A retrospective into how Bullitt has endeared as a classic 1960s actioner.

Even before their 80s/90s heyday, action and thrills have always been a big part of the movies. During the silent era, comedians like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd peppered their movies with daring stunts and wild chases which inspire filmmakers like Jackie Chan and Peter Jackson to this day.

Between the 1920s and 1950s, a great deal of Hollywood’s action-based output came in the form of the swashbuckling adventures of matinee idols like Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn. Sword fights and breathless escapes were action staples in this sort of fare, and remained so for decades.

There were two major stepping stones in the action genre outside of the US: Alexander Nevsky in the 1930s and Seven Samurai in the 1950s. With innovative editing and grittier presentation of violence, these two movies left a major impact on filmmakers worldwide. However, the biggest evolution of the action genre was yet to come.

The 1960s were a major turning point for culture in general, and that includes movies. The big Hollywood studio system that had been in place since the late 1910s was crashing hard. Movie moguls struggled to stay current with the changing tastes of audiences who were losing interest in sword-and-sandal epics and bloated movie musicals.

In this moment of great cultural transition flourished the beginning of modern action cinema. Action movie staples like the Dollars trilogy and the James Bond cinematic franchise took root early in the decade. For many, the quintessential 1960s Hollywood action movie remains Bullitt.

Steve McQueen in Bullitt

Bullitt is the story of Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen, never more badass), a no-nonsense, resourceful San Francisco cop disillusioned by “bullshit” in high places, particularly from the ambitious and unpleasant DA Chalmers (Robert Vaughn). Bullitt’s assigned to protect a high-profile witness named Johnny Ross from the Chicago mob, only for the guy to be killed in mysterious circumstances. In hot water with Chalmers as a result, Bullitt becomes determined to find out who killed Ross, even if he has to bend the rules to get the job done.

So, what makes Bullitt the granddaddy of the 80s/90s action golden age? Firstly, McQueen’s Bullitt exhibits many of the qualities one associates with the great 80s/90s action heroes. Like Ellen Ripley or John McClane, he isn’t a superhero, but an ordinary guy who relies on his wits and resourcefulness to survive a hostile world.

There’s nothing movie star glamorous about Bullitt. He’s a slob at home and not above guzzling down instant coffee before trudging off to work. His relationship with his chic girlfriend Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset) is strained by the nasty nature of his job.

Exposed to the worst of humanity on a regular basis, Cathy insists he’s “living in a sewer,” and that one day, it’s going to catch up with him. Like later action heroes, Bullitt is someone who has looked death in the face time and again, often using his wry sense of humor and pride in his competence to stay sane.

One of the First Great Actioners

Bullitt (1968)
Directed by Peter Yates
Shown: Steve McQueen (as Lt. Frank Bullitt)

Secondly, the film has a host of fine action set-pieces any later action film would be proud to have. Action in Bullitt mostly comes in the form of on-foot chases and shootouts. One pursuit in a hospital is particularly memorable, with Bullitt navigating dark corridors and tight spaces as he chases a would-be assassin, one moment the predator, the next moment prey. It’s suspenseful and well-paced, shot with realistic understatement though no less exciting.

Without the crutch of modern CG, the movie feels authentic. McQueen insisted on shooting on-location in San Francisco and doing his own stunts whenever possible. Bullitt’s realism gives it that edge-of-your-seat quality, pulling no punches in showing the consequences of navigating a vicious underworld.

The jazzy Lalo Schifrin score does a great job in contributing to the movie’s nervous, violent energy. However, the filmmakers know when to let scenes play without accompaniment. Later films tend to underline action with bombastic music, but in Bullitt the chase scenes often go without scoring of any kind, adding to the tension.

The Most Ultimate Car Chase of All Time!

Then there’s the car chase, the centerpiece of the movie’s reputation. Let me tell you, I watch movies from the silent era on up to the present, and the car chase from Bullitt has still got to be one of the best-edited, best-choreographed chases in the century-plus history of cinema. Every bit as ultimate as its reputation, easy! Without this chase to break new ground, we wouldn’t have gotten fare like The Road Warrior, to say the least.

What makes this chase so special? There’s the (here’s that word again!) realism of it, firstly. It wasn’t uncommon for car chases to be shot in-studio during the studio system days, which took a toll on their effectiveness. The sound effects are also immersive, the screeching tires and roaring engine really putting the audience in the car with Bullitt.

The driving is not presented as flawless either, with those cars taking punishment as they tear up the pavement. Small mistakes such as Bullitt missing a turn were left in too, adding to the scene’s visceral edge.

The pacing is also divine. What starts as two hitmen slowly tailing Bullitt in the San Francisco streets takes an unexpected turn when he starts trailing them. Then they hit the gas, and off the two cars go, racing through the streets, then continuing the pursuit outside the city. The stakes raise gradually, culminating in a deadly finish.

UAMC Bites the Bullitt

Some argue the car chase is all Bullitt has going for it, that otherwise the movie is “dated,” but I can’t agree. It’s true that despite its twisty presentation (the movie begs for a follow-up viewing so you can absorb all the details), the story is pretty standard police procedural fare.

Those who relish the more extroverted style of 80s/90s action films might have to get used to the more understated presentation of Bullitt. However, Bullitt is still a top action-thriller with enough stylish flair and emotional weight to make its mark, even without its historical significance.

What are your favorite scenes and memories from Steve McQueen’s Bullitt? Let us know in the comments or on our Facebook page!