The Elements of Style: Steve McQueen in BULLITT (Warner Brothers 1968)

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Steve McQueen was the personification of 60’s screen cool in BULLITT, a stylish action film directed by Peter Yates. It’s the first of producer Philip D’Antoni’s cop trilogy, both of which (THE FRENCH CONNECTION and THE SEVEN-UPS) I’ve previously covered. Unlike those two films, the grittiness of New York City is replaced by the California charm of San Francisco, and the City by the Bay almost becomes a character itself, especially in the groundbreaking ten minute car chase between McQueen’s Mustang and the bad guy’s Dodge Charger.

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Style permeates the film from the get-go, with the snappy opening credits montage by Pablo Ferro. Then we get right into the story, as San Francisco detective Frank Bullitt is assigned to guard mob witness John Ross, scheduled to testify before a Senate Subcommitte on crime. Hot shot politician Walt Chalmers wants Bullitt because of his reputation and PR value with the papers. Things go awry when Ross is attacked in the seedy hotel room he’s being hidden in, causing the death of a cop. Ross survives, barely, and another attempt is made at the hospital. When he succumbs to his injuries, Bullitt and partner Delgatti stash the body in the morgue, and begin their investigation. Chalmers demands to know where Ross is, thinking him still alive, but Bullitt won’t give in until he completes his search for the truth.

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Frank Bullitt is the prototype for D’Antoni’s “Maverick Cop”. Cool as a cucumber, always butting heads with authority, breaking the rules, and of course driving like a maniac! McQueen’s just right for the part, with his ice-blue eyes revealing nothing and his naturalistic acting style. His iconic dark blue turtleneck, tweed jacket with elbow patches, and desert boots set a style trend among men who wanted to be like Steve, but there’s only one Steve McQueen!

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And that car chase set the style for literally dozens of cop films to come. Bullitt’s green ’68 Mustang GT goes up against a ’68 Dodge Charger in one of the wildest chase scenes ever filmed. McQueen drove in the close-ups (he was a race driver of note), but the heavy lifting was done mostly by stuntman Carey Lofton and motorcycle racing champ Bud Ekins (who also doubled for McQueen in THE GREAT ESCAPE). Bill Hickman, stunt driver extraordinaire, was behind the wheel of the Charger,  and choreographed most of the sequence. The action takes us from Fisherman’s Wharf, through Midtown, and ends just outside San Francisco on Guadalupe Canyon Parkway. Frank P. Keller deservedly won the Oscar for best editing that year largely due to this exciting chase.

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The cast features Robert Vaughn (THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E) as Chalmers, as grandstanding politician (is there any other kind?). Vaughn had costarred with McQueen in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, and the two men work well together here. I love this bit of dialog- Chalmers:  “Frank, we must all compromise”. Bullitt: “Bullshit”. Vintage McQueen! Jacqueline Bisset’s on hand in the role of Bullitt’s sensitive artist girlfriend (“With you, violence is a way of life, violence and death”, she tells him). Don Gordon plays Bullitt’s partner Delgatti; the two were friends offscreen and appeared together in PAPILLION and THE TOWERING INFERNO. Simon Oakland is Bullitt’s tough boss, like he was Darren McGavin’s tough boss in THE NIGHT STALKER (both the movie and TV show). George Stanford Brown (THE ROOKIES), Norman Fell (THREE’S COMPANY), Vic Tayback (ALICE), Felicia Orlandi, Ed Peck, and Al Checco are also among the supporting cast, as is young Robert Duvall in a small role as a cab driver.

Director Peter Yates was recommended by McQueen after the star saw his British film ROBBERY, which also involved a car chase. Yates would go on to make interesting films, including THE HOT ROCK (based on a Donald Westlake novel), THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE (an underrated crime drama starring Robert Mitchum), THE DEEP, the bicycle racing saga BREAKING AWAY, EYEWITNESS (another underrated film), THE DRESSER, and SUSPECT. William A. Fraker’s cinematography is stunning, and Lalo Schifrin adds another solid jazz score to his resume.

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Everything works together to make BULLITT (along with BONNIE AND CLYDE) one of the most stylish American films of the 1960’s, and one that holds up well today. I only wish Philip D’Antoni had made a few more; with BULLITT, I’ve completed covering his cop trilogy. That’s alright, though. Now I can watch them again without taking notes, and just enjoy them as a fan!

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11 Replies to “The Elements of Style: Steve McQueen in BULLITT (Warner Brothers 1968)”

  1. A truly great film. The car chase scene is, of course, classic, but here are a few bits of trivia.
    As any San Francisco local knows, the geographic continuity of the chase was bizarre. The two cars would turn a corner and immediately be shown in an entirely different part of the City. But who cares?

    The other oddity was the audio of McQueen double-clutching while shifting up through the gears in the Mustang, As any gearhead knows, double-clutch upshifting went out with the Model T. I’ve heard that McQueen left it in because, though inaccurate, it “sounded cool.”

    The last trivia bit is part of a local fable about the filming of the car chase. Since it was shot before the City had a more friendly filming permit system in place, almost all of the chase scenes were shot “sans permit”, if you get my drift (and pardon the pun.) The crew picked a spot, closed the street with their own barriers, and started filming before someone called the real cops.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I keep meaning to watch this and never got around to it. I need though, Steve McQueen is great. A trivia note is Duvall, Gordon, and Oakland are all alumni of a television series about a little out of the way place known as…the Twilight Zone.

    Liked by 1 person

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