Bullitt: Peter Yates’ gritty, seminal cop thriller gave Steve McQueen his most iconic role

Bullitt(1968) finds Steve McQueen at the peak of his powers. As a film it isn’t much, but It’s a perfect example of what we call a ‘Star Vehicle’: A very generic film with a very convoluted plot and very little characterization that’s elevated to another level by the charisma and Screen presence of its iconic star.

Steve McQueen for me is the ultimate movie star. He is also an unique movies star; an actor who was trained in the prestigious ‘Actor’s Studio’, but who was very different from either the first or second generation method actors. In a way, he was a throwback to golden age movie stars like Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne, but on another level he possessed qualities of a ‘modern’ actor. Though he had a limited range as a performer (god knows he cannot do Shakespeare) he became one of the most iconic stars of all times. McQueen became a star in the 1960’s through a slew of action\adventure films like The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, Nevada Smith, etc., where he played rebellious, anti-authoritarian characters that defined the mood of the era. The smashing success of these films were mainly due to his cool , understated acting style and his dynamic daredevilry – whether on a horse, a bike or a car; and thus he came to define the essence of cinematic cool in popular culture. Bullitt(1968)  represents the ultimate Steve McQueen movie and also the ultimate star vehicle, in more ways than one. if one takes into account the Mustang GT that McQueen rides in the film, and the  the epic car chase sequence that has come to define the film as well the McQueen persona. On that score the film becomes a showcase for the star’s skills as well as for the coolest automobile ever seen on screen. The film was produced by McQueen’s production company, Solar, and it was his maiden production. Having played anti-authoritarian characters throughout his career, McQueen was reluctant to play an authority figure of a cop. But he was intrigued enough by the script to do it, and he made sure that the character of the cop was still a maverick and a rebel within the system, so that it would suit his image and skills as an actor.  McQueen wanted a new director for his film, and after an exhaustive search, he settled on Peter Yates; Yates’ little-seen film  Robbery, a take on London’s Great Train Robbery, impressed McQueen very much. The film is stark, fast-moving, and well detailed police procedural, but the thing about it that really caught McQueen’s eye was its great car chase: shot on location through the crowded cobblestoned streets of London. Although the film was not a big hit in America, it was a smash in Great Britain and proved to be, after four good small features and several episodes of the highly popular TV series The Saint, Yates’ mainstream directorial breakthrough.

I have seen Bullitt countless times and have always come back for more. There are a lot of things that  I find interesting. Most of all is the McQueen introduction scene.  For such an iconic film and for such a huge star, he has the least iconic introduction.  In his first scene, we see this hot shot cop all crumpled up in bed  and fast asleep. He is awakened by his colleague Delgetti for a new mission: To protect a state witness for Senator Chalmers played by Robert Vaughn. Chalmers has a plan to expose the Mafia type ‘Organization’ , by using this Mob Witness Johnny Ross for conducting public trials. It’s both a Law enforcement as well as a PR exercise for Chalmers who is now angling for a top political post. It goes without saying that things go terribly wrong: Ross is assassinated when he is under Bullitt’s protection. From then on it is a cat and mouse game between Bullitt and the assassins; as he struggles to uncover the conspiracy even as he he has to fend off the ever combative Chalmers, who is pissed with him for losing the witness

The plot of the film is immaterial and frankly so convoluted and preposterous that it hardly make sense. What the film is most concerned with is the attitude, style and charisma of its lead super star, which it provides in abundance. Since most of the film takes place on a weekend, McQueen’s cop is dressed in chic casual wear consisting of desert boots, a trench coat, a blue turtleneck sweater and a brown tweed jacket with elbow patches. This trendsetting attire immediately distinguishes him from rest of the cops we have seen on screen, and gives a sense of timelessness to the character. Another cast member who gets as much star treatment as McQueen is the Ford Mustang GT that McQueen drives around. It takes center stage in the iconic chase sequence that has Bullitt following Ross’ assassins through the streets of San Francisco. McQueen, who was a star racer in real life, had  by then  acquired the reputation for being a daredevil on screen also – someone who loved to do his own stunts .His daredevil stunts on a motorbike in The Great Escape(1963) before had made him a star. McQueen wanted to film the greatest car chase sequence ever put on film: on location, without any camera tricks or back projection, and he succeeded spectacularly. The ten minute sequence remains one of the great action scenes ever committed to film.

