Steve McQueen’s guarded blue eyes drive this Peter Yates film just as the actor forcefully guides his title character’s ’68 Mustang in that iconic car chase. The number of close-ups Yates gives McQueen is surprising until you realize each and every one works. When Yates cuts to McQueen as San Francisco Police Lt. Frank Bullitt, it’s done so with an intimate focus and typically yields no dialogue. McQueen looks, squints, ponders, thinks, and performs any number of other silent reactions. His eyes subtly volunteer what’s required each time. No film better supported Steve McQueen’s mastery of underplaying scene and character. His two Peckinpah pictures are lovingly patient and blessed with the harsh touch of conflict, but neither lets McQueen so effectively measure his performance. Yates, with no Hollywood films on his resume at the time and mostly here on the strength of the British crime drama Robbery, didn’t have the clout of Peckinpah or Robert Wise or the other more established directors McQueen worked with, and it’s easy to imagine how persuasive the actor was when he insisted on removing bits of dialogue in favor of those wordless close-ups.
There’s a thin line of physical detachment McQueen walked throughout his career, with some films and performances clearly more successful than others. His screen presence was full of silent swagger and minimalist proficiency, qualities that cry out for the silver screen instead of less than ideal television sets of any size. His expertise was not in the conveyance of heightened emotion. He didn’t have a particularly theatrical or broad style, which perhaps limited the types of roles he could effectively make his own. This isn’t to say he wasn’t capable of such parts, but his strength was clearly in the direction of reaction more than action. You can place your own ideas, thoughts, emotions into a McQueen performance because of the narrow opening he left within the characters. The stares aren’t blank, though, and those who pay attention can clearly see the conflict in McQueen’s eyes. When a writer like Matt Zoller Seitz in The L Magazine’s online article “Too Cool?” describes McQueen as the “consummate man of action” before dismissing our beloved movie star with the summation that “calling him a great actor, or even a great leading man, is a bit of a stretch,” you wonder if he really sees or appreciates what his target was doing.
In Bullitt, McQueen has to play a man of considerable skill in his job, and someone who’s both smart enough and decent enough to lead the viewer through the often unaccommodating morass of the plot while still being a believably solitary figure. His Frank Bullitt is first seen awakening from a 5 AM night. This is a character who buys frozen TV dinners by the armful. He has a girlfriend (Jacqueline Bisset) who would seem to be there mostly due to consequence. That article doesn’t look kindly on McQueen’s stoicism toward women, citing a shot where the back of his head is shown as Bisset lays in bed. There’s a fundamental misidentification of McQueen here or elsewhere as a role model in that sort of thinking. He’s not the ideal and anyone thinking as much is more the problem than what’s on the screen. The reason McQueen’s awkward treatment of women resonates is because it’s consistent and relatable. He doesn’t handle women with James Bond finesse or romantic comedy charm. Women flock to him because of how he looks and the way he carries himself. The fact that he’s constantly distracted enough to overlook them is a revelation of the struggle with intimacy that’s bred into the male psyche. These are problems rooted deeply within the male-female relationship dynamic, and it’s absurd to blame McQueen for truthfully playing the characters this way.
In other aspects, McQueen may indeed be the ideal for filmic masculinity, but that comes as a reflection of how we wish to be viewed more than as a measuring of priorities. If he portrays integrity, rebelliousness, and the cool calm of a man sure in both his capabilities and his methods, the desire to emulate such a path is undeniable. Films once were veritable instruction manuals for males on how to survive the usual rites of passage. These ideas may have contained their share of flaws, but there was still something genuinely comforting about having a choice among several leading male actors as to who best represented the chosen brand of impact. It’s no longer there and we’re instead left with neither the McQueen style of letting professional responsibility fully dominate over personal relationships nor the slightly more sensitive nature of a Newman or Redford making time for the female lead amid his internal turmoil. Blandness has won out and there are no Steve McQueens in modern American cinema. I can’t think of a single leading man this decade who could convincingly step into the role of Bullitt. If you want to disparage McQueen for a lack of intimate risk or an unwillingness to show tenderness, I just think it’s missing the entire point of the portrayal. McQueen’s characters are fascinating and flawed precisely because of their combination of the external assuredness with internal confusion. Witness the final shot, the final close-up, in Bullitt and tell me it would somehow be better if the character was a loving romantic partner. The fact that Bullitt is probably a lousy lay is part of the driving force of the entire film.
