Bullitt SE Review

If you, like me, think of Bullitt as a car chase wrapped up in a couple of hours of spare celluloid, then you might be pleasantly surprised to find that it’s a lean, tough police thriller which has some tremendously effective set-pieces and showcases a genuinely iconic lead performance from the great Steve McQueen. In terms of showcasing the actor, as the lavishly appointed centre of Warner’s new ‘Essential Steve McQueen’ set, it’s just about perfect, demonstrating most of his strengths and few of his weaknesses.

McQueen plays Frank Bullitt, a cop who is assigned by slimy politico Chalmers (Robert Vaughn) to look after a witness for 40 hours. This witness is to be the major surprise in a senate hearing on "The Organisation". An easy enough job, you might think, but on the first night, the door of the hotel room is kicked in, and the witness and his police minder are both shot. The two seriously wounded men are taken to hospital, and the witness is in a critical condition. Chalmers, whose career depends on the testimony of the witness, blames Bullitt for the shooting. But our determined hero realises that there is more to the case than meets the eye, especially when there is another attempt on the witness's life in the hospital. Following an exciting foot chase through the hospital basement, the would-be assassin gets away, and the witness dies from his injuries. Concealing the death from Chalmers, Bullitt aims to find out the truth before his superiors can close the case.
This is all standard 'policier' material, but it is played out on excellent San Francisco locations with a commendable amount of realism. Peter Yates was chosen for the job following producer Philip D’Antoni’s viewing of his 1967 British thriller Robbery, now somewhat dated but commendably realistic in its portrayal of a railway heist. What impressed D’Antoni was Yates’ use of location shooting to add essential verisimilitude to a somewhat hackneyed story and this is one of the things which raises Bullitt above the run-of-the-mill thrillers which were ten a penny in sixties Hollywood. Yates deserves much credit, along with ace DP William A. Fraker for placing the film squarely in the tradition of great San Francisco movies, reaching back to Hitchcock’s Vertigo and looking forward to Don Siegel’s use of the city as a Hockneyesque oasis of light and space in Dirty Harry.

Much has been said about the emphasis placed by D’Antoni and Yates on authenticity, not only of locations but of police and medical procedures. This isn’t necessarily an unmitigated success. In one sense, it’s true that the film is a little more realistic than the majority of thrillers which came out at the time but the difference isn’t all that great. A number of significant movies of the same period such as The Boston Strangler and Madigan have much the same emphasis on ‘real life’ accuracy. It should also be pointed out that the film falls into cliché at several points – Bullitt’s refusal to play by-the-book, his nonsensical relationship with his artist girlfriend – and that a number of characters are so exaggerated that it’s hard to imagine them having any existence outside the movie. In particular, Robert Vaughan’s politician is so slimy and blatantly abusive to the people he’s meant to be schmoozing that he could never sustain a career in the paranoid world of post-JFK politics. On the other hand, the alleged authenticity occasionally slows the film down to a crawl, something which is apparent even if you’re willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. Peter Yates, so good on location and action, doesn’t seem to have much interest in the characters and he relies a little too much on static close-ups sprinkled with occasional two-shots. This isn’t disastrous but it does tend to limit what the actors can do. The cast is full of wonderful character types –Norman Fell, Robert Duvall, Simon Oakland, and Don Gordon – but they are never given the chance to make more than a minimal impression. That said, to watch it now doesn’t deserve as much indulgence as you might think because films have become so ludicrously over-paced and over-edited that it’s quite enjoyable to watch a thriller which doesn’t feel it has to constantly put the squeeze on you.

Sadly, two problems remain. The script is generally too vague to make events sufficiently clear and sometimes errs in the direction of confusing verbosity with eloquence. More problematic is a key piece of casting. Jacqueline Bisset isn’t an actress so it would be unfair to label her as a bad one. But whenever she opens her mouth, the screen oozes boredom.

Her dialogue doesn’t help and she’s saddled with the traditional role of concerned civilian, chiding Bullitt for the work he does - “You’re living in a sewer Frank, day after day… the ugliness around us. For you, living with violence is a way of life, living with violence and death.” That’s the kind of blaargh dialogue which deserves to get the finger from any audience, and Bisset deserves our sympathy – even Katherine Hepburn at the height of her powers would have been hard-pressed to do anything with it.

However, even the sternest viewer is likely to forgive the flaws for two key reasons; the star and the set-pieces. Steve McQueen had been good in several movies and his previous film, The Thomas Crown Affair was a successful stretch, asking this most rough-hued of men to play a suave, elegant millionaire. He did it immaculately and he’s even better in Bullitt. It’s a more conventional role for McQueen but he’s perfect because he manages to embody the decency of the good, journeyman cop forced to extend himself in the face of the corruption which threatens to undercut everything around which he has based his career. The more you discover about the chaos of McQueen’s emotional life, the more impressive his acting becomes because he is so believable as characters with which he shared virtually nothing in common. If McQueen plays a scene with a showy, demonstrative actor then he comes off better because though he might seem to be doing nothing, he exudes presence and authority and you can’t take your eyes off him.

