TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL 2021 REVIEW! To be an all-time classic, a film has to be iconic, fresh, and do something better than any movie before or since. Bullitt, directed by Peter Yates, has all those and more. It features the best and most famous car chase in cinema history, one of the best-ever actors at his peak, Steve McQueen, and an outstanding jazz score by Lalo Schifrin. It also beautifully showcases San Francisco in 1968, arguably its zenith as a city, and has a nearly unmatched sense of realism that would influence scores of other cinematic productions.
The film, written by Alan Trustman and Harry Kleiner, hails from the era when action-dramas weren’t just setpieces with a wisecracking star stringing them together. It is based on a novel (Mute Witness by Robert L. Fish), so the plot, themes, and character work are strong. Police Lieutenant Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) is guarding a witness set to testify on organized crime. When he’s off duty, a hit is put on the witness, and the killers are successful.
“…a hit is put on the witness, and the killers are successful.”
Now, Bullitt must obscure the witness’s death to draw out who he thinks is responsible, the politician Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn). Along the way, he gets some help from his girlfriend Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset), cab driver Weissberg (Robert Duvall), partner Delgetti (Don Gordon), and boss, Captain Bennett (Simon Oakland). His cat-and-mouse game takes him on a high-speed car chase through the streets of San Francisco and on a footrace dodging airplanes through the airport’s runways.
Steve McQueen is the essence of cool — he practically created and broke the mold for action stars, particularly beyond the Western and war genres. Of his contemporaries, the actor projects more vulnerability than John Wayne and more athleticism than Clint Eastwood. Both of these facets are critical to Bullitt — McQueen’s experience in racing was a prime factor in creating the greatest car chase of all time. Yet, we believe his stoic cop persona isn’t so tough as to insulate him from the very real losses and threats surrounding Bullitt.
My favorite period in cinema history is the 1970s — The Godfather, The Conversation, Taxi Driver, Jaws, The French Connection, Apocalypse Now, and Alien. These were made by a generation of young filmmakers inspired by the medium’s artistic potential, with the French New Wave having occurred in their formative years. A sense of gritty shot-on-location realism dominated, something ever-more technologically feasible and distinct from the mannered, stylized, set-staged movies that had previously dominated the medium. A paranoid, or at least anti-establishment vein ran through some of the best films of the time. Some have ascribed this to Watergate, but it was underway well before that — young people had already been disillusioned by Vietnam and the brutal struggle for civil rights.
"…one of my favorite movies of all time."