TCM Essentials: Bullitt


TCM will air Bullitt (1968) starring Steve McQueen at 8 p.m. June 13 as part of its The Essentials series. Here's five things to look for while watching this classic police procedural.

Steve McQueen was known as the King of Cool, and he was certainly never more chilled out than in his role as taciturn police detective Frank Bullitt. This classic crime movie features an intricate 10-minute car chase scene that is one of the best ever put on screen, plus authentic San Francisco locales, and a minimalist plot that would influence the blockbuster action movies of the 1980s and 1990s.

Bullitt (1968) features McQueen as a loner detective who is assigned to protect what he believes is a star witness (Felice Orlandi) in a Senate hearing on organized crime. When the witness and one of Bullitt's deputies (Carl Reindel) are gunned down in a brutal assassination, Bullitt roams the streets of San Francisco in a search for justice. 

Here's five things to look for while watching Bullitt: 

Steve McQueen: Of course, you don't really have to look for McQueen because he basically is the movie, but his performance as the introverted Bullitt is one of the best in his career. McQueen was one of the great movie stars of the 1960s, and his less-is-more acting style was perfectly suited to the action genre. McQueen was one of the few actors who could hold the screen while doing virtually nothing (he shares that quality with Greta Garbo). Watch how McQueen conveys quite a lot while doing very little in this scene between Bullitt and Robert Vaughn as an ambitious politician.

Robert Vaughn: Vaughn is a criminally underrated actor (TCM is airing Bullitt as part of a night of Vaughn's films), and he is brilliant in this movie as a tightly wound politician who is at odds with the detective. Vaughn is technically the heavy, but he gives a nuanced performance that actually makes him somewhat sympathetic to the audience at times. His whispery line readings and clenched body language also make him appear much more menacing than the over-the-top theatrics of many a later action film villain. 

Car chase: The fast and furious car chase scene in and around San Francisco's Mission District is Bullitt's piece de resistance. The car chase influenced many later films like The French Connection (1971) and The Road Warrior (1981), but I haven't seen another chase scene that can compare to the brilliant directing and editing of this sequence (Frank P. Keller won an Oscar for best editing for his work on Bullitt). First, it never gets boring even though it's quite a lengthy sequence, and second, it is always crystal clear what is actually happening on screen (I'll admit that I'm sometimes totally confused when watching modern action movies).

San Francisco locales: Warner Brothers wanted to film Bullitt on the studio backlot, but McQueen rightly insisted on location shooting in San Francisco. The picturesque locales give Bullitt a visual interest that significantly adds to the film (frankly, the movie's somewhat standard plot isn't that riveting). One disappointment: City authorities refused permission to film on or around the Golden Gate Bridge.

Sixties atmosphere: In many ways, Bullitt looks and feels suprisingly modern, partly because Hollywood has been ripping off Bullitt's style and tone for 40 years, but there are some moments that make Bullitt feel like a late sixties time capsule. There's Bullitt's out-of-sight paisley pajamas, a hilariously primitive version of a fax machine (clip below), and the grooviest jazz flute solo this side of Ron Burgundy.

If you missed TCM's airing of Bullit, you can catch it on DVD or video on demand.