*. Does anyone understand the plot of this movie on a first, or even a second or third viewing? Not because it’s so complex mind you, but just because nothing is explained.
*. Do you care? Peter Yates didn’t. On the DVD commentary he mentions how he is always being asked why the marked man unlocks the door to let his killers in. “My answer to that is that if he hadn’t then there wouldn’t have been a movie.” In other words, it’s not worth thinking about.
*. “Don’t worry,” David Thomson writes. “If you can’t follow the plot, the cars will soon be coming over the hills like seabirds looking for fish.”
*. There’s a lot more to Bullitt than the car chase, but the car chase is what it’s best known for and it is the film’s highlight. Originally, however, there was no chase in the script (and the story was set in Los Angeles). But both Yates and McQueen were really in to cars, so . . .
*. As an aside here, it’s worth noting that everyone (or at least the actors, and director Yates) knew going in that the script was junk. The movie was going to sink or swim based on the “car chase” (which is all the description it received).
*. I love how the chase begins. After turning the tables on the bad guys and then appearing like a wraith in their rear-view mirror, McQueen closely tails them through traffic at slow speed. McQueen knows they’re going to make a break for it at some point, and we know it too. We’ve seen them buckle up. So the preliminary game of cat-and-mouse is a pregnant moment. The music ratchets up the tension (music that will abruptly stop when the chase begins). And then — in a squeal of smoking tires — it is on!
*. Surprisingly, much of it stands up pretty well. It didn’t hold the “greatest car chase” ever title for long, as only a couple of years later the chase in The French Connection challenged and (I think) outdid it, but you can still feel your stomach drop as we go bouncing down the hills of San Francisco, and the freeway jousting is Mad Max level.
*. Continuity, however, is another matter. I don’t mind that the geography is wrong (since I don’t know San Francisco), but that the same cars keep appearing (the green Volkswagen beetle, for example) is annoying. And there is also a problem with matching the weather. The scene was filmed over a two-week period and in one shot it’s bright and sunny and in the next it’s heavily overcast and looking like rain. So there’s no denying it’s a choppy bit of work.
*. Yates has two predilections in making crime films that really define the kind of movie Bullitt is.
*. In the first place, he wanted verisimilitude. Bullitt is a pure police procedural, as Yates was aiming “for a documentary” look and feel so people would believe in what was happening. It’s a movie full of professional interest: in the business of offices, or the hospital, or the place Bissett works. Today we associate so much of police procedural work with CSI-style forensics that it’s actually kind of fun to spend a long scene with Bullitt and Del taking apart the luggage looking for clues.
*. Yates’s other predilection was for keeping the action muted and low key. “I have always liked ‘less is more’,” he declares on the commentary, and he even praises Lalo Schifrin’s score for its economy, for knowing not to exaggerate things or push the drama.
*. In keeping with this “less is more” aesthetic Yates found perfect leads in the cool McQueen and (later) the somnambulistic Robert Mitchum in The Friends of Eddie Coyle. These are two men not known for overacting.
*. McQueen, who had asked for Yates to direct after seeing Robbery, was very much sympathetic to this approach. He claimed to be not an actor but a reactor, hated dialogue, and thought the camera should do most of the work. It’s an ultra-minimalist method and really defined the nature of “cool” for a generation and set the standard for an action hero. Dirty Harry is very much a film beholden to Bullitt (both were self-consciously thought of as modern Westerns, for example), and perhaps nowhere more so than in the grim taciturnity of their eponymous heroes.
*. The supporting cast either fell into line (Bullitt’s fellow officers) or fell into an unhappy wasteland.
*. Robert Vaughn is hopeless as the oily politician Chalmers. Pauline Kael found him “a slimy Mr. Big whose technique of bribery is so blatantly insulting he couldn’t give away a lollipop.” True, but the thing is Vaughn has nothing to do. Without any function he is left impotent, making quiet threats that are routinely ignored and which begin to seem silly after a while. Perhaps under Yates’s direction he is also drawn into a battle of understated cool with McQueen, which he is doomed to lose.
