Johnny Ross (Felice Orlandi) is due to be the surprise witness at a mob trial in San Francisco, and needs protective custody to keep him safe over the weekend leading up to the trial. Politician Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn) is behind Ross’ appearance, and enlists the high profile Police Lieutenant Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) to run the operation, but as can be expected, not everything goes to plan.
Prior to this viewing I’d seen Bullitt only once before, and that was a really long time ago, so all I could remember was being thoroughly confused by the labyrinthine plot, but also being highly entertained by the great car chase. Clearly I wasn’t paying all that much attention first time around, as whilst the car chase remains amongst the best I’ve seen in cinema (I wrote a post celebrating it for To The Escape Hatch), aside from a few relatively rudimentary twists the plot is overall quite straightforward. Unfortunately this leads to something of a disappointment, as whilst there are several very entertaining sequences, there are just as many painfully slow or dull scenes that often left me bored.
The attack on Ross’ hideout is fantastic, it’s visceral and in your face, as is a confrontation near the end, but the long takes of McQueen observing through a hospital window, or watching a seemingly real time plane docking and disembarking in entirety were difficult to get through. Of course there’s that car chase though, which cannot be ignored, and that more than makes up for any tedious sequences. It lasts for around ten minutes, and those are some of the best minutes in all film. I’ll argue that the shot of McQueen appearing in the rear-view mirror of the men previously chasing him should be considered amongst some of the greatest seconds in all film; it’s just glorious.
The combination of the guttural throaty engine noises, the rollercoaster of confidence and smugness the villains go through as they follow and become followed by McQueen, only to apparently lose him before realising they definitely have not, the cars haemorrhaging far more hub-caps than either of them has, the bunny-hopping up and down the hills of San Fran, it’s all used so perfectly.
It helps that the guy behind the wheel is Steve McQueen, easily one of the coolest actors of his generation – or indeed any other. As usual he’s almost always doing something with his hands, sometimes distractingly so, and also as usual he rarely says anything that doesn’t need to be said. If he’s asked a question he doesn’t feel like answering, well then he’ll just walk away, and there’s a depth to his gaze that gives the impression that no matter how little he’s giving away externally, inside he’s surveying and analysing every element of his surroundings and the situation he is in.
Elsewhere in the cast it’s always fun to see a young Robert Duvall, but the real stand out has to be Robert Vaughn. Regardless of whether Vaughn’s Chalmers is involved with the criminal activity or not, no-one else could be the primary antagonist of this film. Vaughn relishes every line he gets, hamming up what could have been a forgettable suit to instead be a scenery-chewing highlight.
Bullitt isn’t a great film, and I believe that without the infamous car chase it would have been long forgotten by now, but there’s enough here to make it worth watching at least once.
Choose Film 6/10