Bullitt, now over a half-century old, is remembered still, and with justice, as an iconic action movie. The icons, of course, are Steve McQueen and a very cool Mustang.
In fact, the story itself is well constructed. A Mafia informant is brought from Boston to San Francisco on a Friday to testify at a trial that an oleaginous California politician, Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn), hopes will advance his political career. Chalmers asks specifically for Lt. Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) to protect the witness until his court appearance the following Monday. Bullitt is a local hero in the eyes of the city press. (Did I mention that the movie is set in a distant past?)
A wild weekend ensues.
The witness is picked up at the Mark Hopkins Hotel on Nob Hill and transported by a cab driver (Robert Duvall) to a nondescript hotel room looking out over the noisy Embarcadero (then called Embarcadero Drive, apparently). That night, while one of Bullitt’s men is on guard in the dingy hotel room, the witness unlocks the door for reasons known only to himself. The door is opened, both men are shot, and Bullitt has a mystery on his hands.
He scrambles to the hospital where a suspicious gray-haired man arrives at the emergency room, and Bullitt senses the man is up to no good. Bullitt finds the cab driver and tracks the “witness'” movements of the previous day and again spots the gray-haired baddie.
There ensues a long chase scene all over San Francisco — but not, I believe, in a logical geographical sense — as Bullitt in his Mustang chases his bad guy and the bad guy’s partner in their shiny black Dodge Charger. A second set of shots is fired.
Smarmy Chalmers continues to be a pest while Bullitt’s captain (Simon Oakland) stands by him. Bullitt’s research takes him from the famous Enrico’s Restaurant in North Beach to a police morgue where unexpected Boston face photos are phoned in and printed out in a 20th century office, then to a motel south of the city and finally to SFO and a tense and dramatic climax of the type that never will be staged in an American airport again.
Through it all, McQueen is resolute, calm and focused. He is the kind of cop you would expect to drive that Mustang. (Critics sometimes have said Steve McQueen mostly played Steve McQueen, but the same could have been said of Cary Grant and other movie stars. In fact, McQueen’s life, which included a difficult childhood and ended at age 50 of a lung disease related to work-related asbestos exposure, might be expected to yield a man like Steve McQueen, on-screen or off.)
The weak spot in the story is Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset), Bullitt’s beautiful girlfriend who seems to be there, occasionally, for three reasons: Posing as eye candy, being in the right place at a couple helpful plot moments, and driving a canary-colored Porsche. Toward the end she says some lame lines that are the fault of the screenwriter and not the actress.
Still, all these years later, the film is worth watching.
This movie was part of a revival, or perhaps a refinement, of the action genre. It was released the year after the fifth of five James Bond movies that featured Sean Connery, another poised but very cool character.
Bullitt was followed in 1971 by the first of Clint Eastwood’s five Dirty Harry movies, which also were set in San Francisco. Eastwood’s detective, Harry Callahan, also was involved in chase scenes, but his personality was more edgy and threatening — “Make my day” anyone? Let’s remember, between 1968 and 1971, the American appetite for nonconformity had increased as the Vietnam War continued.
The Bullitt Mustang cachet endures. Apparently two cars were used in the filming, and McQueen, in character, drove in many of the chase scenes. One car was assigned to get beat up in the tougher moments, and it went to a scrapyard, even over early opposition from car fans.
The remaining one was bought by an investor/auto enthusiast who held it for years and, at his death, bequeathed it to his son, who sold it at auction in January for $3.4 million — $3.74 million including buyers fees.
The enthusiasm has not gone unnoticed at the Ford Motor Company, which has been releasing derivative Bullitt Mustangs, presumably to eager audiences, since 2001.