In 1971 Clint Eastwood as Lt Dirty Harry Callaghan walked the mean streets of San Francisco, asking perps whether he had fired six shots or only five from his Magnum .45 (the most powerful handgun in the world) because he had clean forgot. Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy had made Eastwood a star but it was Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry that blasted him off into the stratosphere and made him the superstar that he is today. It’s now almost unthinkable that the original choice for that role was Frank Sinatra, but Eastwood was lucky because Sinatra had sustained an injury and was unable accept the role. The studio wasn’t sure about Clint Eastwood – they thought he wasn’t a big enough star to attract audiences into cinemas, even with his spaghetti westerns behind him. How wrong they were because as it turned out Clint will be forever remembered as Dirty Harry, the maverick cop who cleaned up the streets of San Francisco.
But three years earlier a film featuring a much grittier and more believable cop provided the blueprint for Dirty Harry, and that film was Bullitt. More than anything though, Bullitt demonstrated how a good thriller should be made and its authenticity and naturalistic dialogue was the catalyst for many of the cop films that were to follow, particularly William Friedkin’s superb The French Connection (1971).
What neither Dirty Harry nor The French Connection had though (and this is what sets Bullitt apart from them and from every other cop thriller that followed) was that it had Steve McQueen, the coolest man on the planet, in the leading role.
Bullitt contains Steve McQueen’s finest ever performance – yes, even better than that of Hilts, the Cooler King, in John Sturges’ fantastic ensemble piece The Great Escape (1963), for which he is best remembered. Bullitt, however, is McQueen’s film all the way – his character totally dominates it, even in the brief moments when he’s not on screen. It’s a wonder though that he ever became a star after his B-movie debut in the The Blob (1958), after which he had to content himself with small roles in minor films until 1960 when he hit the big time after being cast as Vin Tanner, in the remake of Akira Kurasawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) – The Magnificent Seven, also directed by Sturges. The cast was great – alongside Brynner and McQueen were Eli Wallach, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, Brad Dexter and the young German actor Horst Buchholtz. During the filming Yul Brynner complained that McQueen was always doing something – with his hands, his eyes and with whatever he happened to be holding. What McQueen effectively did was completely upstage the veteran actor and steal the entire ensemble piece from every other actor on screen (with the possible exception of the great Eli Wallach) – and it was that performance that made him a star. When I saw the film in 1966 with my granddad at the Tivoli in Blackpool (it was on a double bill with its inferior first sequel Return of the Seven) all I could talk about on the way home was Steve McQueen.
|The original film poster of Bullitt|
By the time he made Bullitt in 1968 he was the coolest man on earth – women wanted him and men wanted to be him. Since The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven he had played opposite the formidable Edward G. Robinson in The Cincinatti Kid (1965) and the sexy cool of Faye Dunaway in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968).
But Bullitt was different. Adapted from Robert L. Pike’s novel Mute Witness, the screenplay was by Alan Trustmore and Harry Kleiner, who turned in a tightly written and realistic script that used dialogue sparingly and didn’t treat audiences like idiots. There was no spoon-feeding here – audiences had to sit down and think about it and work it out for themselves. There are still people today who are confused by it but they are in the minority of morons who shouldn’t really be watching intelligent movies like this and should instead restrict themselves to brainless fodder like the pitiful Olympus Has Fallen and the woeful White House Down (both from 2013), where no brain activity is required for the entire length of either film.
Bullitt has a great opening title sequence and a score by Lalo Schifrin that –unlike most action films today – never intrudes or overwhelms what’s happening. The supporting cast is superb, with the marvellous Robert Vaughn playing an oily, self-serving politician (aren’t they all) and a radiant Jacqueline Bisset as Bullitt’s girlfriend, who’s unaware of the horrors he has to deal with on a daily basis. But it’s Don Gordon as Delgetti, Bullitt’s loyal detective sergeant who shines through the supporting cast, giving a performance of real depth and understanding of his character. And just to put the icing on the cake there’s Robert Duvall in the small role of a cab driver, just a few years away from his terrific performance as the Corleone family’s lawyer in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) and his show-stopping, Oscar winning role as Colonel Kilgore – loving the smell of napalm in morning – in the brilliant Apocalypse Now (1979), also directed by Coppola.
There’s a European rather than Hollywood feel about Bullitt, which is not surprising as it was directed by Brit Peter Yates – his excellent 1972 movie The Friends of Eddie Coyle starring Robert Mitchum had a similar feel – and he was not afraid to have whole stretches with little or no dialogue. The final airport scene (which Michael Mann borrowed for the final scene of his 1985 crime movie Heat) is a good example – hardly a word is spoken and it works brilliantly.
But you can’t talk about Bullitt without mentioning the car chase. Steve McQueen had a lifelong love of motor racing, declaring once that, “Racing is life. Anything before or after is just waiting.” And it shows. McQueen drove the car himself for the entire scene and it’s a masterful, beefy, thunderous chase. Watch a car chase in today’s movies and you’ll notice that it’s comprised of cuts, most of them no longer than five seconds, to make it more exciting than what it is. In Bullitt there is none of that. There are no studio cuts – the entire scene was filmed on location – and it allows you to be in the driver’s seat with Bullitt as he races up and down the hills of San Francisco. You can actually feel your stomach hitting the floor as the car goes over the hills at speed, especially if you’re lucky enough to see it in a cinema or on the biggest television money can buy.
As I said earlier though, this is Steve McQueen’s film all the way. He gives a deadpan, moody performance that is full of understatement and realism. He was never better before and would never be better again and it cemented his reputation as the top screen icon of his generation. His life, however, was cut tragically short – he died of cancer on 7 November 1980 after completing his final two films, The Hunter and Tom Horn.
I’ve watched all of his films, from his shaky start in stardom in The Blob through to his final two movies, rushed out because he knew that he was dying, and he was always interesting to watch. His untimely death robbed us of what he may have achieved had he been able live into old age, but for me at least, it will always be Bullitt that reminds me of what a great actor he was.