Steve McQueen epitomizes the movie star cool that has defined his career in Peter Yates’ Bullitt, a sleek, stylish cop thriller with some of the most cleanly observed action scenes ever constructed. What little there is in complex plot structure is more than made up for in sleek, stylish action scenes and movie star charisma and cool from McQueen.
McQueen plays Frank Bullitt, a cop in San Francisco put on guard detail for a witness in a major Mob trial. After an attempt on the man’s life, Bullitt delves deeper and deeper into the case leading him down a convoluted set of circumstances and plot twists. The story is the weakest portion of the film, as Yates puts the film to a standstill to determine who is doing what to whom and why and how. Robert Vaughn plays a slimy politician whose career is tied up in the witness’ fate. It’s a role that Vaughn can do in his sleep at this point as slimy and untrustworthy are points that he has perfected to a T, even when on the side of the angels as he is here. Jacqueline Bisset plays Cathy, Bullitt’s girlfriend terrified by the life of violence he leads in his work. It’s a tired girlfriend role that only gets lip service in one awful, rote scene by the beach and returned to at the end after a violent conflict. It indicates that at one point the movie had more on its mind at one point but those things subsided to fleet-footed chase scenes and crackling car chases.
And that is really okay. Often, underwhelming films become models of putting style over substance but with Bullitt, the style is the substance. Yates provides a unique visual palette to his film that’s at times gritty but not so much as to be grimy. It’s a clean picture and the action scenes are certainly a highlight. The centerpiece car chase of the film has been praised as one of the greatest ever put on film and that’s for good reason. Cleanly shot, with an eye for the geography of the action and an editing style that never confuses but propels the action forward, Yates, his stunt team, and his editor, Frank Keller, create an exciting, suspenseful action scene. Through much of the film, Lalo Schifrin’s score is a great highlight with nice jazzy riffs underscoring an undercurrent of calm and cool that McQueen inhabits while also driving many of the more suspenseful beats. But during the car chase, the filmmakers knew just when to hold back with a soundtrack pulsing with car engines revving in place of a traditional score. The film won the Academy Award for Editing and much of that has to do with the car chase sequence.
Peter Yates brings a British sense of style stateside, providing a stylish gritty realism that continually entertains. The story is merely window dressing for McQueen’s effortless cool and nail-biting action. Had any of these two points been any less than outstanding, the film would be a difficult sit with a confusing muddled story at its center. Yates visual style and McQueen’s central performance as the cool, reserved Bullitt combine to make a visceral thriller worth watching.
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