“Steve McQueen As ‘Bullitt'”
Director: Peter Yates
Cast: Steve McQueen, Jacqueline Bisset, Robert Vaughn
Synopsis: An all guts, no glory San Francisco cop becomes determined to find the underworld kingpin that killed the witness in his protection.
For me, the cult status that has grown around Peter Yates’ Bullitt is something of a mystery. Trawl the internet and you’ll struggle to find anything approaching an indifferent view, let alone a negative one. Bullitt boasts not only one of the best car chases ever committed to celluloid but also the presence of one Terence Steven McQueen, the icon of cool who, more than thirty years after his premature demise, still fosters a bafflingly impassioned following. McQueen’s studied understatement, the borderline scowl and vivid blue eyes won him a legion of female fans, while his love of cars and memorable stunts, first on a motorcycle in The Great Escape and then in a throaty Ford Mustang in this movie, won over plenty of males who might have otherwise dismissed him as a pretty boy piece of eye candy for the girls.
So, looking beyond the iconic qualities that have earned the movie its exalted reputation, is Bullitt really any good? Its story is certainly pretty basic: a maverick cop (McQueen) — in the days when maverick cops were still something of a novelty — is assigned to protect a state’s witness by ambitious District Attorney Chalmers (Robert Vaughn), but the witness and the cop watching over him are both shot. The cop survives, but the witness dies, a fact Bullitt keeps secret by smuggling his body out of the hospital in the hope of luring the hitmen into having another crack at him. However, Chalmers brings political pressure on Bullitt’s superiors to return his witness and to kick Bullitt off the force. But the case takes on a new complexion when it’s discovered that the dead man was an impostor posing as the state’s witness.
On first viewing, Bulitt comes across as something of an over-rated mess. The actions of key characters don’t seem to make a lot of sense, and DA Chalmers’ initial status as chief-villain-in-waiting becomes curiously diluted in the movie’s second half. A key scene, in which Bullitt’s long-suffering girlfriend (the luscious Jacqueline Bissett) tells him that the sordid nature of his job is beginning to rub off on him, comes out of nowhere and doesn’t really make a lot of sense. I mean, did she think he spent his time slapping the wrists of weed-smoking teenagers in his role as a DEA officer? Anyway, the movie seems to contain too many plot holes and not enough explanations, making a simple story unaccountably convoluted.
Second viewing, things make more sense as the importance of seemingly insignificant moments become apparent. But this then begs the question of whether Yates seriously over-estimated his audience’s ability to decipher such oblique clues, or whether he was simply being lazy. Because even on a second viewing some of these clues remain obscure, and other moments call on a large degree of speculation on the part of the audience. The chronology of some scenes also suggests they were perhaps juggled in post-production to prevent the ending from being too dark and unhappy.
The movie’s good points go some way to overcoming its drawbacks. McQueen does possess an undeniable charisma that survives intact even when he is called upon to portray an essentially withdrawn, moody and enigmatic character, which is just as well because Bullitt isn’t someone it’s easy to warm to. Perhaps surprisingly, his performance is matched by that of Robert Vaughn (with whom he previously appeared in The Magnificent Seven) as the shady DA. Vaughn gives a performance of quiet authority as a character who gives no indication of corruption other than a driving ambition which, shown in a different light, could easily be seen as a source of strength, but which here hints at a vileness beneath the silky, buttoned-down exterior.
And of course, there’s that car chase, which should rightfully provide the conclusion to any movie in which it appeared. A musical score used only sparingly throughout the movie, is entirely absent throughout the chase, as is any dialogue, so that all we hear is the rasping throaty roar of Bullitt’s Ford Mustang and his quarry’s Dodge Charger. The scenes in which the cars briefly disappear from view only to fly over the crests of a succession of peaks are rightly famous, and are augmented by point-of-view shots from within McQueen’s car which are genuinely dizzying. Had the rest of the movie been a complete disaster — which it’s not, it just required some tightening up — it would still have achieved fame thanks to that protracted chase sequence. It’s just a shame that it overshadows the film’s finale — an insipid foot chase through an airport terminal — which comes nowhere near to capturing its vibrancy and excitement.
(1st August 2013)