As directors such as Peckinpah and Sturges have demonstrated, place an on-form McQueen at the centre of a good action scene and you have a perfect combination. In Bullitt, the almost legendary car chase is a fine example. The key is a finely balanced mixture of clever editing and brilliant stunt driving. In films of the past ten years, especially those produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, car chases have become fatuously over-edited and shot from so many angles that the cumulative effect is migraine-inducing. Peter Yates and his Oscar-winning editor Frank Keller keep it simple and consequently do full justice to the work of the stunt team and particularly Bill Hickman – who later did similarly brilliant service in The French Connection and The Seven-Ups.

Although this car chase sequence is probably the best known part of the film, Peter Yates also stages the final airport confrontation very well and there’s enough suspense to keep the film simmering along very satisfyingly. I should also mention the surprisingly solemn ending which, in its reflective way, marks the film out as a product of a considerably more thoughtful period of filmmaking.

Bullitt may well be one of those films which is well known without being widely seen. It’s been highly influential, not only on the Hollywood ‘policier’ genre but on action set-pieces per se and, as we know to our cost, advertising. Lalo Schifrin’s jazz-lounge score seems to crop up in all manner of places and is one of the things – particularly in the supper club scene – which makes the film seem charmingly nostalgic and, if I can be pardoned for using the word, sixties-ish. A film as controlled and measured as this one would probably be labelled ‘indie’ in these days when speed so often seems to be confused for excitement. In this respect, it’s a product of another age. Sit back, relax and enjoy.

The Disc

Bullitt was released back in 1998 during the early days of DVD. This new edition improves on the original in a number of respects. The film is framed at roughly 1.78:1 and it generally looks very pleasing. The colours are a knock-out all the way through and there’s a considerable level of detail. There is a slightly higher level of grain than in the earlier release but this actually adds to the film, offering a very satisfying film-like appearance and adding to the location grittiness of the movie. If you’re a fan of the film then I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

The Dolby Digital Surround track sounds fine, although if you want a surround sound experience to remember then you’re going to be disappointed. There are no obvious problems with hiss or crackling and the dialogue is eminently clear. The music score sounds particularly nice. However, there are no obvious uses of the surround channels and the car chase doesn’t have the same kind of sonic punch which you’d get in DD 5.1. However, I’d personally rather hear the film as it should sound and this audio track does that very well.

The main extra on the first disc is a commentary track from Peter Yates. A director who has become rather sidelined in recent years, Yates made some very solid and entertaining films during his career – in addition to Bullitt he made The Hot Rock, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Suspect and the joyously funny Breaking Away. His commentary track is interesting and eloquent as he explains his motivations behind the way certain scenes were shot, his technical know-how and discusses the way he worked with Steve McQueen. Although he’s getting on, he remains enthusiastic and insightful about a film which he made nearly forty years ago. Also on the first disc is the original theatrical trailer.

The second disc contains three bonus features, two of which are among the best I’ve ever seen on a DVD. The third is one of those amusingly dated Warner shorts – “Steve McQueen’s Commitment to Reality” – which the studio used to test out would-be filmmakers. This was on the original Warner release of Bullitt but, if my eyes are to be trusted, it looks a bit sharper here than it did then. Perhaps that’s just the stardust that the other two features left in my eyes.

The first is a 2004 documentary about the star entitled Steve McQueen: The Essence of Cool. It’s a candid, funny and ultimately very moving study of a life which was incredibly complicated while straining for simplicity. There are loads of good interviews from the likes of his first wife, his son and a variety of his colleagues. The use of film clips is also apt and, for once, not overdone. What I particularly enjoyed was the wealth of photos featured, some of which are very touching indeed. We get lots of good behind-the-scenes stories too, with notable contributions from the team of stuntmen who doubled for McQueen at various times. The main omission is consideration of his other Peckinpah film, Junior Bonner, a film which contains some of McQueen’s finest acting. Still, otherwise it’s pretty thorough and fans of the actor will be intrigued to see clips from his 1977 movie An Enemy of the People which is very hard to get hold of.

Adding lustre to this disc is the second valuable documentary which is called The Cutting Edge. If you’ve seen the 1993 AFI documentary Visions of Light, a study of the craft of cinematography, then this will act as a fascinating companion piece about the art of film editing. Soon to be available as a separate release, this documentary takes in the history of editing from Edwin Porter to the age of CGI and contains lots of interviews with virtually every significant editor currently working in Hollywood. Laudably, it also discusses the work of editors in Germany and Russia during the 1920s and examines the effect that the Nouvelle Vague had on the editing of films when directors such as Godard decided to tear up the rulebook. Alongside this history are glimpses of Walter Murch editing a scene from Cold Mountain. It’s riveting stuff and anyone even vaguely interested in the filmmaking process should make it their business to see it.

Although the film contains optional subtitles, the extras do not. This is one area in which Warner Brothers need to improve as it mars their otherwise splendid classic releases.

Bullitt makes a good centrepiece for Warners’ excellent Steve McQueen collection. This release is a considerable improvement on the earlier release and is highly recommended. Although it’s available on its own, I strongly suggest you invest in the excellent boxset.

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