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Non-Review Review: Bullitt

Let’s be honest. You’re just here for the car chase. You know the car chase. It must be really tough being a movie with an iconic sequence located about halfway through – perhaps that’s because you are inevitably built up through years of pop culture expectation. Don’t get me wrong, the central chase sequence is absolutely superb – to this day it remains one of the most gripping sequences committed to film – but I was perhaps expecting a bit more from the film that surrounds it. Bullitt is a fairly decent cop movie which just so happens to feature some celluloid magic in the middle.

A speeding bullitt...

I don’t know what I was expecting, but I felt somewhat let down by the “paint-by-numbers” aspect of this particular thriller. I suppose that this is where relativism comes into it – it’s more than likely that Bullit only seems a tad generic today because of the massive amount of influence that it had on the films that followed. The reason that I think it’s a cop film by rote is because I have already seen all the films emulating this film – so the movies that defined a cop film to me were actually defined by this Steve McQueen film. It puts me in the somewhat ironic position of examining an original film which really doesn’t feel too original to me.

Perhaps this is why I generally stay away from “classic” film. I’ve been a fan of cinema since I was knee high to a donkey, and I’ve seen a lot of eighties and nineties films so often that I’ve become overly familiar with the gimmicks, twists and setpieces. The first time I saw them was the hundredth time they’d actually been done, but they were new to me. And then, through some weird paradox, I manage to see the original film later and it just feels… empty, to be honest. It isn’t that I don’;t appreciate the massive influences these films had in shaping genres, it’s just hard to watch something being done straight through when years of entertainment have picked it apart, deconstructed it, reconstructed it, mocked it, developed it, made it into nostalgia and then have spit it out the other end. Seeing the trick executed the first time without any of the stuff that built upon it feels somehow “simple”, for lack of a better word.

It reminds me a bit of The Prestige, where Angier remarks that Borden has a fantastic trick, he just hasn’t figured out how to execute it properly. Bullitt is dripping with all manner of cop movie clichés – from the maverick police officer to the rampant womanising – but these things seems fairly straightforward these days. The plot essentially follows Bullit as he attempts to track down the mafia cartel (“the organisation”) which murdered a witness under the protection of his colleagues.

That doesn’t deny the fact that Steve McQueen makes a convincing lead and San Francisco makes for an almost exotic locale (even after Dirty Harry, I still find the colourful environment refreshing). There’s something lovely about the setting – check out the moustache-and-sideburns on one informant, or the gold shoes. As a sidenote, I guess there must have been a priest convention or something on that weekend, as the airport is flooded with them.

Hail to McQueen!

On the other hand, some of the movie is a little awkward. It’s nice to see some pre-CSI CSI, but there’s an awful lot of weight put on the fact the door chain wasn’t bolted. This is used to deduce that the killer was allowed into the witness’ room, but the characters discuss it as if latching the door chain would have held the assassin at bay. Later on, a medic at the hospital is confronted by a strange man looking for a gunshot victim – the medic finds it strange enough to report this to the police, but still tells the strange man where the victim is.

However, the star attraction here is the extended ten minute car chase which occurs in the middle of the film. It is as great as it has been described – in fact, so great that anything which follows (including the sequence at the airport) is an anti-climax. The chase scene is spectacular – it feels a lot more organic than most. The drivers aren’t professionals – hubcaps fly off the cars, cars miss turns. It doesn’t become over-the-top or explosive (well… except, at the end). The film isn’t sped-up, so we are seeing the chase as it happens. Nothing captured on film is impossible – just highly improbable.

Bullitt is a well-executed cop movie, but one that has perhaps not aged as well as it might have. McQueen still has an effortless charm which carries the movie through, and the direction is skillful, but there’s very little here that hasn’t been emulated and repeated countless times in the four decades since. The chase sequence, however, is every bit as raw and energetic as the day it was filmed – perhaps that’s reason enough to recommend the film.

4 Responses

  1. What I think most devalues, or perhaps better said, demeans, lots of old school cops/robbers, mystery/thrillers, is the immense number of TV Cop shows which derive multiple plot lines from them. This is especially the case for old Hitchcock films. I’m willing to bet for each Hitchcock film (minus Birds perhaps) there’s at least 1 TV Cop show episode that’s lifted the plot from it on some level.

    • I think you’re right. It’s just too damn prevelant. You have three CSI episodes a week and three Law & Order episodes, saying nothing of the one million other cop shows out there. These classics don’t stand a chance.

  2. Bummer that it feels somewhat dated, but this has been on my queue for far too long now, I need to take care of that immediately. Steve McQueen: one of history’s truly certifiable badasses.

    • Yep, but upstaged by Yul Brynner. During the filming of the Magnificent Seven, McQueen was constantly trying to upstage Brynner, prompting Brynner to warn him, “You keep playin’ round and I’ll take off my hat; and I guarantee nobody will be looking at your face.”

      Badass.

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