You will get several enjoyments from Philip D’Antoni’s seminal mystery-thriller. The movie is beautifully paced; there is not an ounce of body fat; the action from one scene to the next is ensuing and, once you understand the ironic-if-simple conspiracy, inevitable.
You get to revisit San Francisco in the late 1960s; especially appealing is Nob Hill, the classy Mark Hopkins and stately Grace Cathedral and, in the city down below, Enrico’s and Chico Hamilton-like jazz in hip restaurants; and, more generally, the gleaming sugar-cube spread of that then Monte Carlo-evoking jewel by the Bay.
You get a brilliant performance by Robert Vaughan as a typically ambitious and absolute jerk of an upward-lusting politician, an Attorney General named WALter Chalmers (if you please), posing in his very public Machiavellian power climb as a social conscience, watchdog and crime-stopper; Vaughan really gets it in his soul and turns in an archetypal dramatic performance; he’s nailed the arch, pushy, driven politico, and it hasn’t dated a second since his inspired take in the 1960s.
You get a screenplay by Alan Trustman and Harry Kleiner which won an award whose moniker counts more, if only a little, than Oscar of the Motion Picture Academy, namely, Edgar of the Mystery Writers of America.
Much justifiably is made of the popular car chase scenes in Bullitt; they would soon inspire in direction, tracking and close-up shots and in modern car-stunt driving and in urban setting and in the revved-up engine sounds the car chases in a couple of D’Antoni’s terrific follow-on thrillers in the 1970s, The French Connection and The Seven-Ups. And, as everyone knows, the car chase motif in mystery thrillers probably originated around the Second or Third Day of Genesis, which some say was filmed in Hollywood with the score by Dimitri Tiompkin.
McQueen (Lt. Frank Bullitt, an Honest Cop, with “frank” just the right name) plays the strong, silent type very, very well, becoming the compleat anti-hero hero, that tried-and-true staple of Hollywood thrillers. Indeed, McQueen, it has been reported, advocated strongly for playing Bullitt as a man of few words, and he does so uncannily to the immense benefit of the story, most strikingly its perfect pace and its scene-by-scene power and gravity. Jacqueline Bisset shines as Bullitt’s girlfriend. And there are some fine character actors of the day to keep the high level of the production consistent from beginning to end–Simon Oakland, Robert Duvall, Norman Fell, Bill Hickman (also a premiere car-stunt driver who choreographs the famous chase scenes) and others. You’ll remember them all.
Maybe the best thing about this movie, though, is that it has a certain purity, integrity and wisdom–a beautifully economic blend in a picture that really Moves Along–no dead-end alleys in this one–which mark the slow discovery of evil deliberately withheld and delayed for much of the story through misdirection, especially by the Vaughan performance by which you might be misled to think this is just another expose’ of the Evil Politico. Give Bullitt credit for having a jaundiced eye on Homo sapiens at his or her worst and, accordingly, call it a What-dunnit.
I found the revisit much worth it.