Film: Bullitt

Steve McQueen is a Hollywood icon, and he’s always held a place in my heart for his quirky, inspiring performance as Virgil Hilts in The Great Escape. It seems fitting, then, that McQueen’s classic film Bullitt (1968) should receive its fiftieth anniversary big-screen re-release on my birthday this year. I couldn’t think of a more Chris East way to celebrate than to go to a five-decades-old cop movie starring Steve McQueen, and I even managed to convince my family to come along with me. I wasn’t disappointed.

Frank Bullitt (McQueen), a lieutenant for the San Francisco homicide division, is tasked by powerful politician Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn) to protect a star witness in a forthcoming Senate subcommittee meeting on organized crime. The witness-protection detail goes disastrously awry when hitmen nearly kill both the witness and his guard. With Chalmers breathing down their necks and looking to blame them for the fiasco, Bullitt and his partner Delgetti (Don Gordon) remain on the case, foiling a second assassination attempt and ultimately peeling away the mystery of what went wrong—and who’s responsible.

Directed with a keen eye by Peter Hyams, Bullitt is a classic for a reason. I went into it expecting to see a vehicle for McQueen’s piercing, understated charisma, and with vague memories of its iconic, groundbreaking car chase. I got both, but more: a slick, jazzy Lalo Schifrin soundtrack, a gritty urban noir plot, and an eyeful of refreshing, old-school filmmaking. By today’s frantic standards, Bullitt might seem a bit of a slog, but I found its patiently choreographed rhythms gripping and immersive. This is pure, visual storytelling, conveying plot points with facial expressions, crisp editing, and carefully chosen shots. It also possesses unsettlingly effective sound design, Schifrin’s jazzy riffs vanishing for long stretches to let ambient noise and jarring sound effects tell the tale. Bullitt’s techniques aren’t even remotely flashy by modern standards, but they’re appealingly authentic. And McQueen, of course, is the essence of cinematic cool. So glad I got to see this one on the big screen.

 

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