"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, December 29, 2023


In the late 1960s, Hollywood was undergoing a significant change. The studios had lost touch with what moviegoing audiences wanted to see. By 1969 and the release of Easy Rider and its subsequent success signaled a seismic shift in cinema, making way for a myriad of unusual films that were pushed through the system throughout the following decade. Actor Steve McQueen was at the height of his powers during the transition period with a toe in each era. He had risen to prominence during the ‘60s with such films as The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963), which transformed him into a bonafide movie star but, at heart, he was a Method actor serious about his craft. He used his newfound clout within Hollywood to produce two films that catapulted him to the next level, The Thomas Crown Affair and Bullitt, both released in 1968.

Bullitt is a perfect example of the aforementioned transitional period that was going on in Hollywood. It is a studio movie, specifically a crime thriller that sees McQueen as a police detective, however, he cut a significant amount of his character’s dialogue to suit his particular style of acting. In addition, he had the production shoot on location in San Francisco (uncommon at the time) and adhere to strict authenticity when it came to police procedural details. One of the most important aspects of this shoot was the show-stopping car chase scene that eschewed traditional Hollywood techniques in favor of cars at actual high speeds on actual city streets. This not only added to the film’s realism - it gave the sequence a visceral thrill that hadn’t been done before.

The opening credits employ a fisheye lens, mixing black and white with color as Lalo Schifrin’s cool, jazzy score sets a stylish vibe. Initially we have no idea what is going on; the action that occurs during this sequence is without dialogue. Who is chasing whom and why? Even when dialogue is finally spoken, just before director Peter Yates’ credit, it is unclear exactly what happened.

Lt. Frank Bullitt (McQueen) is tasked by Senator Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn) with protecting the star witness – Albert "Johnny Ross" Renick (Felice Orlandi) – in a big trial against the Mob, known here simply as The Organization. He has to keep him safe for 40 hours. What seems like a routine assignment turns out to be much more complicated: the witness and the police detective guarding him are critically injured by two hitmen in a situation that reeks of a set-up. Why would the witness let these two men into the apartment? Frank’s boss (Simon Oakland) tells him to investigate further and do it by the book… but, of course, a maverick cop like Frank goes his own way, authority figures be damned. As he puts it, “You work your side of the street, and I’ll work mine.” It is a beautifully succinct line that sums up Frank’s ethos as a cop.
What is so fascinating about McQueen’s performance is his choice to emphasize facial expression and body language (or the lack thereof) over dialogue. When a fellow cop is injured in the line of duty, he says little to the man, except to ask the identity of the person who shot him. The rest of the scene shows Frank reacting to what happened, the grave concern that plays across his face. No trite words of comfort are needed – the expression on McQueen’s face says it all.
This technique is used again when Frank revisits the crime scene where Ross and the cop were shot. No dialogue, just him looking over the scene and thinking about what happened, trying to piece things together. Typically, a scene like that would have a voiceover or Frank would be talking to himself or someone there explaining what he’s doing. Instead, the filmmakers assume the audience is smart enough to figure it out.

This being McQueen, Frank is a hip guy. He dresses stylishly and takes his beautiful girlfriend (Jacqueline Bisset) to a snazzy jazz club for lunch. Even his introduction is as low-key as the man himself: his partner (Don Gordon) wakes him up after a long night (he went to bed at 5 a.m.). Frank isn’t much for small talk and that’s all we know about him; their relationship is all business. They aren’t friends that crack jokes together or are at odds with each other like buddy cop movies of later decades. It is an underwhelming introduction that gives no indication of what kind of cop Frank is – we find out over the course of the film. This is quite unusual for a mainstream studio film at the time, which traditionally spelled everything out – this is not the case as Bullitt adopts its leading man’s less-is-more aesthetic, extending to its very economic use of dialogue. When Frank goes to dinner with a group of friends, his girl by his side, we see them all talking but don’t hear their conversation as the jazz music drowns out their voices. What they’re saying isn’t important, only that we see what Frank does in his off-hours.
For the most part, Jacqueline Bisset is saddled with the thankless token girlfriend role. Late in the film, however, she gets a moment to showcase her acting chops when her character confronts Frank about his job, after seeing a crime scene where a woman was brutally strangled. She tells him, “Do you let anything reach you – I mean really reach you – or are you so used to it by now that nothing really touches you?” She continues, “How can you be part of it without becoming more and more callous?” referring to the violence and ugliness of his job. He has no answer for her. She cannot reconcile the vast difference between her world and his, asking, “What will happen to us in time?” to which he replies, “Time starts now.” If up until now he’s kept her at arm’s length about the harsh realities of his job, perhaps now that she has gotten a glimpse of it, she understands why he doesn’t share the ugly details with her. Bisset does a fantastic job in this scene and one wishes she was given more to do in the film.
Yates shows off the hilly streets of San Francisco beautifully. You get a real sense of place and the city becomes another character unto itself. We see the neighborhood convenience store where Frank gets his groceries and the grubby, hole-in-the-wall hotel room in which the witness is hidden away. Throughout Bullitt, the director demonstrates his considerable skill at visual storytelling. A key example of this takes place at the hospital, when Frank shows up to check on the condition of the witness with Dr. Willard (Georg Stanford Brown). In the foreground of the shot Frank is eating while Willard is nearby. In the background we see and hear Chalmers tell a nurse that he wants Willard replaced as Ross’ doctor because, “He’s too young and inexperienced,” and he would prefer his own surgeon to take care of the man.

