Directed By: Peter Yates
Starring: Steve McQueen, Jacqueline Bisset, Robert Vaughn
Tag line: "There are bad cops and there are good cops - and then there's Bullitt"
Trivia: Steve McQueen based his character on San Francisco Homicide Inspector Dave Toschi, made famous for his work on the Zodiac killings
Steve McQueen, who as a young man spent time in both reform school and the United States Marine Corps, knew how to play it tough. A performer with incredible charisma, McQueen also possessed an obvious inner strength, building within each of his characters a street-wise sensibility that served them well in times of crisis. Yet of all the rugged, no-nonsense individuals he would portray throughout his career, few were tougher than Frank Bullitt.
A San Francisco detective, Bullitt is assigned to keep an eye on mobster Johnny Ross (Pat Renella), an informant who's agreed to testify against his organization. While under Bullitt’s protection, Ross is shot by an unknown assailant and left for dead. Though in a coma, Ross survives the attack, and when word hits the streets he's still alive, Bullitt uses the injured mobster as bait to lure his would-be assassins out of hiding. But a local councilman named Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn), who planned on using Ross’s testimony to further his political career, has threatened to ruin Bullitt for failing to protect his star witness. From that moment on, Bullitt finds himself hounded by his superiors, and forced to answer probing questions about his ongoing investigation. Ultimately, Bullitt must deal with the fact he’s not only battling the criminal element, but the system as well.
Bullitt is an engaging police drama with a hard-nosed central character, yet it will always be remembered for its car chase through the streets of San Francisco, a sequence I found every bit as exhilarating as the chase in William Friedkin’s The French Connection. What begins as Bullitt tailing a pair of suspects quickly devolves into a dangerous game of cat and mouse, with both cars flying at top speed over the city's steep hills. Director Peter Yates went out of his way to raise the tension in this scene, mounting cameras in the back seats of both vehicles to give us a closer look at just how dangerous the chase was becoming. It’s a thrilling sequence, but a nerve-racking one as well, and more than a little frightening.
“If I hadn’t made it as an actor”, McQueen once said, “I might have wound up a hood”. As it stands, his performances were a combination of the two. Considered one of the best of his generation, McQueen was also a recluse, who carried his unflinching personality with him into every role he played. Even as Frank Bullitt, you can't miss that Steve McQueen persona shining through.