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Bullitt

By Andy Howell | May 5, 2021

Yet, Bullitt prefigured all of them and was likely an influence. It was one of the first to have gritty, stark realism fundamentally at the core of its being. It was innovative at the time, but it still seems fresh today because so few movies have pushed the envelope quite as far. Every scene was shot on location, made possible by new lightweight Arriflex cameras. Sequences start before and go on well after what they strictly need to establish character or tell the story. These are almost always in service of establishing a sense of authenticity and place. Through them, we get snippets of the jazz and bar scene in the city and the inner workings of the police force and hospitals. Real doctors and hospital staff were used as minor characters. San Francisco is effectively another character in the film. In the early 2000s, I used to go to Enrico’s, a bar featured in the movie, and sit there, imagining the bygone era of Bullitt. Like Steve McQueen, now it is gone forever. This is all we’ve got.

The car chase is legendary and made the film an instant sensation. Here again, the city features prominently, as the cars fly over hilly streets and skid through winding roads. It just goes on for more than 10 minutes, without ever feeling monotonous. It has a rhythm and seems interwoven with the character’s plight. Part of that is the innovation of having a first-person perspective and showing McQueen doing some driving. The cinematography is just phenomenal, with aerial establishing shots and cameras getting wiped out as the cars get banged up. The editing by Frank P. Keller was rightly rewarded with an Academy Award.

The car chase is legendary and made the film an instant sensation.”

It is hard to overstate the influence of the car chase scene. Consider this: when Insider ranked the 33 best car chase scenes in cinema history, it had Bullitt, the oldest movie on the list, at #2. It is the great-grandaddy of them all, and I disagree with putting The French Connection as #1 since it owed so much to this film. But just think about this legacy: there are whole movies and franchises, like Smoky and the Bandit and The Fast and the Furious, built almost entirely on real-world car chases, all heavily indebted to Yates’ masterpiece.

I haven’t seen this written anywhere, but I’ll go so far as to say that Bullitt influenced even Star Wars. Yes, many things influenced the sci-fi hit, including Joseph Campbell, Kurosawa, serials, and WWII films. But think about it — Bullitt was a hit right as George Lucas was finishing film school and about to start American Zoetrope with Francis Ford Coppola in San Francisco. What did Lucas make next? American Graffiti, where racing features prominently. As in Bullitt, shots in the original Star Wars (1977) linger to establish a sense of place and reality in a way not seen in subsequent movies in the franchise — think the Cantina, the Rebel hangar, and scenes of life on the Death Star. This sells Star Wars as a gritty, lived-in world, and I’m not sure all that fantasy would have worked so well without it.

Fast cars, a go-it-alone cop who doesn’t trust the system, Steve McQueen, jazz, and 1968 San Francisco — it just doesn’t get more quintessentially American than that. Put Bullitt in the vault to represent the height of all those things. Even more than that, it is a master class in rooting a film in realism. For all those reasons, it is one of my favorite movies of all time.

Bullitt screened as part of the 2021 TCM Classic Film Festival.

Bullitt (1968)

Directed: Peter Yates

Written: Alan Trustman, Harry Kleiner

Starring: Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn, Jacqueline Bisset, Robert Duvall, etc.

Movie score: 10/10

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"…one of my favorite movies of all time."

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