Frank and Willard exchange a look that indicates they know the real reason: he’s black. It’s not spelled out and nothing is said between the two men but they know and we know it, too. It also reveals Chalmers’ unsavory side that had not been revealed up to this point. Frank was already unsure of him because he came off as a smug prick, but this clinches it: Chalmers has his own agenda and is not to be trusted.
The film rights to Mute Witness by Robert Pike had sold five times with McQueen’s Solar Productions being the last buyer. Initially, he didn’t want to play a cop as he felt it would hurt his counterculture/rebel reputation. Over time, he changed his mind, reasoning that an authentic performance might change people’s opinions of the police. He enlisted Alan Trustman, who wrote the screenplay for The Thomas Crown Affair, to write a treatment for Bullitt. McQueen wasn’t crazy about the complicated plot that the writer created.
While that was being worked on, he and producer Robert Relyea saw Robbery (1967), a heist film directed by Peter Yates, which contained a car chase sequence that impressed both men. Relyea said, “Yates had a car chase in that movie that involved cars moving along very fast, then cutting to these children at a crosswalk. It made you so nervous you couldn’t see straight.” The director was sent the script for Bullitt and thought it was “awful.” He was asked to re-read it and replied, “I’m not coming to America to make that kind of film!” He was eventually coaxed to fly to Los Angeles to tell McQueen and Relyea what he thought of the script and within hours signed on to direct the film.

While the script was being rewritten, McQueen was hands on with the casting, handpicking Robert Vaughn, Simon Oakland and others. Vaughn actually turned down the project three times and agreed to do it only after talking to McQueen, his agent and then Yates. For his partner in the film, McQueen cast long-time friend Don Gordon, whom he had known since the late 1950s when they were working in television. It was his first film role and gave his career a boost.
For the role of Frank’s girlfriend, McQueen cast Jacqueline Bisset because he was attracted to her, claiming that she was the most beautiful co-star he worked with up to that point in his career. He made excuses to his wife to keep her away from the shoot while he conducted an affair with Bisset during filming. He also thought she was an excellent co-star: “She catches good. She can throw it back to you with a great depth for a girl of that age.”
Yates thought it would be good for McQueen and Gordon if they researched their roles. They went on ride-alongs with San Francisco police officers. Yates said, “Steve and Don Gordon really had down their procedures. I thought it would be more exciting, and it was.” The two cops assigned to McQueen hazed him a bit to see if he was just another poseur actor and took him to a morgue. He was up to the challenge, showing up with an apple, eating it while being shown cadavers. Gordon, meanwhile, was taken out on a real drug bust and given a police I.D. card and carried a badge and a prop gun. He was even recognized by a suspect on a bust.

Up to this point, McQueen had a good relationship with the studio and its head, Jack Warner, who quickly agreed to make Bullitt and was hands off, trusting the actor. As production ramped up, Warner sold his stock and retired. Kenneth Hyman and Seven Arts took over and told McQueen that they wanted to be more hands-on. Relyea said, “We came in with one understanding and then found ourselves in another, it led to misunderstandings on both sides.” The studio told McQueen that his six-picture deal was now going to be a one and done deal.
Filming began in February 1968 and finished in May of the same year. The pressure of the new studio regime and his reduced deal weighed heavily on McQueen. He didn’t display the good humor he had on other sets as the pressure of carrying the film affected his day-to-day mood – but it did not deter him from fighting for what he wanted. The studio wanted Bullitt shot on the lot but McQueen pushed to have it shot entirely on location. Yates said, “My biggest concern was that if we were to make a picture totally on the lot, that it would look like a television series.” San Francisco’s mayor Joseph L. Alioto was very accommodating and the studio backed down. As a result, Bullitt was the first film to be shot on location with an all-Hollywood crew, a major feat unto itself.
Yates encouraged the actors to ad-lib and was not afraid to change a scene if it wasn’t working. For example, in the scene where Frank meets his girlfriend for dinner, McQueen didn’t feel comfortable with the dialogue as written. Yates told him and Bisset to act as if they were having a real dinner and filmed them from the outside.