McQueen’s acting style is so subtle and minimalist, and to the point, that he seems to be doing almost nothing; you really need to concentrate hard to get the nuances he is playing. The film, like its lead actor, is again an exercise in minimalism: minimal dialogue, minimal background score  and Oscar winning editing that cuts straight to the chase. The film can sometimes  get intolerable when McQueen is not on screen, but becomes super interesting when he is on screen- a true testament to a star’s charisma. The best McQueen scene for me  is the conversation he has with Vaughn’s Chalmers in the hospital after Johnny Ross is shot. He has already sized up Chalmers for the hypocritical, ambitious politician that he is. He dispenses with the niceties and comes straight to the point. The defining line is “You work your side of the street and I’ll work mine“, which practically seals the deal for the kind of relationship he is going to have with Vaughn throughout the film.  The dialogue, the facial expressions and his body language in this scene is in perfect sync with the laconic , to-the-point cop that he is playing. This is the ultimate McQueen scene for me. It’s the greatest instance of cinematic acting (where his mesmerizing eyes does a lot of the acting along with his nonchalant body language) and McQueen was undoubtedly a master of it

Another great McQueen scene comes  at the end of the film , where Bullitt and Delgetti are waiting at the airport terminal for the ‘real’ Johnny Ross to show up. Chalmers, who has made a fool of himself by then, still approaches Bullitt with a proposal to make Ross a state witness; Trying to manipulate him with promise of better career prospects. Bullitt calls his bluff right there, in what could be the first and perhaps the best instance of the usage of the term ‘bull sh@t’ in movies. This is again a trademark McQueen scene where with minimum of words, forceful expressions and effective body language, he conveys the essence of the character effortlessly

McQueen’s greatest quality as an actor was that he knew what suited him best and he designed his roles according to that . He knew he was not a classical actor, nor did he have the range and depth of Marlon Brando or his main rival Paul Newman. But in these sort of roles he was unrivaled and he could be better than the likes of Newman. It is obvious from The Towering Inferno, the only film in which he paired up with Newman. Newman gave a very heavy, self-serious performance which paled in comparison to the cool effortless star  turn of McQueen which was what a mainstream potboiler like Inferno demanded. McQueen was famous for cutting his lines as opposed to actors who wanted to increase their lines in the script. Just like his fellow laconic star icon Clint Eastwood, he believed that less the words, more mysterious and interesting the character becomes. The first thing that McQueen did after he got the script of “Bullitt” was to cut out almost all of the film’s dialogue. He felt that the film was something to be seen, not heard. It was a subtle but radical decision, and it put the burden on Yates to deliver the plot, which merely acts as a filler in between the film’s three major action sequences: The hospital scene, the car chase and the climactic chase at the airport. Don Gordon, the actor  who played Delgetti, said in an interview that a lot of the dialogue in the film that he got ( especially a lot of the exposition on the unraveling of Johnny Ross’ identity) was originally meant for McQueen , But  McQueen changed it to Gordon delivering the lines and him reacting to it, keeping the essence of his character intact . Gordon protested, saying that all the time that he will be delivering these lengthy dialogues the camera is going to be on McQueen; to which McQueen retorted in his inimitable  style “Hey I am the star , what you’re gonna do about it“.

Well no arguments about that. McQueen was the ultimate movie star and Bullitt, the ultimate star vehicle. The film (or at least portions of it) may have become dated – Jacqueline Bisset‘s character (she plays Bullitt’s mandatory love interest Cathy) and a little speech she is asked to deliver about Bullitt being surrounded with violence is rather unintentionally funny and brings the film to a halt, just before the climax – but Steve McQueen has not aged a bit. His cool persona is iconic and for the ages,  and it transcends the movie and works superbly even today.


8 thoughts on “Bullitt: Peter Yates’ gritty, seminal cop thriller gave Steve McQueen his most iconic role

  1. Super MANK ! Reminds me of a line my chithappa said ages ago “Steve McQueen ! Semma Personality !”

    Thanks so much for writing about one of my favourite stars and you absolutely nailed it when you said that he does so much with so little – lines in this instance.


    1. Thanks Ravi sir. yes McQueen was a master of minimalism. We dont get actors like that anymore. there are no stars in holltwood anymore leave alone a star of the magnetism of Mcqueen


  2. McQueen as always oozed star presence and charisma, but I don’t know, have watched this at least 3 times and I always come back to the same opinion: Barring THAT iconic car chase and the climactic shoot out at the airport, Bullitt is a bit of a snore with long, almost soporific stretches where nothing happens, with some shots looking like the editor stepped out for a smoke break, like the one where McQueen walks into a convenience store, picks up some grocery, pays for it, and walks out, the kind that makes it into a “Deleted Scenes” section in the Blu Ray Special Features,and not actually left in the actual movie.


    1. Yeah that scene was a headscratcher too. Also that conversation he has with Jacqueline Bissett about time starting now.


  3. You’ve really missed the boat here about `Bullitt’, as a motion picture I must say. It is more than `Star Vehicle’, it is well-made film which effectively employed verite techniques and cinematic methods of narrative (rather than truly boring and phoney expository dialogue) and is deservedly hailed as such. I see this is a couple of years old. Perhaps you have reassessed your view by now, hopefully you have.


    1. Maybe i was a little too hard on the movie, and yes it was a cutting edge action thriller for its time. It did employ modern techniques in its storytelling. But I still feel bored in those portions where McQueen is not present. And in totality, the film is just not as effective as other great cop thrillers of its time like The French connection or Dirty Harry which also has great star performances at its center from Gene Hackman and Clint Eastwood


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