TTAC at the Movies: 'Bullitt'

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

It’s odd to consider, but in a world where Steve McQueen had never lived I’d be about three dozen serious injuries better off than I am today. Scratch that. I don’t need him to have never lived. I just need him to have not supported the production of “On Any Sunday.”

That film romanticizes the Elsinore GP, which in turn led me to enter the Elsinore GP, which led me to break my leg training for the Elsinore GP, which led me to record a big fat DNS for the Elsinore GP. Worse than that, however, the opening sequence of “On Any Sunday” is commonly understood to be the catalyst for the sport of bicycle motocross, which has treated me worse than Ike Turner treated Tina.

Not that I bear any grudge against the man, mind you. I do, however, have complete and abiding contempt for the consumer-driven culture of McQueen worship that has arisen in the past 20 years or so. If you wear Hunsiker McQueen shoes or a McQueen T-shirt, or if you repeat the “Racing is life” line from LeMans like it was someone’s actual philosophy and not just a line written for an actor on a set, I’m going to think less of you. It’s not because McQueen was a vile person at times, although it is worth noting that his behavior often went past the rambunctious into the just plain despicable. It is because while boys and teenagers need heroes to admire and emulate, grown men shouldn’t wear another man’s face or name on their bodies if they can help it. Period, point blank.

Last week, Ford introduced a new “ Bullitt Mustang” with the help of McQueen’s lovely granddaughter, Molly Flattery dba Molly McQueen. I have to say that I like everything about the car but the new-for-2019 nose, which is uncomfortably catfish-esque, and the “Bullitt” logos. As was the case the last two times a Bullitt Mustang appeared, there’s been a revival of interest in the movie. My wife had never seen it, so we watched “Bullitt” this past Friday night. Shortly afterwards, I read a Jalopnik piece by Raphael Orlove describing the movie as “boring garbage.”

It seems like the right time to take a look at the film without Gulf-colored lenses or Millennial-ish suspicion, so let’s open the curtain on another episode of TTAC At The Movies, shall we? Warning: spoilers ahead for those of you who haven’t managed to catch the film in the past 49 years.

The plot is the least important part of “Bullitt,” so here’s a quick summary: An up-and-coming San Francisco politician, played exactly on the nose by a very handsome and in-form Robert Vaughn, has arranged for a member of the Chicago Mob to provide some testimony. He sets up a hotel room and requests that local hero cop Frank Bullitt guard the mobster over the weekend.

Naturally, it all goes wrong and in fairly short order Bullitt finds himself fighting everybody from a pair of hitmen to his own departmental management in an effort to get the truth about who the mobster really was and what his plans were. At the same time, he is attempting to preserve his relationship with his artist girlfriend (played by Jacqueline Bisset at her most spectacular) as she becomes increasingly horrified by the violence and chaos of Bullitt’s work life. At the end of the film, with the witness and the hitmen dead, Bullitt returns home to ponder whether or not his girlfriend was right after all.

TVTropes has a short but effective section on “Bullitt” where it is noted the film serves as both the inspiration for a million copycat films and a complete refutation of the themes developed by those copycats. In truth, most of those films are really copying “Dirty Harry,” which is sort of like “Bullitt” without all the soul-searching, uncertainty, and protagonist mistakes. One of the TVTropes writers notes, quite accurately, that

This was actually the first Cowboy Cop movie, but seen today, it looks like a deconstruction of the genre: the cop ignores his superiors and dismisses the quite reasonable demands of a slimy politician out of distrust, but accidentally kills all the witnesses and ruins any chances of finding the real mob bosses. The film ends with him staring into a mirror, realizing just how badly he’s screwed up.

I’d like to suggest that McQueen knew exactly what he was doing with all of the above. Frank Bullitt is no Dirty Harry; he’s an irrational, imperfect, and deeply damaged human being. He’s always a step behind the bad guys, always a bit too slow to see what’s playing out right in front of him. His primary virtue is dedication to the mission, even when nobody else wants him to continue said mission. In that sense, he reminds me quite a bit of Sean Connery’s protagonist in the criminally underrated “Outland.” In an era where policemen tend to appear in the media as murderous villains or bulletproof action heroes, this notion of cop-as-regular-guy is a welcome relief.

There’s some irony in the fact that the “Bullitt” car chase set us on a path that would eventually lead to Michael Bay-style tripe and an expectation of the part of modern viewers that “action films” would contain nothing but action, because the film surrounding that chase is a detailed, painstaking, accuracy-oriented effort to show the authentic lives of police and other first responders. It’s chock-full of realistic snippets: an autopsy report, a trans-continental image fax, the prejudices that an African-American doctor might have faced 50 years ago.

Over at Jalopnik, Mr. Orlove makes some fun of a scene in the movie where Bullitt eats a cheese sandwich, as if McQueen had nothing on the shooting schedule that day and decided to make a cheese sandwich the star of the moment. In reality, the whole “cheese sandwich” series of scenes is designed to immerse the viewer in the actual life of a policeman whose partner has been shot. Today’s action heroes never eat, never rest, never have to use the bathroom. Frank Bullitt, by contrast, is hungry after staying with his partner all night — so a nurse brings him a sandwich, and he’s happy to get it.

