Tuesday, 7 April 2015
Despite being indelibly associated with crashing cars, Bullitt is actually more of an austere procedural. Steve McQueen is Frank Bullitt, a frazzled San Francisco cop tracking the guys who shotgunned an ambitious politician's star witness. Said baby-kisser (Robert Vaughn) frustrates the situation by constantly sticking his beak in. Self-professed genre experts might even expect him to be dirty, he's not. He's a different kind of hindrance, a powerful man who expects the world to turn on his word.
Bullitt stays silent and keyed-in. Director Peter Yates and McQueen work hard to establish a state of total tension. The film just doesn't let up. There are no jokes and precious little side-story. Lieutenant Bullitt is permanently on his case. No matter where he finds himself he's buzzing with agitation. McQueen makes you believe he's mentally running down leads even when he's supposed to be relaxing in a Jazz club with his poppy girlfriend (Jaqueline Bisset). This frayed energy is all over McQueen. He's not getting anywhere, so he stays looking like he wants to kick someone's teeth in.
Even the central car chase doesn't offer release. Frank and his quarry smash around the city, launching and bouncing their cars over asphalt hills. Lalo Schifrin's brass bursts die off for the duration, leaving us with two screeching, competing V8 engines. Each car has a distinct voice, the guttural, tumbling snarls of two mechanical monsters. Yates shoots inside the cars, with particular attention to dashboard POVs bracketed by the drivers pinballing around in their seats. This is what keeps the film fresh. Bullitt doesn't want to be glamorous, it'd rather be dangerous and inconclusive.