Bullitt (1968)

Directed by Peter Yates


Bullitt is one of those movies that I can’t really tell if it’s good or not.  Recently I’ve watched a lot of movies from the late 60s and 70s, and I think they’re just about all really good.  In my mind, the 1970s are the pinnacle of American films, but that’s only because I’ve chosen to watch the ones that have stood out over time.  There are so many great films of the 2000s, but I just happen to be acquainted with the shitty ones as well.

Anyways, while watching Bullitt I found myself extremely uninterested in the story or the characters.  Until the famous (and genuinely exciting) car chase midway through the film, the only thing keeping my attention was trying to figure out the likelihood of Steve McQueen’s relation to Michael Shannon.

I don’t think the story has any real faults, but it felt predictable, and even the twist felt somewhat run of the mill.  Again, as I have written before (I should probably stop assuming anyone reading this has read any of my past work and in reality just came across this post by chance when they googled “Steve McQueen Michael Shannon doppelgänger), many of these older films may have remixed an even older genre which has since been remixed multiple times over so that what we’re used to today seems much more complex than these stories.

There isn’t a ton of plot here.  Steve McQueen plays detective Frank Bullitt, a no nonsense, serious cop who is assigned to protect a man named Johnny Ross.  Pretty quickly, Ross is shot and not long after, he dies.  Frank is driven more by the desire to find who tried to kill Ross than it is to protect Ross.  There is a brief foot chase in the hospital but the killer (who came to finish the job) gets away.  Later Ross dies, and Frank investigates Ross’ final days.

He discovers that he is being followed (by two men, one of whom tried to kill Ross), and once he turns the tables and starts following the men who were following him, a long chase ensues.  This sequence was the only part of the film I had heard about before watching it.  It’s well-done, and the roar of the engine is like the sound of a perfect melody.  I felt letdown when the sequence ended and we returned to the original story.

The men Frank chases crash and burn to death, and Frank continues his investigation.  Later he learns that Ross wasn’t really Ross.  He was Albert Renick, a decoy so Ross could get away.  In the final act, Frank and his partner track down Ross at the airport, and after another foot chase, Frank shoots and kills him.

The film ends with Frank returning home, exhausted, no glory or signs of victory.

I will say that many films like this (and of this time period) feel pretty simple plot-wise, but much more complex when the film is over.  In contrast, many modern action films feel much more intricately and heavily plotted, but when it ends it all feels too simple.  Then again, maybe I’m not comparing the right films to each other.  The best comparison for this film to today’s standards is probably not Transformers.

Anyways… films like these never seem to be concerned with the plot.  The lasting images from this film, to me, are the car chase and Frank protecting his girlfriend after she witnessed Albert Renick’s wife’s dead body.  We have seen Frank appear so cool and collected even in the face of murder and violence, and on the surface it seems okay because he’s a suave movie star, and his last name is Bullitt.  That’s a cool cat.  I didn’t think anything of his stoic demeanor, I just figured he was supposed to be awesome.  But when his girlfriend, Cathy, makes note of his serenity or insanity, it makes you think yourself about what you’ve seen and what kind of person could handle that.

In that moment, I realized this character isn’t meant to be a comic book-type of perfect hero, he’s actually affected by the work he does.  So later when we see him running after the bad guy through the airport like the Terminator, we don’t see a two-dimensional ‘modern’ day Hercules, we see a man who knows how to act but not always how to feel.

In the end, Frank gets his guy, and he proves the man who hired him wrong.  Frank is right in every possible way.  He’s shown to be smarter, braver and simply more awesome than everyone else in the film.  So it’s a happy ending, right?

I think a lot of films from this time period, when there was more freedom of expression, have a lot to say, but they do it in the form that can be easily understood.  That means that Peter Yates, for example, wanted to show a tortured man who has sacrificed part of his soul for his job, so he made this film.  But Bullitt still features a typical story structure, complete with inciting incident, act breaks, action set-pieces, a moment when the character seems to have lost and ultimately the triumph.  All the familiar beats are there, but he changes the recipe just a little, adding in the moment of Frank comforting Cathy and the shots at the end to show that Frank isn’t celebrating his victory.

I might be wrong, but it feels like so many films from the late 60s and 70s were about disillusionment.  I don’t know where it started (though many consider the American New Wave to have begun with Bonny and Clyde (1967) and The Graduate (1968)), but films were still about heroes, just different kinds of heroes.  Gone were the heroes, cowboys, etc. who did their job and were unaffected by the horrors of their line of work.  In came people like Frank Bullitt, (Dirty) Harry Callahan, Wyatt and Billy (Easy Rider), Jake LaMotta, Howard Beale, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, The Deer Hunter‘s Michael, and even Woody Allen’s alter egos Alvy Singer and Isaac (Manhattan).  These were characters who, in order, ended the film by: going home with no fanfare to get ready for his next shift, threw away his badge in a rejection of the police force, were killed for no plot reason, alienated his entire family and couldn’t recognize his own role in his misery, was killed on national television for better ratings, did their job but did not celebrate and simply went to work on the next story, returned home after watching his best friend shoot himself in the head, lost the girl and, finally, also lost the girl but this time twice.

I don’t consider all of these movies to be tragic or sad, but they all have elements of either reality or a tragic worldview where things don’t always work out, and if they do, well nothing’s really changed so you’ve got to keep on plugging away.

In other movies, characters literally ride off into the sunset.  You’re supposed to believe that when the two lead characters get together, they’ll be together forever.  In many of these films from the 70s (and again, perhaps this isn’t an outlier, maybe there are just as many films in the 2000s with similar themes), there is little indication that the story is truly over.  The story may end for the character, but the world depicted within the movie is ongoing.  These films put as much effort into the world as they do in the story.  These aren’t always our worlds, but they’re recognizable.  It’s like meeting someone who speaks your language but with a much different accent.

Dirty Harry is about a world where the law isn’t always enough.  Even though he gets the bad guy in the end, he throws away his badge, indicating a firm rejection of a system that exists in our world.  This is a message about the state of the world at that time.

So now I should bring it back to Bullitt.  I suppose this movie inspires hope by showing us that people like Frank Bullitt are out there.  They are people who are drawn to the police force because to them it’s an honor and a calling.  Just like how he instinctively protects his girlfriend, he feels the need to protect society from the bad guys he chases after.  There are three prominent chase sequences (two by foot, one by car), and in each of them Frank pursues without showing signs of exertion or panic or anger.  He just goes after the bad guy because it’s his job.

Frank is like our guardian angel.  He’s the barrier between us and a brutal, violent reality.  The world is violent, and at this time is probably felt increasingly violent, but there you have Frank, taking down the villain and putting his jacket over the dead body so we’re not forced to sit and stare.  He doesn’t just want to isolate the problem, he’s also concerned for us.  And then, while we go on with our days, he goes to sleep, having worked all night.

So Bullitt, it seems to me, delves into the tragic, violent, pessimistic worldview common to many 70s films, but it gives us a hero who might be from the older generation.  Frank is basically a cowboy (and he was a cowboy in The Magnificent Seven).  This could be seen as a crossover film into a new generation of films.  You take the familiar hero and introduce him to a modern world with a darkside.  The way Steve McQueen navigates that dark world should make us feel a little better even when things seemed to be getting worse and worse.

So I take back what I said at the beginning of this post about Frank as a new type of hero.  He is the same cowboy-type figure we’ve seen in films made before the late 60s/70s boom in filmmaking.  He’s the same character but in a new world.

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