Thursday, May 30, 2013

Bullitt: Steve McQueen Plays It Cool (What Else?)

Bullitt was not the film that established the Steve McQueen "cool quotient." Steve was displaying coolness earlier in the 1960s in movies such as The Great Escape (1963), The Cincinnati Kid (1965), and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). Heck, his character was even known as The Cooler King in The Great Escape (okay, that was a different kind of "cooler"). Yet, if Steve was already cool, Bullitt elevated him to a new level and became perhaps his most iconic film. Think of Bullitt and two things spring to mind: the high-speed car chase through San Francisco and the poster with McQueen in a dark turtleneck with shoulder holster looking...yes...pretty damn cool.

McQueen plays Lieutenant Frank Bullitt, a no-nonsense detective for the San Francisco Police Department. An ambitious politician (Robert Vaughn) handpicks Bullitt to protect a mob informant who's scheduled to testify at a Senate subcommittee hearing. Despite taking all the normal precautions, a professional hit man shoots the informant at the safe house. When the would-be witness dies in the hospital, Bullitt covers up the death. Bothered by too many loose ends (e.g., who divulged the location of the safe house?), he launches his own investigation--even as others look to make him a scapegoat.

In her big scene, Bisset's face is obscured
by McQueen's shoulder and green weeds.
Stripped of McQueen's charisma, the famous car chase, and the scenic splendor of San Francisco, Bullitt is just another urban cop drama. Veteran actors such as Simon Oakland, Don Gordon, and Norman Fell are in fine form, but they're just inhabiting stock characters: the tough, trustworthy boss; the loyal partner; and the agitated superior. Jacqueline Bisset fares even worse in a throwaway part as Bullitt's girlfriend, who--in her one meaty scene--gets saddled with insipid dialogue such as: "Do you let anything really reach you? You're living in a sewer, Frank, day after day." (Well, he's a police detective in a big city...who did she think she was dating?)

McQueen's Mustang GT appears in the rearview mirror as the chase gets underway.
The car chase officially begins at the 1:08 mark in the film when the bad guys in the Dodge Charger strap on their seat belts. The next seven minutes are a delirious combination of squealing tires, burning rubber, skidding turns, roaring engines, and speeding cars flying over the hills of San Francisco. Director Peter Yates and editor Frank P. Keller--who won an Oscar for his work--expertly cut between shots of the cars, the drivers' faces, and nerve-racking first-person views. I love the shot where the driver of the Charger looks through his rearview mirror and sees nothing but dust. Assuming that Bullitt's Mustang has crashed, a very slight smile crosses his face.

Steve driving his iconic car. Actually, two Mustangs were used in the film.

Stunt driver Bill Hickman.
Steve McQueen and stunt driver Bud Ekin drove the dark-green Mustang GT, while Bill Hickman drove the black Charger. Hickman was also behind the wheel in The Seven-Ups, which features--yes, I said it--an even more impressive car chase sequence. It was directed by Philip D'Antoni, who produced Bullitt. (For our picks for cinema's five best car chases, click here.) By the way, the Bullitt car chase is often listed as nine minutes long, but that includes a prelude in which the baddies tail Bullitt. It's when our hero craftily creeps up behind them--and the seat belts get clicked--that the high-speed chase officially starts. From that point until the fiery conclusion, it's almost seven minutes.

Robert Vaughn.
As for McQueen, he plays his authority-defying hero to perfection. In a typical scene, Bullitt even refuses to
back down from Vaughn's powerful politician, telling him: "You work your side of the street. I'll work mine." It's a typical McQueen role, but one that audiences expected at that point in the actor's career.

Yes, that's Steve McQueen!
Still, the huge success of Bullitt cemented McQueen's superstar status and enabled him to take more chances on future films. He collaborated with Sam Peckinpah on Junior Bonner and The Getaway (both 1972). The former contains what critics now consider one of McQueen's best performances. The latter was one of his biggest hits and also where he met his second wife (of three) Ali MacGraw. And in 1978, he was almost unrecognizable as the bearded, bespectacled protagonist in An Enemy of the People, an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's 1882 play.


  1. This was a cool post, Rick! I visited San Francisco once and the absolute last thing I would ever want to do is to be involved in a chase scene on those horrific hills. McQueen does personify Cool but I also think that the picture you posted of Bill Hickman looks pretty darn confident, almost like Sean Connery.

  2. Great post, Rick! This is my favorite scene in the movie. Incidentally, I will be traveling to San Francisco this week, and hope to see some of the locations of this famous chase (I'm going to try to take a movie tour that visits famous San Francisco filming locations). Cheers, Tom

  3. Whatever it takes to make a movie star, McQueen had it, and he was tops in cool. The 60s seemed the era of the Cool Actor---McQueen, Coburn, Marvin, Caine, Connery.

  4. That car chase is indeed one for the record books, but the movie surrounding it is pretty dang good too, as you make clear in your fine post, Rick. Once you notice that green VW bug in nearly all the shots in that iconic chase though, it really stands out. I agree with you that this might be McQueen's "coolest" performance, though his roles in THE GREAT ESCAPE and THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN are far and away my favorites.