On Oct. 17, 1968, Steve McQueen roared into theaters with Bullitt, a car-chase-filled actioner that nabbed two Oscar nominations at the 41st Academy Awards. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
Bullitt is at this moment what a respectable little film like Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing eventually becomes only in retrospect of memory. It is simply one of the most exciting and intelligent action films in years, probably the best good-cop film we can expect to encounter. When director Peter Yates made Robbery last year, it impressed not alone for his assurance in pacing the detailed logistics of the action but for his particular art in the handling of minute touches of business to bring depth to the characters involved.
With Bullitt he has an exceptional script by Alan R. Trustman and Harry Kleiner and the presence of Steve McQueen at his best in the title role as an uncompromising police detective. The results are proportionate to the ingredients. The violence rates among the most brutally realistic seen, but is isolated in brief, shocking moments which serve the story rather than sacrificing it. One gasping 11-minute chase sequence packs more excitement than anything since the second Ben Hur chariot race, though it is unlikely that Elmo Williams, Yakima Canutt and Bruce Kessler in concert could have brought it off any better than Yates does.
Bullitt delivers the leader-to-leader bravura action that few films even dare promise without chucking reason or integrity. It is unlikely that the film can draw the monies required to move it to the profit column, but it should still be a walloping grosser and a popular hit. Robert E. Relyea was executive producer and Philip D’Antoni produced this Solar Production for Warner-Seven Arts release.
McQueen, a young San Francisco detective lieutenant, is assigned by Captain Simon Oakland to protect Pat Renella, a Chicago gangster scheduled to testify against the syndicate at an upcoming Senate subcommittee hearing for Robert Vaughn, an ambitious politician whose credo is summed up in the line, “Integrity is something you sell the public.”
When hired killers break into the Embarcadero hotel room where Renella is hidden, shotgun-blasting him and McQueen’s young assistant Carl Reindel, Vaughn arrives at the hospital, news photographers handy, determined to save face at any cost and document evidence of his publicized “surprise witness” for the committee.
Exercising the authority of his assignment, McQueen sets out to discover Vaughn’s deal with the witness and track down the killers, concealing the fact that the witness has died following surgery. Retracing the dead man’s tracks, McQueen learns that he has guarded the wrong man, learns his identity and ultimately catches the real hoodlum, Victor Tayback, in a chase which leads him across the jet-crossed runaways of the San Francisco airport.
During the 11-minute chase sequence earlier in the film, McQueen is alternately pursued by and pursues the pair of killers, literally leaping the crests of the city’s narrow, perpendicular streets, dropping auto parts en route through hills and valleys, sideswiping trucks and barricades, all filmed at actual high speeds and climaxing with a spectacular blast as the killers’ car smashes through the pumps and tanks of a gasoline station and McQueen’s car slides across all lanes of a busy highway.
Even in the midst of this breathtaking montage, the high point of consistently brilliant Technicolor photography by William A. Fraker and film editing by Frank P. Keller, Yates manages to incorporate brief bits of documentation of the essential decency and concern of the McQueen character, uncompromisingly tough without conscious sacrifice of humanity. Apart from specific business assigned, McQueen is able to convey the same depths of complexity in close-up reactions throughout the film’s action, which stresses brutal action no less efficiently than the political intimidation, and opportunistic legal maneuvers which are the cool menace of Vaughn’s tactics. Despite his long television tenure in hero’s tatting, Vaughn is especially convincing and adept at chilly villainy, capable of delivering a lethal threat with little more than a too-carefully enunciated aside, punctuated by a lowering of the lids.
The violence of Bullitt spatters the air with blood in the second of blast, throwing its human target to the wall with the impact, perhaps more convincingly real than is necessary to make the point, though always emotionally and dramatically sound. A group of four girls at the preview reacted with gleeful titters during the rapid hotel blast scene as the camera came to rest on the raw meat of the young man’s leg at the end of the fusillade. Ironically, they put their hands to their faces in discomfort during a completely bloodless detail of heart massage in the hospital, this act more directly moving them to physical revulsion. Such response must be unnerving to filmmakers who have attempted to handle the necessity of violence at its most repugnant with maximum taste.
Jacqueline Bisset appears briefly but effectively as McQueen’s girlfriend, incomprehensibly repelled when she suddenly becomes involved in the ugly reality that is his daily existence. Yates and McQueen add a sensitive and revealing moment to this sequence by simply having McQueen take a step to blot her field of vision in the motel room where they find the garroted body of the stand-in hoodlum’s wife. Other silent scenes of McQueen’s off-duty life, stops at a neighborhood grocery store to collect stacks of frozen TV dinners, the incidental details of his few moments at home, further separate the isolated man and the professional servant, neither denied fallibility, each vulnerable in his own way.
Don Gordon is excellent as McQueen’s chief aide, while Tayback, Paul Genge and Georg Stanford Brown are outstanding in the exactitude of key characterizations.
Lalo Schifrin’s score, while routinized in sound like the endless programmer scores he grinds out at Universal, is important in its application, particularly in his choice to cover the encounter with Tayback at the airport with the anonymous romantic mood music which mocks from every speaker the countless genuine dramas which take place in any metropolitan terminal. — John Mahoney, originally published on Oct. 16, 1968