A few months back, I reviewed Peter Yates' underrated Boston crime film, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. I was full of praise for that film; I was especially taken with the film's evocation of seventies' Boston. Whereas most cinematic Bostons are less than convincing, Yates shot on location and made his bleak and gritty Hub believable to old Boston hands like me. Yates' brilliant use of setting in Eddie Coyle was hardly a fluke for the director – five years before, he made Bullitt, a wonderful evocation of San Francisco and another crime masterpiece.
Though most remember Bullitt for Steve McQueen's performance in the title role, Det. Frank Bullitt doesn't appear on the scene until ten minutes or so of screen time have elapsed. The movie begins with a mysterious shootout and escape in Chicago; it then follows fleeing mafioso Johnny Ross (Felice Orlandi) as he arrives in San Francisco, drives about, and seeks police protection. Ross, it seems, has offered to testify for oily local politician Chalmers (Robert Vaughn) in an upcoming hearing. Chalmers enlists Bullitt to guard Ross. Things go wrong; Chalmers designates Bullitt the scapegoat. The detective, however, has his own ideas. Cue car chases, foot chases, suspense, and very occasional violence.
Midway through the film, our hero, driving his '68 Mustang, finds himself trailed by two hitmen driving the same model car. The ensuing chase up and down San Francisco's streets was one of the film's major selling points in 1968. More than forty years on, Bullitt's most famous scene continues to impress. Few directors today could pull off such a scene without the use of CGI; the cars careen, crash, and awe the viewers. While the pursuit does end in an explosion, the auto duel lacks the contrivances and silliness of most cinematic car chases.
This, I couldn't help but believe, is what a high speed pursuit really looks like. McQueen, an expert driver, did most of the stuntwork himself, allowing Yates to shoot most of the chase without concern about hiding a stunt double. The soundtrack cuts out for the sequence; all we hear is the rumble of the engines, the squeal of the tires, and the occasional crash or gunshot. Had Yates inserted traditionally "thrilling" music, he would have robbed Bullitt's set piece of its visceral impact.
The Charger race lasts ten minutes, and includes little dialogue or music, yet it neither drags nor bores. Unfortunately, other sections of Bullitt suffer from pacing problems. The final scene at SFO begins and ends extremely well, but has an overly prolonged and poorly lit middle that had me wanting Yates and Co. to just get on with it. And though Jacqueline Bisset's character is clearly important to Bullitt, there's not much effort expended to make her important to the audience. She's a very pretty face, but her scenes often seem shoehorned into the rest of the film. While the gap between Bullitt's professional and domestic lives serves as a principal theme of the film, the script often seems awkward switching between home and work.
When one sits down and watches Bullitt, it's impossible not to think of the films it influenced, especially Dirty Harry, another San Francisco cop drama. Steve McQueen's Frank Bullitt may be a hard case and a laconic badass, but he lacks the nastier edges of Harry Callahan's personality. He never taunts his fleeing enemies, nor does he speechify on his gun's virtues. In Dirty Harry, the hero tapes a knife to his ankle; in Bullitt, that's a hitman's stratagem. When Bullitt has to kill a man in a public setting, he throws his jacket over the bloody corpse, to preserve its dignity and spare the witnesses. Perhaps Hollywood grew more jaundiced in the three years between Bullitt and Dirty Harry? Consider our heroes' love lives. Bullitt lives with the lovely Cathy (Bisset), while Harry's wife died in a drunken hit-and-run.
I'm not sure that I can pick between Bullitt and The Friends of Eddie Coyle. With McQueen in San Francisco, Yates tells the story of a stylish yet suffering hero. In Boston with Mitchum, he retains the suffering, but drops the heroism and style. McQueen is laconic; Mitchum is verbose. Like The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Bullitt has aged very well. You should watch it, and if you're not familiar with Eddie Coyle, you should make it a double feature.