*. As shocking as it seems, Jaqueline Bisset is in an even worse position. She is, quite simply, the entirely irrelevant love interest. According to Yates nobody was sure what to do with her character or how to fit her into the story. According to Yates they were puzzled as to “what one can get the girl to do that doesn’t hold up the action.”
*. I guess they couldn’t think of anything, as she has nothing to do, or say, and apparently she was just supposed to be a foil for Bullitt, to show his “sympathetic side and his reality” (whatever that means). In a 2021 interview with Eddie Muller Bisset herself admitted that she didn’t think the part was necessary or made any difference, “but I was representing the female in his [Bullitt’s] life and the feminine side of his existence rather than being a fully-fleshed character.”
*. Personally, I think they just needed to give their stud star a babe to go to bed with. I mean, Frank Bullitt can’t sleep alone, can he?
*. Trivia challenge: Do you know what the name of Bisset’s character was? I didn’t, even right after re-watching the movie, and had to look it up. I wasn’t even sure if it was ever mentioned, or if she’d just be credited as “The Girl.” Well, the correct answer is “Cathy.”
*. You can hear how desperate things had become with Cathy by listening to her big speech to Bullitt after the discovery of the murdered woman at the hotel. Poor Jacqueline. What could she have been thinking when she read this: “Do you let anything reach you? I mean, really reach you? . . . With you living with violence is a way of life. Living with violence and death. . . . Your world is so far from the one I know. What will happen to us in time?”
*. On the commentary track Yates (who liked dialogue about as much as McQueen did) says that in this “scene I wish we had no dialogue.” He thought that if it had just been done visually it would have said everything. As it was they had a lot of trouble writing it because no one could think of anything for Cathy to say.
*. About the only thing to like about Bisset’s character are her outfits, which are designed to make you guess if she’s wearing any underwear.
*. Speaking of clothes, what’s not to like about McQueen’s wardrobe? Those pyjamas! That turtleneck! That sweater jacket! Some styles are timeless.
*. The “professional” mafia hit men don’t do a very good job do they? Shooting the cop in the leg (we’re told he’ll be fine) and then hitting their main victim in the shoulder, at point blank range, with a shotgun?
*. Part of the problem may have been because squibs were new and they couldn’t really show the guy’s head exploding. When we see his body later his head is all covered in blood so I think we’re meant to think it was a better shot.
*. I really like the credits, but they seem a little out of place in a movie like this. Then again, that opening sequence is out of place as well, and you’re left guessing for most of the movie as to what was even going on.
*. “Bullitt” is a pretty weird last name, isn’t it? I couldn’t find any listed in my local phone book.
*. I guess bobblehead dolls have been around for a long time, but I was still surprised to see one in the back of Robert Duvall’s cab.
*. They wouldn’t let McQueen do that jump from the plane onto the tarmac at the end “because of his legs.” And can you blame them? That really was a “hell of a jump” (in Yates’s words). Just looking at the first guy do it made me wince. That would destroy your knees.
*. We often think of stunts as being spectacular things, like bursting into flame or falling from the top of a tall building, but the airplane jump is a good example of something that may not seem special but which is really very difficult. They let McQueen do his own driving (he insisted on that), and duck under taxiing jets, but that leap from the plane was going too far.
*. The business at the airport is OK, but I couldn’t understand why Ross was giving himself away by taking such a long shot with a pistol at McQueen.
*. When he is gunned down later, I like how his death gets absorbed into the random voices of the crowd and the routine business of the police (and a priest) wrapping things up. There really is nothing to see here any more folks. Move along.
*. This sense of routine feeds into the ending, which I love. It’s perfectly fitting that we get to see Bullitt return to his apartment in silence and proceed through a series of still-life studies: Bisset in bed (to be enjoyed later); McQueen staring into the mirror; his gun and holster lying on the table. There’s both a sense of closure as well as an affirmation of routine. How many times has Bullitt come home like this? And tomorrow he’ll get up and do it all over again.