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Car chases have been a staple of American film ever since the appearance of the Keystone Kops in the silent era. The ten-minute pursuit in Bullitt (1968), up and down the steep streets of San Francisco (which gave some viewers motion sickness with its dizzying visuals), is regarded as one of the best ever put on film along with those in The French Connection (1971) and The Road Warrior (1981) and remains the one thing most viewers remember about the movie.
But Bullitt is worth repeated viewings for more than just its most famous sequence. A precursor to the explosive action movies of the eighties and nineties, the film brought a modern, technically advanced style to the tough detective movies of a generation before. And Steve McQueen's portrayal of the taciturn, mistrusting police lieutenant is considered one of his best and certainly most iconic.
Frank Bullitt is not your conventional cop, even for so unconventional a city as San Francisco. He dresses sharp and trendy (in costumes that designer Theadora Van Runkle based on the clothes of a handsome, dapper boyfriend she had at the time), drives a souped-up Mustang, and has a chic girlfriend (the beautiful Jacqueline Bisset) whose major interest is modern art. He also has atypical working methods; when a mob witness he is assigned to protect is murdered, Bullitt gets a sympathetic doctor to agree to keep quiet temporarily about the death while he solves the murder, and exposes double-dealings and cover-ups in the process. While the narrative is both intricate and exciting, it actually holds less interest than the film's style, action sequences, and its presentation of McQueen as a different kind of hero for a new age. It was his own favorite film and the one for which he is best remembered, the movie that shot him into superstar status.
By the late 60s, McQueen had become big box office on the heels of his success in The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963), and The Sand Pebbles (1966). In just a decade, he had risen from TV star (Wanted: Dead or Alive, 1958) to an internationally famous actor with enough clout to form his own production company. Producer Philip D'Antoni had optioned Robert Pike's book Mute Witness for Spencer Tracy, hoping to cast the aged actor in the central role of the luckless New York cop Clancy. When the project at last came to McQueen's attention, Warner Brothers saw the box office potential in it, and a rewrite was ordered to change the lead's name, age and location. That location became the first sticking point between McQueen and Warners, who wanted it shot on the back lot. The star suggested the studio "shove" the picture unless it was done his way. His way, it was. Bullitt became the first film shot entirely on location with an all-Hollywood crew and the first to use the new lightweight Arriflex cameras exclusively.
McQueen also gave the front office headaches by insisting on doing all his own stunts (a skill and bravado immortalized by playwright David Mamet in his 1985 short piece "Steve McQueen"). Yates insists the actor did his own driving (at speeds up to 110 mph) for the chase sequence; other sources say McQueen was furious to awake one morning and find most of the driving had already been shot. Whatever the facts, the film has become part of the legend of the tough, tortured star who enjoyed his success but wanted to be known as a versatile actor, too. Several years later, at the opposite end of the spectrum from Bullitt, McQueen made himself almost unrecognizable behind a beard and heavy clothing to play Dr. Stockmann in his film adaptation of Ibsens's drama An Enemy of the People (1977). The picture was shelved, however, and remained unreleased by the time McQueen died in a Juarez, Mexico clinic, searching for a miracle cure to the cancer that killed him at the age of fifty.
Director: Peter Yates
Producer: Philip D'Antoni
Screenplay: Alan R. Trustman, Harry Kleiner (based on the novel Mute Witness by Robert L. Pike)
Cinematography: William A. Fraker
Editing: Frank P. Keller
Art Direction: Albert Brenner
Music: Lalo Schifrin
Cast: Steve McQueen (Frank Bullitt), Robert Vaughn (Sen. Walter Chalmers), Jacqueline Bisset (Cathy), Don Gordon (Det. Sgt. Delgetti), Robert Duvall (Cab Driver), Simon Oakland (Sam Bennett), Norman Fell (Cpt. Baker), Georg Stanford Brown (Dr. Willard).
C-114m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.
by Rob Nixon