Three years before Dirty Harry , Steve McQueen set the standard for ‘rogue cop’ as Frank Bullitt, a San Francisco cop with, it has to be said, better clothes sense and a neater car than Harry. McQueen is assigned to help protect a witness due at a Mafia trial, but professional hitmen still manage to blast him. Alive on arrival at hospital, he dies and Bullitt spirits his body away. But ambitious politician Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn) wants either his witness or Bullitt’s ass and, as the pressure mounts and Vaughn’s double cross exposes both him and Bullitt, there’s just hours to resolve the situation.
Almost everything about this film is perfect, from Yates’ controlled direction to Lalo Schifrin’s haunting jazz score, but the real stars are McQueen and, of course, the car chase that set the standard for all future films. McQueen epitomised cool in the role, just as he was doing in real life as one Hollywood’s most charismatic stars, and the surrounding cast were equally excellent, although Bisset, as his girlfriend, was given little opportunity to stretch her talents. The script, co-authored by Alan Trustman, who’d scripted McQueen in The Thomas Crown Affair , is tough and street-smart (this was one of the first mainstream films to use the word ‘Bullshit’).
But it is, of course, the car chase that the film is lauded for. Using state-of-the-art technology (and not a CGI effect in sight), stunt driver Bud Elkins and McQueen (an accomplished racer) used two Mustangs for the chases through the city’s vertiginous streets and then out onto the freeway, with the only accompaniment the roar of the engines. Filming took three weeks for the ten-minute scene and some scenes were shot from both the Mustang and the baddies’ Dodge, explaining the constant appearance of a pesky green VW in shot, a small continuity error to pay for such a classic scene.
USA / 1968
Director: Peter Yates
Writers: Harry Kleiner, Alan Trustman, from Robert L Pike’s novel
Cast: Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn, Jacqueline Bisset, Norman Fell, Simon Oakland