The look of joy on Bullitt’s face when the meal appears is thought-provoking, because it suggests that human beings are a little more complex than the Hollywood caricatures. It’s possible to be absolutely miserable about your partner being shot and still be grateful for the chance at a meal. And when Bullitt confers with the doctor in charge shortly afterwards, he’s still eating the sandwich, which is consistent with what a real cop would do in that situation.

A thoughtful viewing of “Bullitt” teaches us a lot about the differences between the audiences of 1968 and today’s Netflix-and-chill crowd. The first 10 minutes or so of the film contain no explanation whatsoever; the viewer is expected to watch carefully, retain what he has seen, and be able to place it in the context of information delivered later. Several scenes contain no audible dialogue whatsoever, presenting a conversation behind glass or at a distance. It’s up to the viewer to guess at what is being said and why. There are several long shots of various Pan Am Boeing 707 aircraft; this amounts to fanservice in an era where many moviegoers had yet to experience a trip on a jet airplane or even see one close-up. (Incidentally, the 707 featured most prominently in the film is a 1965-built example evocatively named Jet Clipper Glory of the Skies by Pan Am.)

The same holds true for McQueen’s decision to shoot the movie mostly on location. The average American could not afford to visit San Francisco on a whim, so “Bullitt” was both action movie and travelogue. It should be noted that the success of early James Bond films was similarly driven at least in part by the fact that they showed exotic locales in full Technicolor.

Today’s moviegoer, living in an era of ramped-up violence, Gulf War veterans on every corner, and dirt-cheap unregulated fares to island paradises, cannot be expected to fully understand what a thrill it would have been to watch “Bullitt” in 1968. Nor can he be expected to understand the extreme reaction of Bullitt’s girlfriend to seeing a dead body. Gosh, lady, it’s just a strangulated corpse! Nowadays kids see that stuff on the internet 50 times a day! He is also unlikely to understand the idea that the film’s patient pacing is deliberate, and that it enhances the enjoyment of the crash scene rather than detracts from it. One might as well expect him to sit through the entire plot of “Emmanuelle” just to see some naked people having fuzzy sex. Nowadays we get straight to the good part. My son recently informed me that “Fails” videos are very popular on YouTube: 10 minutes of crashes, pratfalls, disasters, all compressed down to the money shot then whisked off stage to make room for the next one. There is literally no difference between much of today’s popular streaming video content and the “Ow! My Balls!” show parodied in the movie “Idiocracy.”

In short, “Bullitt” is a movie for grown-ups. It’s too demanding and too leisurely to make much sense to Millennial viewers, who are more comfortable with McQueen-as-quote-and-T-shirt than they are with McQueen as actor and filmmaker. Yet it also did its part to tumble us into the current abyss of tasteless pap and sensory-overload content. Which is why I think the best tribute to “Bullitt” isn’t a T-shirt, a pair of signature shoes, or even a $40,000, 475-horsepower Mustang. It’s the car-chase scene in Clint Eastwood’s “The Dead Pool,” where Eastwood is chased through San Francisco by an explosives-laden toy car. It’s a trenchant bit of action-as-commentary on Eastwood’s part, suggesting that the car chase and the whole unthinking-action genre leads to the infantilization of the moviegoer.

In the end, it’s nothing but a bunch of people playing make-believe. McQueen himself often railed against the “phony” nature of acting. I suspect that he would have approved. Go see “Bullitt.” It’s worth your time, and it’s more than just a car chase. How many movies nowadays can say that?

[Images: Bullitt/Warner Bros., via]

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • Arthur Dailey Arthur Dailey on Feb 06, 2018

    Jack, that is a good piece of writing. Always liked when the Charger's driver clicked on his seatbelt. Time for business. Also liked Justin Tarr's role as the informer. Tarr was one of the stars of The Rat Patrol. And Duvall as the cabbie. Bissett wearing just one of Bullitt's shirts made a lasting impact. The Old Man who at the time was a police detective, took me as a kid to see Bullitt. The Department was at that time experiencing problems. Old School, often WWII vets in charge, meanwhile the young recruits had been exposed to Hippies and society was challenging what had been accepted norms of behaviour. Mid-career cops seemed to be caught in the middle. Believe that the movie caught much of the Zeitgeist of that era. It also started the fad of naming the protagonists after weapons: Cannon, Beretta, Magnum, etc. My 'young adult' son has watched it and learned to appreciate it. After Bullitt, had him watch Lee Marvin in Point Blank. Marvin was a true 'bad a*s'. Personally I cannot stomach any CGI or those stupid, physics defying 'stunts' in F&F and Michael Bay directed garbage. Realism is where it should be at.

  • Steve65 Steve65 on Feb 06, 2018

    Reminder that it's being shown today on TCM, in HD. 3:00PM Pacific time. I assume that means 3:00 PM eastern time as well.

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