During filming, the studio rode McQueen hard about the budget. Whenever a studio executive would show up on location, the actor would kick them off. The studio claimed that the production was going over budget while in actuality there was no real projected budget! In the end, the studio claimed that the budget went from four million dollars to six million when it actually only cost five million.
Some of the stunts that were performed during the production were quite dangerous and they didn’t always involve cars. In the scene where Frank pursues Johnny Ross on the airport runway and goes under a Boeing 707 passenger jet, the stunt involved 240-degree heat blasts from the engine with unpredictable cross winds. Stuntman Loren James talked to the FAA and pilots and was told that it couldn’t be done. Eventually, he found a pilot that was willing to do it and the stunt was done in one take. James was paid $5000 for the death-defying stunt.
The film’s famous car chase sequence was saved for the last two weeks of filming with the studio threatening to deny it if the production went over budget. Screenwriter Alan Trustman claims that the car chase was in the script but Yates has said that it was producer Phil D’Antoni that pushed for it. Yates had just done one in a previous film and didn’t want to do it. McQueen was prepping for the car racing drama Le Mans (1971) and didn’t want to do it either. Stunt driver Carey Lofton was brought in to coordinate the chase. He had known McQueen since the late ‘50s and they had a good relationship. The actor wanted to make the best car chase depicted on film and Lofton told him, “I knew a lot about camera angles and speeds to make it look fast. You can underground the camera so you can control everything in the scene.” Lofton told McQueen it would be expensive to do. The actor replied, “Money is no object here.”

McQueen wanted to do his own driving and Lofton spent four days trying to convince him otherwise. It wasn’t until he crashed into another car three times that Lofton asked McQueen’s friend Bud Elkins to double for him. Elkins said of his friend, “He took the corners too fast and he overshot them and crashed into cars.” The climactic explosion at a gas station was, not surprisingly, the most expensive aspect of filming and could be done only once. It was shot on the last day of filming. Even though the car overshot the gas pumps, clever editing covered this mistake.
The final showdown where Frank chases his suspect on a busy airport runway and beyond is more than a little reminiscent of the climactic showdown between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Michael Mann’s Heat (1995). This, coupled with the all-business Bullitt and the attention to procedural details, influenced filmmakers such as Walter Hill and the aforementioned Mann; both are fascinated by the machinations between cops and crooks.
Bullitt had its premiere on October 17, 1968 at Radio City Music Hall. Roger Ebert gave it four out of four stars and wrote, “The beautiful thing is that Yates and his writers keen everything straight. There's nothing worse than a complicated plot that loses track of itself.” In her review for The New York Times, Renata Adler wrote that it was a “terrific movie, just right for Steve McQueen: Fast, well acted, written the way people talk.” The Hollywood Reporter wrote, “Apart from specific business assigned, McQueen is able to convey the same depths of complexity in close-up reactions throughout the film’s action, which stresses brutal action no less efficiently than the political intimidation, and opportunistic legal maneuvers which are the cool menace of Vaughn’s tactics.” In his review for Artforum, Manny Farber wrote, “in a long, near-silent and very good stretch in U.C. Hospital, which is almost excessive in the way it sticks like plaster to the mundaneness of the place, the movie hits into about seventeen verities: faces looking out as though across the great divide of 20th-century lousiness.”
After watching this film, audiences questioned: what was the point? Was Chalmers in league with The Organization or merely an arrogant and inept politician? Robert Vaughn keeps his cards close to his vest, never giving us a clear indication of his character’s true motivations. He maintains a slick, impenetrable façade that the actor does a great job of maintaining throughout the film. Bullitt simply ends with Frank returning home, his girlfriend asleep in his bed. He washes his face and looks in the mirror, a grim expression looking back. One wonders if this befuddled audiences at the time. It certainly isn’t the happy ending most expected with this kind of a film and again, it is further proof of the winds of change going on in Hollywood where McQueen could push a film like this through the system. It isn’t as radical as something like Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), but it is groping towards that kind of reinvention.
Terrill, Marshall. Steve McQueen: Portrait of An American Rebel. Plexus. 1993.

1 comment:

  1. This is a great movie. Truly something that was needed to appeal to an audience that wanted something exciting as it would set the template for a lot of films involving car chases. Plus, Steve McQueen was THE MAN back then.