blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

Bullitt (1968, Peter Yates)

Bullitt is from the period when Hollywood wasn’t calling the Mafia the Mafia yet—it’s “The Organization” here—and none of the mobsters had Italian names, but they are mostly Italian (heritage) actors. It’s especially funny because part of Bullitt’s conceit hangs on WASPs like up-and-coming senator Robert Vaughn not being able to tell Italians apart.

But that inability figures into Bullitt’s solution, which is beside the point. It’s such a nothing burger, the whole thing gets explained in two and a half lines as lead Steve McQueen and sidekick Don Gordon head off to the next set piece. Because while the film’s all about McQueen’s investigation, it’s about McQueen investigating. The film’s a character study of a hotshot San Francisco detective during one of his cases, and, despite the property damage, it might not even be one of his biggest cases. We don’t know. Vaughn wants him on the case because McQueen makes good press, but there’s never any press in the movie.

And we do see the occasional newspaper. Director Yates is hyper-focused on McQueen, though that focus doesn’t mean we get the full procedural. We don’t even see the resolution to the elaborate, exquisite car chase. Instead, we skip ahead to the next time McQueen’s going to do something idiosyncratic.

So, despite being (apparently) beloved by his fellow coppers, McQueen is very much not a regular cop. He hangs out with a happening crowd, dating British architect (I mean, she’s working on an architecture project) Jacqueline Bisset. She doesn’t know about his work life, and he likes to keep it that way. For good reason, it turns out. While there are probably a couple significant events in McQueen’s character’s work life covered in the film, the tack-on subplot about his girlfriend realizing he’s around poor people in poor places all day and not liking it seems the most consequential one.

Though, who knows, because the most relationship-building the film does for McQueen and Bisset has him being charming and then admiring. Otherwise, he’s a little busy with work.

The film opens with a gorgeous titles sequence (from Pablo Ferro Films) and expressive Lalo Schifrin music recounting a mob accountant getting away from goons in Chicago. In some ways, the titles set the tone for the film; in other ways, very much not. For instance, Schifrin’s score will barely figure in during the main action; Yates is far more interested in the diegetic sound; John K. Kean has the sound credit, with Duane Hansel, the uncredited sound editor. They do singular work. Bullitt’s got its share of genre and style innovations, but the sound design is on a whole other level.

However, the camerawork in the titles is similar to the rest of the film. Yates and cinematographer William A. Fraker alternate between vérité and precise movement. Yates likes his crane shots too, even limited ones indoors—lots of Bullitt is about watching people work and listening to the environment around them. More specifically, it’s about watching McQueen watch people work. The first major dramatic sequence in the second act involves ER doctor Georg Stanford Brown operating while McQueen (and eventually Vaughn) wait. Vaughn’s agitated, McQueen’s… seemingly not, seemingly reserved, but what’s under the surface? Yates points the camera at McQueen and inspects, which he’s already established as a motif in the first act (when McQueen’s admiring Bisset). Such good direction.

Until the third act, when Bullitt becomes a detached action thriller—with Yates, Fraker, editor Frank P. Keller, and the sound department all using previously established techniques on a giant set piece set at the airport—it’s all about watching McQueen’s face, his eyes, his breaths; waiting for him to act and react.

Other characters get similar inspection too. Usually, when dealing with McQueen or Vaughn, but also not: cabbie Robert Duvall takes it all in from the first scene in San Francisco, as the mob accountant turned witness works his way around town. Police captains Simon Oakland and Norman Fell both especially get to stare daggers while waiting on McQueen and Vaughn. But bad guys John Aprea and Bill Hickman watching McQueen (or, more accurately, his car) is maybe the most remarkable since Yates and Keller are implementing the technique in the middle of a car chase. Again, such good direction.

Most of the performances are outstanding. McQueen’s spell-binding; Oakland, Duvall, and Brown all have great moments. Vaughn’s a piece of shit politician, so he’s somewhat limited, but he’s real good at it. Similarly, Bisset’s a little too thin, but she’s fine. No time for love or architecture in Bullitt. Gordon’s a good sidekick and the occasional comic relief. He and McQueen have fantastic rapport, which makes their scenes work more than the dialogue.

The script—credited to Alan Trustman and Harry Kleiner, based on a Robert L. Fish’s novel not starring a character named Bullitt (and written under the pen name Robert L. Pike)—is terse and willfully obtuse at times. Bullitt feels like Yates and Keller, especially, made it in the editing studio, but who knows, maybe Trustman and Kleiner really did write it so remote. There are some great one-liners, though; it’s not overtly macho but enthusiastic about its procedural jargon–such a strange, transfixing combination.

Fraker’s photography is glorious and would be the easy technical standout if it weren’t for Keller’s peerless cutting.

The third act’s got a handful of problems, but Bullitt weathers them well thanks to McQueen, Yates, Keller, Fraker, and company. It’s a masterful piece of work.

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