A police detective is ordered to guard a star witness. When the witness is murdered the detective breaks all the rules to find the killers and the answers.
OSCAR WINNER for Best Film Editing: Frank P. Keller
(Spoiler Alert) “The King of Cool” – that was Steve McQueen. For fans of the man ‘Bullitt’ was an excuse to watch Steve in action. We wanted to be him – wanted his clothes, his city, his girl – first and foremost we wanted his car – that Mustang. Bullitt was a McQueen-fest. But after several viewings many years ago I had to watch it again just to get the story straight. I’d remembered the jazz and the turtleneck – still have them. I’d completely forgotten the story. No accident as it happens -- there are some things to forget. (Robert Vaughn didn’t like the script and turned it down more than once before they sweetened the deal. Now he considers it his best work.) It’s not much for dialogue – McQueen was famous for taking a hatchet to a paragraph and whittling it down to a line or a word. It’s a stock police shoot’m up. More impressive: the film has a gritty style that we see less and less. McQueen was a stickler for realism: he cast real nurses and doctors to play themselves – not out of necessity, but because he believed it was more authentic. And yes, he had that much control – his own production company made the film. Despite a generic story the individual sequences are drawn out beautifully for maximum suspense – Frank P. Keller won an Oscar for editing. What’s unforgettable is the screen presence of McQueen -- that and one of the greatest car chases in movie history.
San Francisco. Frank Bullitt (McQueen) is summoned to a mansion in Pacific Heights. Walter Chalmers (Vaughn) wants him to guard a star witness. Johnny Ross is a mobster turning states evidence who will testify at a hearing. They intend to bring down the “Organization” (the mob). Chalmers is a patrician – slick and high minded with his chin in the air. Bullitt is just the opposite – a tough realist who sees through the bull shit: Bullitt has been garnering headlines for cracking cases and Chalmers wants a share of the limelight. The conflict between the two hinges on class and code. Chalmers wants to see justice done for what it will profit him – prestige and higher office. Bullitt sees justice as a dirty job that needs doing.
He meets his partners at the skid row hotel where they have Ross. They split the job into three shifts. Frank takes off to see his girl and you couldn’t blame him – Cathy (played by the lovely Jacqueline Bisset) is an architect at a ritzy high-end firm. She and Frank share a taste for fine dining and a teeming sexual chemistry. But she wants to know him better and there’s a problem – his job. “It’s not for you, baby.” (The way that McQueen delivers this line and so many others, underplayed with the lightest touch, remind you he wasn’t just a movie star, but one of the finer screen actors of the day. He was nominated for an Oscar for “The Sand Pebbles”. His co-star in that film, Sir Richard Attenborough, claimed if McQueen had lived longer he would have proven himself the best actor since Spencer Tracy.)
At the hotel the officer guarding Ross receives a call. Chalmers and another man are in the lobby and want to come up. He calls Frank who notes its one in the morning -- it can’t be Chalmers. He tells the officer he’ll be there in 5 minutes. It’s a hit. Two men with shot guns burst into the room and blast away. By the time Frank gets there the officer and Ross are clinging to life. He rides with them in the ambulance to the hospital where Ross dies. The officer will live – he gives a description of the shooters and remarks that Ross unchained the door before the hit, like he was expecting someone. In order to lure the killers back Bullitt asks the doctor to lose the file and the corpse temporarily. The trick works. When the killers can’t verify Ross’s death they tail Bullitt. He has a Mustang, they have a Charger.
They lose sight of Frank until he appears in their rear view mirror -- he’s stalking them now. Thus begins the great chase down the hills and streets of Frisco. (It took three weeks to film the sequence. McQueen, an avid racecar driver, did much of his own stunt driving. They hit speeds of 115 miles an hour.) For many it remains – some 40 years later -- the gold standard for car chases. After nine breath-taking minutes the killers lose control, spin out and hit a filling station – exploding in a fireball. Bullitt’s Mustang skids into a ditch.
Frank’s in deep now – a dead witness – two more dead, burnt beyond recognition; Chalmers wants him off the case and he doesn’t have a car. So when a new lead turns up he gets Cathy to drive him to the scene -- his attempt to let her in his life, perhaps. It turns into gruesome murder, however -- a woman strangled, and Cathy walks into it. On the drive back she tells Frank he’s living in a sewer every day – they are worlds apart.
Back on the job Bullitt learns that Ross skimmed millions from the mob and that they’re gunning for him. On a hunch he takes the dead Ross’s fingerprints, runs them through a data base and finds they aren’t Ross’s at all. They belong to a used car salesman -- the strangled woman is his wife. The real Ross has set them up to take the heat from the mob, murdered them, and means to escape using their identity. In a bloody showdown at the airport Bullitt gets his man and Chalmers loses his witness. Bullitt goes home to his girl, watches her as she sleeps. Nothing has changed, except his desire to serve and protect has a human face now. And maybe that’s a start.
William A. Fraker was D.P. and he’s no slouch – nominated for 6 Oscars. His work on Bullitt won an NSFC award. And so it's a shame the film isn’t much to look at presently – at least not the copy I viewed – it must be many generations removed from an original negative. Hopefully someone will give this fine film its due and restore it to its gritty best. Its vintage McQueen: a charismatic performance rooted in realism and talent – he hasn’t aged a day.
McQueen died at 50 in 1980 – his life was as interesting as any character he played. From broken home to marine to motorcycle racer to the highest paid actor in the world – its no wonder they’re making films about him now.