Reflections on Bullitt–On the big screen 50 years later

Review by C.J. Bunce

Fathom Events has done it again, bringing a film classic back to theaters for older fans to enjoy again and new generations to experience on the big screen for the first time.  Although I’d seen the 1968 action thriller Bullitt dozens of times, this was my first viewing on the big screen.  It’s no exaggeration that the ten-minute chase scene the film is known so well for becomes a roller coaster ride in the theater.  I must confess–maybe it was the tint on my own television, or because of the posters showed the Bullitt 1968 Ford Mustang in black, but I never noticed how bright green it was before–the car is unmistakably a vivid green (technically “Dark Highland Green”) when viewed on a 30-foot instead of a 2-feet-high screen–literally an eye-opening difference.

As expected my favorite scenes stood out–Steve McQueen‘s mannerisms in every scene as Frank Bullitt establish that of what was likely the average, real police officer in 1968, far from the angry, distant San Francisco cop Clint Eastwood would make famous three years later.  Bullitt was friendly, considerate, compassionate, even sensitive toward those strangers of San Francisco he encounters throughout the film, like the doctor being bad-mouthed by Robert Vaughn‘s Senator Chalmers not quite out of hearing range, like Bullitt as grateful to a night nurse who brings him a meal in the hospital hallway, when he tips the cabbie played by a young Robert Duvall, and as he hangs out and makes eyes with his girlfriend (Jacqueline Bisset) at what was probably an actual, trendy Haight-Ashbury jazz club.  McQueen is seen waking up, buying groceries, buying a paper–normal life scenes spliced into an action movie with the best-ever car chase.

I’m not sure opening credits were ever carried out as in Bullitt either before or since, with the letters of the credits smoothly coming at the audience almost in 3D, converting into an unusual transition into the next camera shot (backed by a jazzy opening theme).  Yes, that opening is even more effective in the theater, and it ties into director Peter Yates and cinematographer William A. Fraker‘s nearly comic book-inspired camera angles found throughout the movie.  A shot upward from the passenger side of the pursued hitmen’s car.  Two shots where the cameraman looks like he was taken out by the racing classic cars (the Charger actually hit the camera in one edited sequence).  The first-person driver’s seat view of so many modern video games.  Several scenes also fade to and from reflections in windows, blurred crowds from behind planters, like from an Edward Hopper painting.  Do you need a reference for late 1960s clothing?  Yates loiters a bit on several crowd and restaurant scenes where the audience can examine styles from all social classes.  Best of all?  The thousands of classic cars and trucks from the 1960s, 1950s, and 1940s.  Every scene incorporates beautiful imagery as a preserved photo album of the best vintage cars to the left or right of the center of action.

The nostalgia of all the cameo roles: Vic Tayback as a mobster year’s before Alice, Norman Fell as a by-the-books police commissioner years before Three’s Company, Georg Stanford Brown years before Stir Crazy and Roots, and Duvall long before the Oscar-winning performances.  Recognizable actors Don Gordon, Pat Renella, and Simon Oakland would appear in every other cop TV show for decades.

Then there is the blend of stuntmen work (Bill Hickman, Carey Loftin, Bud Ekins, and Loren Janes), McQueen’s performance and Frank P. Keller‘s Oscar-winning editing.  The Mustang/Charger chase sequence isn’t all–I often forget that airfield foot chase that looks like anyone could have been smashed flat by a PanAm jet at any moment.

Bullitt stands firm as “the” vintage, muscle car movie.  McQueen stands tall as the king of cool.  No actor since could be said to look any cooler than McQueen in a turtleneck and jacket (the vest holsters don’t hurt the look any).  Bisset looked fantastic in all her top fashion designs from designer Theadora Van RunkleLalo Schifrin‘s musical score is stylish.  Add Bullitt to the list of several film classics that serve as a travelogue for the city of San Francisco.

Every month Fathom Events brings classics back to the big screen.  Usually these include a 10-20 minute feature in advance of the screening.  I’m usually indifferent to these features because they tend to show clips from the film we’re in the theater to watch–possibly spoiling some of the movie for first time viewers–so don’t fear if you arrive a few minutes late.  Bookmark the link to, and follow their website and for the latest film retrospective screenings.  If you missed this one, a Blu-ray edition is available at Amazon now here for less than $6.



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