Sophie Farrell’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers!
What a fantastic film! Bullitt is an easy candidate for coolest film ever made, starring none other than the "king of cool" himself: Steve McQueen. McQueen is one of those iconic actors whose work I have seen very little of. I have been interested in checking out more from his filmography for quite some time, and what better place to start than one of his most popular films, Bullitt. Bullitt is often regarded as being one of his best films and is one that I have heard nothing but good things about. As a result, I did have high expectations for this film. Therefore, I am delighted to say that Bullitt not only met but surpassed my expectations. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of this film.
The film takes place in San Francisco, where Senator Walter Chalmers is aiming to take down the notorious mob boss Pete Ross. He plans to do this with the help of testimony from the criminal's hothead brother, Johnny, who fled the outfit in Chicago. Johnny, as a high profile witness, is placed in protective custody in San Francisco under the watch of police lieutenant Frank Bullitt. When a pair of mob hitmen enter the scene, Bullitt follows their trail through a maze of complications and double-crosses. The plot for Bullitt is great, with several interesting twists and turns. I've often seen Bullitt be pased off as a "one scene film". However, one of the things that surprised me most about Bullitt is the amount of depth that it has, especially considering the film's reputation. I love how this film takes its time to establish its characters, slowly peeling back the layers to reveal more about them. The film is never afraid to be a bit slow, allowing for quieter character driven moments. These quieter moments also allow the riveting chase and action sequences all the more explosive and exciting. Bullitt is a strong mix of different elements. It is tense, factual, tough and with a strong twist in its tale. It easily manages to push what could have been a standard witness protection story into something deeper and interesting. There are many great moments throughout Bullitt, with the car chase being an obvious highlight.
The cast for Bullitt is great and is easily amongst the film's main highlights. Steve McQueen gives a fantastic performance. It is easy to see why this is one of his most fondly remembered performances. McQueen rigid, quiet, stern and cool. He radiates complexity as a beacon of justice caught between a rock and a hard place but standing his ground. Jacqueline Bisset also appears in the film and gives a great performance. She has a nice chemistry with McQueen and provides some heart for the film's quieter moments. Robert Vaughn is also really great in his role. He layers his performance really well, allowing more about his character to be revealed over time. They are given strong support by a cast that includes Don Gordon, Simon Oakland and Pat Renella among others. All give really good performances, with each being given their moment to shine.
Bullitt is directed by Peter Yates who does a really great job. His direction isn't necessarily flashy, but it works perfectly for the film. He captures the gritty, hard-nosed and almost documentarian feel to the film perfectly. He also paces the film really well, making it feel exciting while also allowing it time for a few quieter moments and room to breathe. I also like the way that Yates frames his characters in each scene, revealing more about them and their relationships. Yates also stages some truly excellent action sequences. The main car chase remains iconic for a reason with many imitators who have tried and failed to recreate its magic. The cinematography for the film is great and the location filming makes the city of San Francisco almost feel like a character itself. The editing for this film is fantastic, particularly in the action sequences, making them feel incredibly exciting. I also adore the music score by Lalo Schifrin and think that it compliments the film really well.
Overall, Bullitt is a fantastic film. I've seen some criticisms of this film in the past, saying that it is one famous scene and nothing more. However, Bullitt is far more than just one scene. The plot is great, with tight storytelling, well developed characters and several standout moments. The performances from the cast are great, elevating an already strong screenplay. However, this is McQueen's film and he owns every scene. The direction from Yates is also really great and serves the film wonderfully. Bullitt is a film that I had high hopes for, and it did not disappoint. A thrilling and timeless film that I highly recommend!