22 years of living in San Francisco, and a self-professed 60s & 70s film freak, and I'd still never seen "BULLITT" until just two days ago. Mention this 1968 Peter Yates-directed detective thriller to just about anyone, and two things will come right back at you: Steve McQueen as the titular badass cop Frank Bullitt, and the intense San Francisco-set car chase scene, rightly hailed as one of the two great early chase scenes in chase scene history ("The French Connection"'s lengthy car-chases-subway-train scene being the other). I was definitely in the mood for this sort of gritty, grimy, slow-burn sort of detective film the other day, and thus rented both aforementioned films and watched them back-to-back, needing a cleansing shower afterward. We'll get to "The French Connection" in a later edition of The Hedonist Jive; it was the first time I'd seen that film in over twenty years, and it was a revelation yet again.
So let's talk about the two popularly-recognized key elements of "BULLITT" and move on from there. McQueen is a brooding, streetwise, angry cop, considered great at his job but one of those rogues who doesn't much like procedure or doing things by the book. Of course his performance is iconic; it actually created an entire typecast. It's a little cheesy today, of course, with films on down the line from "Dirty Harry" appropriating the icon, but in '68 this film stood squarely in the budding New Hollywood canon with "Point Blank" and "Bonnie & Clyde" as violent, tough films with little daylight and ambiguous or unhappy endings. The film really evokes a seamy and dirty San Francisco, with leaking pipes and peeling wallpaper and dirty streets. Hard to square our rich, gentrified foodie town of 2012 with a place that looks like modern-day Bulgaria.
Much of the movie seemed focused on enabling the car chase, which actually stands out a little too much from the rest of the slowly-unfolding film. What a chase it is, though. Much of it is filmed from the driver's perspective, and so when McQueen/Bullitt flies over one hill and then over another, I swear I truly got nauseous and had to look away. It's an age thing, I'm afraid - I won't go on the more puke-inducing amusement park rides with my son anymore, either. This first-person camera in an age before special effects is a hell of a thrill. San Francisco locals will love how the chase starts in Precita Park, heads up the hills toward Bernal Heights, and immediately lands in North Beach seconds later - before getting over to Skyline Boulevard above San Mateo just a few minutes after that.
I'm not going to call "Bullitt" a total classic - I'll call it a genre classic. Some of the most cringe-inducing dialog of all time was unfortunately written for Jacqueline Bissett and McQueen in a scene in which she pleads for him to give up the detective life. Robert Vaughn, as a hammy, corrupt lawyer/political wannabe, overacts a bit as a smug Chicago mob's inside man. And to be honest, I still can't figure out which one was Robert Duvall, one of my favorite actors of all time (someone called Weissberg? Who was Weissberg?). I think I was struck by how much this film was a reminder of things we don't have anymore: Wave-you-right-through airport security; teletype machines; the ability for people to walk into operating rooms, no questions asked; women who make you your breakfast; that sort of thing. Absolutely worth watching and a must for the cineaste; but a small cut below the even darker urban crime films that followed just a couple of years later.