To fully appreciate Yates’ movie, I think you have to see it as a character study. As a simple police procedural, it’s still an outstanding and meaty outing, but the reaction is perhaps lessened, especially on repeat viewings. To instead hold McQueen’s character as our compass is to witness one of the true joys of several careers, a genre, and an era. It’s important to be completely in tune with this man, to see everything from his perspective of distrustful caution and uneasy dedication to the job. The Film Society at Lincoln Center’s recent retrospective, a mere frolic through the woefully brief career of an actor whose life was itself all too fleeting, wears the painfully appropriate title of “Yesterday’s Loner,” and it’s this line of thinking that helps to unlock much of McQueen’s career. Bullitt has an able sidekick in Don Murray’s Delgetti, but our protagonist is still a closed-off guy. Those nitpicks about how McQueen interacted with women on screen conveniently forget that it was the same way he treated everyone in most all of his films. The “Yesterday’s Loner” moniker is thoughtful and apt. He made a career out of emotionally partitioning himself off against the world. It’s okay to find that unpersuasive, but realize that many people could not disagree more. McQueen was emblematic of something that seems so frustratingly foreign to the modern magpie culture where trends go in the direction of telling the world what you’re doing at any given time rather than actually taking time out to fully experience it.
Because I perceive Bullitt as McQueen’s most signature role and film, and because the result was so impressive, it follows that the opportunity to see it on a very large screen was impossible to ignore. Even in an archive print – and you’d think a film as popular as this would warrant something freshly struck – the effect was like seeing it for the first time. Those McQueen close-ups depend so much on where the attention is elsewhere. And the car chase…the car chase! It’s less viewed than experienced. The hilly San Francisco streets inspire that same discomforting stomach jump as one gets while traversing actual roads of that nature, though perhaps not quite with the same abandon of doing so at such raw speed. Engines at full roar have rarely sounded so exciting. The scene lasts a few minutes, but it feels like the blink of an eye. Most movies that try car chases get it wrong, or at least less right, because they struggle to comprehend that it isn’t the suspense or the result that the viewer craves. The key is in how closely we can transport ourselves into the car. Nothing tops Bullitt. When Lalo Schifrin’s score goes silent and we see that great literal image of a seatbelt being buckled, all that’s left is for the cars to forcefully peel out into the chase. It’s a video game, with superb editing, before they existed. And it’s much, much better.
As exhilarating as the car chase still is, it’s unfortunate that one sequence tends to overshadow the rest of the film. Bullitt‘s plotting is layered and confident, but doesn’t care to be clever. There’s no winking or warning to pay attention. This seems to catch people off guard, even causing some to gripe that the film is difficult to follow. But everything’s clearly there. McQueen’s character is requested by the publicity hound DA Chalmers (Robert Vaughn) to ensure the safety of a mob witness from Chicago. When the witness is shot up in his dive of a hotel room, following his strange unlocking of the door, the already suspicious Bullitt immediately realizes something about the whole thing is off. To get into (spoiler) territory, the witness proves to have been a married car salesman the real mob guy paid off, leaving the actual witness on the run to kill the car salesman’s wife and fly out of the country with all the cash he’d embezzled. Bullitt finally catches up to him at the airport, where the film’s second great chase occurs, again leaving McQueen with criminal blood on his hands.
The scene where Bisset’s character expresses her frustration with the barrier he’s built up over constant exposure to murder and violence is a little forced, but I think it’s a necessary interaction that also clarifies some of the film’s intentions. Bullitt isn’t a vigilante cop. Yates’ film is sometimes compared against Dirty Harry and The French Connection, but the protagonists just aren’t the same. McQueen plays him as principled, but realistic. The summation in Bullitt comes near the end when Chalmers says, “Frank, we must all compromise,” and McQueen responds without allowing any breathing room: “Bullshit.” That’s the essence of the character laid bare. He’s not the aggressive thug of a Popeye Doyle or Harry Callahan. There’s no joy in violence or killing. The contemplative final scene shows the weight that hangs over this man when he allows it to, and it’s scary because we require people like this to protect us but then ask them to do such horrific things with little regard for the psychological turmoil that really should result.
The police are generally portrayed with an extremely sympathetic eye, and only Baker, the character played by Norman Fell, is shown as corrupt or incompetent. The theme of corruption does arc through the film, but it’s not departmental or criminal corruption. This sort of corruption is internal – the corruption of the soul. Chalmers and his police lackey that Fell plays are both afflicted, as are the real and fake incarnations of the mob witness. A man like Chalmers is so muddied in self-interest that he has little use in determining what the right path might be from a legal standpoint. The compromise he practices is everywhere, seemingly contagious in all professions, and all the more dangerous for how pervasive it is. McQueen lets Bullitt be constantly aware that these corruptions exist but strong enough to avoid the compromises. While the term “anti-authority” is sometimes thrown at the character, that’s hardly true. His hanging up on Baker or spurning of Chalmers isn’t done to rebel against authority. It’s a further rejection of that corruption.