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Steve McQueen hired virtually unknown Englishman Peter Yates to direct Bullitt released in 1968, but it’s the coolness of the star’s performance and the Oscar winning editing by Frank P. Keller, especially of the famous car chase, that really grabs the attention.

This is the film McQueen made after The Thomas Crown Affair. McQueen’s production company developed the film and adapted the screenplay around the star with minimal dialogue, a couple of fast cars and that trademark McQueen stillness that many describe as cool. The source novel is nothing like the finished film.

Bullitt stands out as an example of how a driven actor can put together a great film even with a second rate director. McQueen exudes style and confidence except, tellingly perhaps, in his very first and last scenes in the film. That confidence must have come from a star at the top of his game, making creative decisions and hiring the right people to make a movie that makes the very best use of McQueen’s abilities.

In Bullitt McQueen’s sheer presence and the backdrop of San Francisco change everything. They take this from routine pulp fiction to an iconic masterpiece.

There are a lot of clichés here of course. Stool pigeon Johnny Ross is on the run from the Mob in Chicago and about to turn State’s witness. Tricky politician Walter Chalmers (played against type by Robert Vaughn who when Bullitt was released would have been instantly associated with his heroic Napoleon Solo character in The Man From Uncle) hopes to use Ross’s high profile testimony to further his own career. Then there’s Lieutenant Frank Bullitt himself, the up-and-coming cop beloved by the media.

Bullitt poster

In Bullitt McQueen’s sheer presence and the backdrop of San Francisco change everything. They take this from routine pulp fiction to an iconic masterpiece of the thriller genre.

If you want to know how to put an action sequence together with relatively limited resources then the famous Bullitt car chase is the place to start. Lalo Schifrin’s music, the point of view camera positions and above all some impressive editing make this a sequence that still stands the test of time.

Only after many viewings do you notice inconsistencies such as the repeated shots of the green VW Beetle, but the sequence works as the soundtrack and camerawork transport you inside the cars with the chasing and the chased without the use of any CGI or special effects. The streets of Frisco, the sound of the engines and Schifrin’s soundtrack all do their job.

And then, to make the film even more iconic, having been forced to take out the bad guy after yet another thrilling chase on foot, McQueen looks at himself in the bathroom mirror as his girlfriend sleeps in the next room.

The superstar’s mask slips. McQueen sees the same guy his partner Delgetti woke early from his sleep at the start of the film. A vulnerable human being caught in sudden daylight – just like you and me.


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