing, the music, and McQueen’s cool charisma make the scene special. I always wonder why after jumping from the plane Ross runs back to the terminal, but I assume he wants to get lost in the crowd. He doesn’t do a very good job of it. After Bullitt kills Ross, we see Chalmers drive off with the Support Your Local Police bumper sticker on his car, a too-obvious irony that Yates should just have given us a glimpse of, not a closeup. Some are puzzled by why Chalmers calmly begins reading his Wall Street Journal, but there’s no reason for him to be upset. He can’t bring Ross back. He’ll find some other way to find power—and money.

The film ends with a shot of Bullitt’s bullets. He will never escape his life of violence, no matter how cuddly and forgiving Cathy is.

In his Bullitt essay, Tarantino makes a good case for the film’s being a masterpiece and for the greatness of Yates’ direction. It’s too bad that Yates’s subsequent films, with the notable exception of Breaking Away, are not up to this level. It’s interesting that QT thinks Eyewitness is bad and Mother, Juggs, and Speed, one of the worst films I’ve ever seen, is good, but our tastes are results of different factors for each of us.

As good as Yates’ direction is, Bullitt is still more McQueen’s film than his. When people talk about how McQueen is the essence of cool, this is what they’re talking about. Even QT, no snazzy dresser himself, admires Bullitt’s clothes and how they and the actor complement each other. Bullitt is far from perfect, but it’s a heck of a ride.

Random thought:

Robert Altman considered Bullitt phony and offers a lame parody of it in Brewster McCloud, with Michael Murphy in a blue turtleneck. Tarantino correctly calls Altman’s film “one of the worst movies to ever carry a studio logo” and “the cinematic equivalent of a bird shitting on your head.” Take that, Bobby.

First seen: Butler, PA. Also seen: network TV, cable, VHS, DVD, Blu-ray.

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