Though quantifying “cool” is and will always be more guesswork than anything, we seem to nonetheless know it when we see it. Certainly people knew it’s presence in Steve McQueen, the penultimate “cool guy” of the late 60s/early 70s. McQueen was nonchalant and effortlessly charming both in his films and real life, and with his affinity for cars and bikes, became the figurehead for celebrity leisure. Like James Dean before him, McQueen seemed to get by mostly on not giving a fuck, though McQueen’s mellow aloofness seems more natural than Dean’s cultivated independence. With Bullitt, McQueen and Director Peter Yates seem intent on bottling this charm and pouring it in large doses over the entirety of the film; a style that works pretty well, until you start worrying about those pesky little nuances like plot and character.
Frank Bullitt (McQueen), a Lieutenant in the San Francisco police department, is tasked with the protection of mob underling, Johnny Ross (Pat Renella). Ross is set to turn over on his brother and boss, Pete (Vic Tayback), and more importantly, his deposition will play a major role in the career advancement of politician Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn). When Johnny and his protection are both attacked in their safehouse, Bullitt concludes he’s been given less than all the facts, and sets out on a thankless mission to find the truth and the killer.
More than anything else, Bullitt has style. From the opening credits to the close, Yates is preoccupied with applying an aesthetic that feels like a pretty solid approximation of “cool” in the late 60s. The soundtrack by Lalo Schifrin is jazzy and slick, giving McQueen plenty of atmosphere to lean against walls and size up rooms. And Schifrin is fully capable of scoring action, as seen in the unforgettable car chase sequence. This is definitively the coolest moment in the film, and far rawer than any other chase scene you’ve ever seen. This isn’t brightly colored foreign speedsters zipping through a city and narrowly avoiding timed explosions. It’s a pair of American muscle cars, banging around San Francisco as fast as they can manage. Bullitt is to chase scenes what The Godfather is to violence: unadorned and visceral as hell. Still, while much of the film is spent with Bullitt in hot pursuit or intensely piecing together fact and speculation, there’s a fair portion devoted to Frank Bullitt in his downtime. I like to think of these moments as McQueen: Just Livin’. These more intimate glances seem interested solely in the style of the man, and give a pretty clear indication of how Yates felt about his lead. It’s not that Bullitt is doing anything spectacular in these scenes. It’s that he looks so damn good doing anything. The guy could wear the hell out of a turtleneck and tweed jacket.
The investment in McQueen’s aesthetic is understandable, but it’s not without problems. A storyline involving Bullitt and his devoted but conflicted paramour, Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset), really only forces you to wonder what she’s there for. Attempts are made to advance the Bullitt character within this relationship, but they’re unsuccessful and ultimately, unnecessary. Cathy seems to exist just as a reminder to the audience of Bullitt’s endless supply of cool. And it’s not just the character effected by this unfaltering adherence to style, but the film itself. This is a film where the director himself would have to admit to pursuing style over substance; a choice that certainly isn’t wrong, but makes it impossible to construct a whole film. Bullitt‘s editing is loose, and the dialogue can be ambiguous. The plot is a bit meandering and scenes occasionally run too long. It’s all very laid back and cute, but again, the style of a film has to be secondary to the heart. Too much focus on the former and the technical aspects start to drift.
What’s important to take away from Bullitt as a contemporary viewer is the way it relates to our modern version of masculine film. The closest modern approximation to something like Bullitt would probably be the Fast and Furious films, and though they do share a few similarities, digging past the surface reveals a pretty broad chasm. For one thing, masculinity was allowed to be subtle back then. Steve McQueen is definitively a man’s man, yet he spends plenty of time smiling amicably and strolling around with his hands in his pockets. Meanwhile the aughts present us with Vin Diesel, a caricature of manliness so over the top, they had to bring in The Rock just to balance him. Past the individuals, the film’s themselves simply offer very different takes on masculinity. Bullitt is dark and measured, akin to older spy movies or noir. Nowadays, masculinity means fast and bright and loud; layering on as many boisterous elements as the film’s infrastructure can handle and throwing in a V8 engine. It’s hard to say if this disparity is a result of the buyers or the sellers, though as with most product for profit, it’s probably a consequence of the miserable partnership. Whatever the case, Bullitt is a refreshing model of old school cool, and for a McQueen virgin, a hell of an introduction to the legend.