WARNING: This review contains minor spoilers! Okay, you’ve been warned. 🙂
This is, in my opinion, The Great Granddaddy of car chase films. It has the plot twists and turns of a great mystery, streetwise characters, and the cops who use them as CIs in exchange for certain favors, plus lots of action-foot chases, murders, cool views of San Francisco (shot from all angles), and (of course) a car chase that will live in infamy.
It all starts in Chicago, where a mobster named Johnny Ross is fleeing the Mob Bosses. He goes to San Francisco, where Lieutenant Frank Bullitt (played by the quintessentially cool Steve McQueen) and his helpers Detective Delgetti and Stanton are assigned by Senator Walter Chalmers (played with a greasy, bureaucratic air of disdain by Robert Vaughn) to protect Ross, who is to testify before a Senate subcommittee on organized crime. They hole him up in a cheap motel. Now, when strange visitors come to call on a man in hiding, that’s never a good sign. And when Ross unchains the door, you know something is way off here.
In short, Ross gets eliminated. By these people he seems to be expecting. Odd …!
What follows is a great example of a movie that both entertains and makes a point. Many points, actually. But to say more about the plot would be a sin, if you haven’t seen this.
Suffice it to say that the cops, while technically the good guys in the story, don’t mind cozying up a bit with their ostensible persons of interest to gain scraps of useful information. And the politicians … well, it was the late Sixties. Everyone loved to hate politics then.
So, the notion of police cutting a few corners, hiding a few corpses, making a few deals here and there to solve cases is presented in contrast to the backroom influence of politicians. I think what we have here is a neo-noir film disguised as an action movie.
Bullitt also paved the way for cops like Dirty Harry.
Highlights of the film include:
That amazing long shot of Bullitt’s Mustang rolling down a long, steep hill to his apartment. The casual way he parks the car, walks to the newspaper dispenser, steals a paper, and enters the corner grocery store. He appears to survive largely on TV dinners.
The foot chase through the hospital. I think of it as a prelude to The Big Event. By which I can only mean …
The Car Chase. That singular car chase that no doubt knocked the socks off viewers in 1968. The point-of-view shots in each car as it hurtles over the city’s sudden inclines, straightens out, then dips again-like a roller coaster ride. The grind of McQueen shifting and double-clutching a Mustang like none you’ll ever buy off a sales lot — well, it actually replaces the movie’s score. The hyperactive visuals, along with the growl of auto engines and the squeal of tires combine into a noise-based music video of sorts. And what a finish!
Bullitt’s girlfriend, Cathy. She works at some kind of trendy firm — god knows what they do — but it appears she’s a designer (maybe) (who cares?). Bullitt borrows her car to go to a crime scene (his Mustang, at that point, is definitely out-of-service) and she tags along. And when he advises her to “stay here” (as in, with the car), she ignores his advice and bumbles into the crime scene. Her reaction is just … amazingly clueless. I’m not sure what the hell this woman expected a cop’s job was like, but she obviously is as innocent as a child.
I decided to write this review when I heard a millennial recently sing its praises, after seeing it for the first time. It made me wonder how many more old movies millennials might enjoy, if Hollywood hadn’t decided that young adults were only interested in coming-of-age dramedies, goofy teen movies, superheroes, and … I don’t know. Frozen?
But, of course, millennials now have not only 10,000 streaming options, but YouTube and Quibi and god-knows-what’s-next. So, why would young people want to watch old movies? Because they’re art. They are a genuine art. And so many of the old ones are awesome.
Here’s a bit of trivia for you: the movie was produced by Steve McQueen’s own production company, Solar Productions. Lalo Schifrin wrote the score. And the ’68 Mustang? Sold for $3.4 million at auction. In 2020.
Now, you had to know I wasn’t going to leave this out! 🙂
PS: I happened across an opposing viewpoint that’s too awesome to ignore! 🙂