This was my first full dive into Director Peter Yates’ late 60’s action movie Bullitt. Having seen the famous car chase a number of times, I felt Horsepower Month was the right time to finally get the full context of the 1968 film as it approaches its 50th anniversary next month.
There is a special charm and ‘coolness’ that oozes from the entire film. From the unique opening credits, Bullitt serves as a time capsule into the classic 60’s action film, but what the film seems to be on the surface—a slightly aged relic from a time when action used to be simple and clean, yet primitive to modern standards—there hides a much deeper and complex story full of relevant characters and top-notch filmmaking. At first glance, comparing this to Mission Impossible: Fallout, Bullitt could pale in comparison, but it manages to dig into a deeper character arc than most modern action films manage to even scratch. From the first frame—a dark and ominous cityscape—to the last—a haunted and chilling Lt. Bullitt (Steve McQueen) staring at himself in the mirror, bullets and a gun resting on the bedside trying to make sense of the past few days—this is a must-watch action movie and an example of what quality action filmmaking looks like.
Bullitt holds firm for its creativity and its revisionism for the action genre as well as for the car chase. There does exist, however, underlying complexities explored through its protagonist (who arguably has THE coolest name in all of cinema) that may go unnoticed and underlooked. Bullitt is a technical marvel for its time; however, a huge amount of the grace and skill in that car chase specifically is lost with a non-cinema viewing. We will certainly explore the technical aspects and glory that is Bullitt in a later piece, but what I want to explore first is Bullitt‘s surprising aspect of humanity.
The opening credits, designed by Pablo Ferro, wrap the audience with its rushes between black and white interlaced with the credits. It gives off vibes from Saul Bass’ work in Psycho, and this is appreciated, because credits, although seemingly trivial and boring, are still a part of the film, and using them, the way Bass did in Psycho, or the way that Ferro does here in Bullitt, makes for total film immersion from the first seconds, creating the cool vibe that runs in the veins of this whole movie. The credits are cool and stylistic and Lalo Schifrin’s underrated soundtrack only amplifies the swagger.
In the first ten minutes you know you’re in a cool movie, and the film seems to be self aware of this as well, McQueen ruling the screen any time he is on it. The filmmaking care that went into making Bullitt is not missed by me. Every aspect—the credits, the soundtrack, the choreography, the cinematography—makes the whole just add to the clear goal Yates is going towards. It feels like a whole other article should be set aside to recognize the filmmaking work from all the smaller roles who worked on this film.
One of the most interesting storylines in the film is with Bullitt and his girlfriend. This may seem like a weaker part of the movie, but I would argue it actually helped to gel the story together perfectly and craft the mysterious titular character. Bullitt, underneath the cool façade, is actually quite disgruntled and damaged even from the onset of the film, but by the end he is a broken man, having lost faith in humanity and himself. The final moments in this film still sit with me. This is not a happy film by any measure, but rather a dark and grim decline of a decent man into darkness.
Bullitt is only the beginning for him, and this case was simply another moment to add to the scars. Bullitt, although a brief and steady 60’s white hero action flick, explores deeper themes and issues than people may not give it credit for. From the subtle marks of PTSD and trauma, to the African-American doctor who helps Bullitt, this film is not only a action staple, but also a poignant political piece that is still very relevant today.