I was taking another look at an old favourite the other week – Peter Yates’s classic police thriller, Bullitt (1968). It is a movie I have seen some nine times – I used to catch it regularly on ITV late-night screenings at one time, and now of course I have the DVD, a particularly fine transfer, with two feature-length extras on McQueen and the art of film editing respectively. The images and sequences have acquired a peculiar familiarity borne of repeated viewings, and by virtue of their extraordinary sense of style.
The action takes place over a weekend in San Francisco, in what, judging by the crisp light and McQueen’s polo neck and mackintosh, is a Californian winter. Aside from the now famous car chase, there is little in the way of action: a brutal hit at a cut-price hotel, a failed follow-through at the hospital, and chase-down at the airport, in a climax that surely inspired Michael Mann’s in Heat (1994).
But then there is McQueen, and just watching him close a car door or pull on his sweater and straighten his hair is all the action a movie needs. Even when it comes to selecting a week’s worth of TV dinners at his local grocery store, the actor has an unerring economy of movement and sense of cool. His frosty head-to-heads with Robert Vaughn’s oleaginous politician speak volumes of his contempt via a minimalism of body language and glassy stares through those baby blues. As a star he was at the height of his commercial popularity, having just made The Thomas Crown Affair with Norman Jewison, an altogether more vacuous exercise in style, but highly enjoyable for all that; he would make only ten more films before his untimely death, ones which instead would explore his range as an actor. His apparent detachment as Frank Bullitt is all the more apt since, as girlfriend Jackie Bisset complains, he is untouched by the filth he deals with on a daily basis, but he perseveres with professional efficiency, bending the procedures when necessary, but doing what he thinks is right, even down to removing his jacket to cover the corpse he has just made at the airport terminal.
The other star of the film is Peter Yates, who came to the movie on the back of his tough guy caper Robbery, and never made a better film. His Englishman’s eye, like other foreign directors’ before and after him, captured something different about the locations he used. There was a New Wave trendiness about the visuals, certainly, from the framing in the opening getaway sequence and elsewhere to the brief dinner party scene with McQueen and Bisset, their meeting of the eyes telegraphed via a neat rack focus effect. There was also something business-like about his camera, virile and direct, as if taking its cue from the straight-talking hero. Here, one feels, is what it is really like to be a cop and under-appreciated. (The film provided a much-needed rehabilitation of the urban policeman, after a decade of unfortunate real-life bad press, and as such was influential on Eastwood vehicles such as Coogan’s Bluff and Dirty Harry; though the film it most resembles is Friedkin’s brilliant, and equally pessimistic, The French Connection.)
After a brief look at the supporting cast – Vaughn, Simon Oakland, as Bullitt’s loyal boss, and the great Don Gordon as his partner, Delgetti – it would not be right to end without mentioning Lalo Schifrin’s superb jazz soundtrack, underscoring the title sequence, hospital pursuit and car chase, until, that is, the flooring of an accelerator signals the transition from cat-and-mouse ‘tail’ to a fully-fledged, tyre-complaining hurtle through Frisco’s highways and freeways.