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.
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.
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.
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.
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.