Racing Movie Month: "Bullitt" Review

Photo Credit: Warner Brothers/Seven Arts

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Rating: PG
Length: 114 minutes
Release Date: October 17, 1968
Directed by: Peter Yates
Genre: Action / Crime / Mystery

"Bullitt," starring the legendary Steve McQueen and directed by Peter Yates, is a strong thriller from 1968 that remains highly watchable today. It is not the twists and turns of the well-plotted story by Alan Trustman and Harry Kleiner that keep people talking, however. Rather, it is the still-amazing car chase sequence that stands after all these years as one of the best chase sequences ever filmed.

As "Bullitt" begins, Lieutenant Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) is assigned to protect a state's witness, Johnny Ross (Pat Renella) testifying against the mob. When Ross is gunned down through no fault of Bullitt's, the lieutenant wants to investigate. He ends up saving Ross's life again in a second assassination attempt. Ross dies of his wounds, however, and Bullitt absconds with the body in an effort to make the assassins expose themselves.

As Bullitt tries to continue his investigation surreptitiously, he discovers that Ross was not, in fact, a low-level informant. He was a high-ranking member of the mob who had just embezzled $2 million from his employers. Ross was actually on the run in San Francisco when Bullitt was assigned to guard him.

While Bullitt tries to piece together the truth, the mob comes after him in one of the greatest chase sequences ever recorded on camera. Bullitt gets away and continues his investigation, which leads him to a woman named Dorothy Renick, who is killed by the mob before Bullitt can speak to her. Bullitt continues to unravel the clues and realizes that the man he was guarding at the beginning of the movie was not Johnny Ross at all. The man who was shot while in Bullitt's protective custody was actually Alfred Renick, who Ross hired to impersonate him through the Senate hearing. Once Alfred Renick posing as Johnny Ross was killed, the real Ross was free to escape from both the police and the mob. Bullitt puts all these pieces together and heads to the airport for one last do-or-die chase sequence in which he tries to capture Ross before he can get on an airplane and fly to safety.

"Bullitt" is one of the most well-made police thrillers of the 1960s and is listed as the 36th best thriller of all time on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 most thrilling American films. With brilliant action set pieces as well as a raw and powerful sense of the immediate, "Bullitt" stands out decades after its initial release as one of the thrillers that filmmakers still try to copy.

Steve McQueen is at his best as Frank Bullitt, playing one of the roles he seems born to inhabit. He establishes what has become a movie trope: the ultra-cool detective who breaks every rule in the book and never lets anything throw him off his stride, even as he writhes with frustration and anxiety underneath. While other characters in the movie often seem a bit one-note, McQueen is eminently watchable at all times. It is also interesting to catch glimpses of future stars like Robert Duvall, Jacqueline Bisset and Robert Vaughn in smaller roles.

At the heart of any discussion of "Bullitt" is the famous car chase, one that so many other movies have tried to emulate. The chase sequence is one for the ages, considered by many to be the best chase scene ever filmed. In the chase, Bullitt drives a 1968 Ford Mustang, a car which later became a classic in part because of its role in the film. The chase scene is exceptionally long for an action sequence, clocking in at just under 11 minutes, and it takes the viewer on a virtual tour of San Francisco with the Mustang literally flying over San Francisco's hills. McQueen did much of his own driving in the close-up scenes, though professional stunt drivers did the bulk of the most dangerous work. Dangerous it was, with the cars sometimes reaching unplanned-for speeds of 110 miles per hour on San Francisco's twisty and narrow streets. No special effects were used in the sequence, and there is no sped-up footage.

Although pulp thrillers like "Bullitt" have never typically garnered attention at the Academy Awards, the car chase did indeed attract a lot of entertainment industry praise. "Bullitt" was awarded the 1968 Academy Award for Best Editing, partly due to the incredible work done in piecing together the long car chase sequence.

"Bullitt" is more than just a car chase, of course. With a restrained and powerful performance by McQueen and a story that has plenty of twists and no holes, it is well worth watching. Add in the breathtaking car chase, and you have a movie that still causes jaws to drop decades later.