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Should I Watch..? 'Bullitt' (1968)

Updated on April 2, 2022
Benjamin Cox profile image

Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.

Poster for the film
Poster for the film | Source

What's the big deal?

Bullitt is a crime thriller film released in 1968 and is based on the novel Mute Witness by Robert L. Fish under the alias Robert L. Pike. The stars Steve McQueen in the title role as a cop determined to track down the killers of a witness under his protection. Directed by Peter Yates in his Hollywood debut and produced through McQueen's Solar Productions company, the film is chiefly remembered for its prolonged car chase through the streets of San Francisco and the surrounding areas in a sequence many regard as the greatest on-screen car chase in history. The film was a critical and commercial success when it was released and in 2007, it was selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".


4 stars for Bullitt

What's it about?

San Francisco detective Frank Bullitt agrees to meet local politician Walter Chalmers who has an assignment for me. Chalmers is due to present a star witness to a Senate subcommittee on organised crime and he needs Bullitt, who had been recommended to him, to protect the witness for the weekend. Together with his partners Delgetti and Stanton, Bullitt locates the witness - Johnny Ross - in a run-down hotel selected by Chalmers and immediately organises round-the-clock protection.

During the night, however, two hitmen arrive and seriously injure both Ross and Stanton. Preparing for another attempt on Ross' life at the hospital, Bullitt begins to suspect that Chalmers must have disclosed Ross' location to the shooters and begins to take control of the situation away from Chalmers. As Ross dies of his injuries, Bullitt is determined to catch the killers - even if it means putting his relationship with designer Cathy under further pressure...


What's to like?

It seems somewhat churlish to begin talking about the film without starting at the scene that most people think of when the film is discussed. The chase sequence dominates the movie as much as McQueen's charisma does - running at a full ten minutes plus in length, it never gets boring for a second. Between the roar of the V8 engines in the iconic Ford Mustang and Dodge Charger to the sight of McQueen slamming the car into reverse before speeding away in a blaze of tyre smoke, the sequence really is stunning to watch and especially considering the technical limitations of the time. No CG, no model work - all of it shot on actual streets with only a handful of stunt drivers. It is unthinkable nowadays.

But there is more to Bullitt than that scene. McQueen is as charismatic and magnetic as ever but Vaughn pushes him as the slimy politician pulling strings behind the scenes. The story is clever and keeps your interest as the case develops while Lalo Schifirin's score is almost as memorable as the car chase. The film has a real sense of cool about it, combining your basic police procedural with an exciting thriller and an especially tense finale on the runway at the airport, one that recalls the climax of Heat in its stark simplicity.

The car chase is one of the most celebrated in cinema history and even today, is stunning to watch
The car chase is one of the most celebrated in cinema history and even today, is stunning to watch | Source

Fun Facts

  • Two Mustangs and two Chargers were used in shooting the chase scene which sometimes reached speeds of over 110 mph. Both Chargers and one of the Mustangs were wrecked at the end of the shoot while the second Mustang was bought by an employee of Warner Bros. The car has changed hands several times over the years and its exact whereabouts are unknown.
  • McQueen's character was based on the real-life SFPD Inspector Dave Toschi who McQueen had worked with before filming. Toschi would go on to play a part in the Zodiac killings of the late 60's and early 70's and is played by Mark Ruffalo in the film Zodiac.
  • Vaughn often said that his performance in this film was the best of his career. Indeed, his attempt to go into politics in real-life was thwarted because people still remembered him in this movie.

What's not to like?

As wonderful and iconic as the car chase is, the film does have a couple of weak links in the chain. First off, Bisset is completely wasted as Bullitt's girlfriend - apart from a handful of scenes, she's barely in the film at all and when she is, her performance feels stilted. I felt more could have been made of the relationship the pair had but ultimately, it didn't boil down to much. Secondly, the story isn't the easiest to follow. I know I had questions by the time of the film's finale and it felt like an epilogue was required to tidy up the conclusions, which felt strangely unsatisfying.

The last issue is more of an observation and I ask that you allow me to test your brains about another film with a classic car chase sequence - the original version of The Italian Job. Everyone who has seen it can recall three Mini Coopers dancing through the traffic jams of Turin, leaping over rooftops and evading the police of their motorbikes. Trouble is, can you remember much else about that film? It's kinda the same problem with Bullitt - because it almost comes out of nowhere and completely blows you away, you might have trouble remembering what came before it or even afterwards. I'm not saying that the rest of the film is poor but compared to the noise and spectacle of the chase, it does lack a certain punch.

With McQueen rarely off screen, the film exudes cool thanks to his sheer presence
With McQueen rarely off screen, the film exudes cool thanks to his sheer presence | Source

Should I watch it?

Given the film's age, it's remarkable how good a watch Bullitt still is. Yates and his team have produced a genuinely great film that is packed with intrigue, tension and (of course) petrol-head heaven. It may have inspired a generation of imitators (it seems like every film in San Francisco has a car chase in it these days) but the film remains a thrilling watch that will entertain audiences today as well as it did back then.

Great For: petrol-heads and car lovers, McQueen fans, Ford Mustang owners, cool cats

Not So Great For: residents of San Francisco putting up with boy racers, anyone expecting an action movie

What else should I watch?

To say that Bullitt is influential is probably an understatement. Films have since been built around car chases, whether its a comedy like Smokey And The Bandit or more serious films like the original Gone In Sixty Seconds. Few have gotten close to the scene in this film which remains arguably the greatest such sequence in cinematic history. Frankly, I don't think anything will - few scenes have such a sense of expectation. In fact, I audibly said "Here we go!" when the scene started - no film has ever made me that excited.

Perhaps the reason the film is associated more with the cars than its star is because a few years later, San Francisco would see the arrival of another iconic movie cop in the towering form of Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry. The character was seen in a total of five movies and remains cinema's ultimate modern-day lawman, being both completely ruthless in his pursuit of criminals and charismatic enough to drop one-liners and quotes fans have been repeating ever since. Somehow, it seems a little unfair on poor Steve...

Main Cast

Steve McQueen
Lt. Frank Bullitt
Robert Vaughn
Walter Chalmers
Jacqueline Bisset
Don Gordon
Simon Oakland
Capt. Sam Bennett

Technical Info

Peter Yates
Alan Trustman & Harry Kleiner *
Running Time
114 minutes
Release Date (UK)
16 January, 1969
Crime, Mystery, Thriller
Academy Award
Best Film Editing
Academy Award Nominations
Best Sound

* based on the novel "Mute Witness" by Robert L. Fish

© 2017 Benjamin Cox


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