Bullitt is well known for the astonishing car chase, rightly hailed as one of the best in cinema history, but there is more to this film than just one sequence. As well an action film and detective story, Bullitt is a character study of one man and how his survival tactics for dealing with the harsh realities of his job may have cost him his humanity.
Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) is a San Francisco cop who gets the job of being bodyguard to Johnny Ross, a mafia witness, due to testify at a high-profile hearing organised by publicity-hungry politician Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn). Unfortunately for him, said witness gets gunned down and later dies in hospital. While Chalmers is determined to make Bullitt pay, the detective starts to see that there is much more to this case than meets the eye.
Steve McQueen was one of those actors who were best playing a variation on their public persona, and Bullitt is no exception. Here he is cool, unflappable, and utterly unintimidated by anyone, from Senator to crook. But he is also something of an anomaly, also unable to fit in with anybody else's world, whether it's the power obsessed world of Chalmers, the buttoned-down world of his colleagues and superiors, or the sensitive arty world of his artist girlfriend. Instead, he has become emotionally disconnected, hardened and oblivious to the violent messy reality of his daily life. This is a survival tool, but one that may have cost him his soul. McQueen is in the vast majority of scenes, but his charisma is such that he never becomes boring to watch, and the focus on his character makes Bullitt more than just the standard clichéd maverick cop.
Obviously, that makes it difficult for the cast to make an impression, but Robert Vaughn acquits himself admirably as the oily, seemingly unstoppable Chalmers, switching from friendly to menacing in the blink of an eye, and the opposite of Bullitt in every respect, as perfectly summed up in Bullitt's famous retort, "You work your side of the street, and I'll work mine".
The chase itself is of course the highlight of the action, breathtakingly filmed with plenty of shots inside the cars, which help put the viewer right into the heart of the action. But it is the editing, which won Frank P Keller an Oscar, that makes it a classic. The actual filming took place over a five-week period, which Keller flawlessly distils to an adrenalin filled ten minutes.
Bullitt was the first American film for English director Peter Yates, and here he deftly blends detached stylish cool with fast paced editing, and gritty (and at times gory) documentary style realism. When combined with the quality script and riveting performances from the leads, the result is an exciting and unforgettable classic that rewards repeated viewings.