I caught Bullitt unexpectedly on TCM a couple of weeks ago, when I was channel-surfing. What a surprise it turned out to be. I mean, I had heard about it, but I never expected to enjoy it as much as I did.
The film follows Lt. Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen), who is recruited by politician Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn) to provide protection to an important surprise witness he plans to present before the Senate in a hearing about organized crime. But things go awry when a pair of hitmen storm the safe house where the witness is staying, mortally wounding him. Bullitt sets out to capture the men responsible while investigating the truth behind the witness.
Most people know this film for its iconic car chase, which occurs around the middle of the film, when Bullitt pursues the pair of hitmen across the streets of San Francisco. But, as great and cool as it was, the film has so much going for it beyond that. The film took a really mature approach to the genre that made some modern cop films feel like cartoons, and the authentic and sober take on the police/investigative aspect was a breath of fresh air. Oh, yeah, and that car chase.
The performances aren't any less. I was particularly impressed by Robert Vaughn's slimy portrayal of Chalmers. And even though McQueen plays Bullitt as a mostly emotionless, tough cop, as the film progresses one can appreciate the subtleties of his performance. If anything, I think that the part where Bullitt's girlfriend (Jacqueline Bisset) rants on him after stumbling upon a crime scene he's investigating felt forced and a bit awkward. In a way, I felt as if it had come out of nowhere, just to add some sort of "personal conflict" to Bullitt's persona. But that's a small complaint.
Despite some intricacies to its plot, Bullitt is a pretty straightforward film. It doesn't rely on gimmicks or other cheap tricks, but rather on the tension and intrigue it builds. I was initially leaning towards a high B+, but the more I think of it, the more I liked it. I will settle on an A-, but even that's bound to change with time.
(All pictures belong to Warner Bros. and its affiliates)