Welcome to Jalopnik Movie Club, where we take a look at cars in movies and movies about cars, and you write in with all of your hot takes. This week, we’re dispelling the myth of 1968's Bullitt and the legend of Steve McQueen, a boring movie starring a boring guy!
You hear a lot about Bullitt, and about how cool star Steve McQueen is as detective Frank Bullitt and his inexplicable devotion to solving the murder of a mob informant on the streets of San Francisco under the pressure of a greedy politician.
What you don’t hear so often about Bullitt is how slow the plot moves along, how almost none of the characters actually develop and how little conflict actually occurs in what many claim is one of the best American movies ever made.
Now, listen. I do not hate Bullitt. I do not dislike it. I actually enjoyed the movie, but I’m not going to watch it again. Nor am I going to deny it struggles to keep you entertained beyond your first viewing—and that first-viewing-interest is only a dragging anticipation for something, anything exciting to happen at some point.
The movie seems to be aware of the viewer’s desperation for something big to happen. It feels like it knows you’re just waiting for it to deliver its famous and exceptionally hyped-up car chase between Bullitt in his 1968 Mustang and the murderous mobsters in their 1968 Dodge Charger.
And what a chase it is. It’s incredibly satisfying to be promised something great and have it delivered in full, like being suggested a restaurant that’s genuinely delicious and memorable.
The movie sets up the cars as characters better than any human character in the movie. The villainous black Charger lurks in the shadows in the first half of the movie, with the red eyes of its circular taillights stalking Bullitt as he’s wandering through the mystery.
Bullitt’s now-iconic Mustang’s missing pony in the grille, its cool and attractive shade of green and the subtle dings of damage around the edges add a level of intrigue and accessibility to a character and movie otherwise void of both.
The filmmaking behind the chase is inspired, and the unrivaled magic of a Lalo Schifrin score bleeds into harsh and aggressive engine revs and raspy exhaust when the build up of the chase breaks.
The Bullitt car chase was one of the first where the cars were shot doing the stunts at real speed, in real locations, with limited back projection and no filmmaking tricks like speeding up the frame rate to make it seem faster, as recently pointed out in a review on Hagerty by Priscilla Page. It’s a raw and thrilling sequence that amplifies the intensity of the Bullitt character that is only revisited at the very end of the movie.
Unfortunately the chase itself is stuck in the middle of a subpar detective thriller. It stands out in a sea of scenes that drown in a unflinching obsession with Steve McQueen’s Frank doing rather monotonous police work and blankly looking at things. The movie makes him too cool and too competent, and the rest of the characters approach him without question. If anything, it feels like he’s Tommy Wiseau’s Johnny character in The Room. There’s a scene where his boss tells him to play it by the book, and in the very next line, crumbles under McQueen’s unflinching blue eyes and says he should do whatever he thinks is best.
It’s fair to say Bullitt is mostly a snoozefest, partially because it lacks any sympathetic characters. Our main character, McQueen’s Bullitt, has no reason to be so passionate about solving this particular case, except maybe because one of his partners gets injured. He’s not motivated by a love interest, who exists in the movie but provides virtually no substantial conflict. There are no personal stakes to make us, the viewers, engaged or at all interested in his motivations.
The other characters include a publicity-driven greedy politician (expertly cast with The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’s Robert Vaughn), a pushover police captain and a sell-out greasy mobster. There’s no one for the audience to enter the story through. The movie just settles with the closed-off Frank Bullitt, who’s just a cool cop catching criminals, and Steve McQueen’s turtleneck-filling shoulders don’t quite bare the burden.
It was great seeing the source of influences for modern movies, though. Many sequences of the film are very reminiscent of scenes from the Ocean’s franchise, and the entire ending at the airport is nearly identical to the later (much better) crime thriller Heat, among others.
Ultimately Bullitt plays out like The Godfather from the perspective of the police. It’s a story that ends up feeling like a decent episode of Law & Order stretched into a two hour time slot for some reason. It’s not bad, but the car chase is the best part—and since that’s available online, why sit through the rest of it?
That’s all from me, now let’s hear from those of you that emailed with your thoughts, opinions and hot takes about 1968's Bullitt:
I daily a 2001 Mustang Bullitt because of this movie.
This is the anti- “Fast And Furious” car flick...It’s a quiet, realistic slow-burn that confidently exudes cool instead of throwing it in your face. This isn’t an action film...It’s a police procedural with a ground-breaking car chase stuck in the middle of it.
When you take it on those terms, it’s a joy to watch. Crack open a beer, relax, and time-travel back 50 years to 1968, where men were men and women were Jacqueline Bisset.
There’s been talk of a remake of this film, which I think would be a disaster. The only element that would survive into a new version would be the story, which is by far the weakest element.
What makes this movie work is everything else that made it special- The funky Lalo Schifrin score. The 100-percent on-location shoot that perfectly captures a time and place. The constantly moving and zooming camera work. It’s unhurried pace. Steve McQueen’s effortless style, grit, and grace. And of course, those glorious period cars.
Bullitt is indeed overrated, but hey, that scene…yeah. That’s all we need to discuss.
Gritty, dramatic car movies are shit and overblown. Bullitt is pretty much the worst move if you take away the chase scene, and even with it, Vanishing Point was much better.
Bullitt: Which I have a copy of in my DVD collection, and saw in original release as a double feature with Bonnie and Clyde at a drive in in New York State: The movie is really about the police work, and not about the car chase. At the time, the chase was significant in that the cameras were in the cars, and under the bumpers, and that was the buzz at the time, it was like being in the cars. The Winchester pump action shotgun got almost as much play as the cars back then.
The car chase is really not much since in town, it is a bunch of the same action scenes pasted together, and filmed from different angles. How many times can they pass that VW? How many hubcaps can those steel Chrysler wheels shed in ten minutes? I owned a 68 Coronet, and it shed many a hubcap. At the end of the chase, the left front wheel of the Mustang folds up like the landing gear on a Lear jet. Junk cars.
Anywho, trivia alert: Bullitt is a prequel to the Dirty Harry series. After the success of the movie, the producers wanted Steve McQueen to do a sequel. He didn’t want any part of it. So they got a no name actor (literally - if you know spaghetti westerns), changed his name, and gave him a bigger Ford. Hard boiled detective Number 2 was born.
The only thing I will say about you using Bullitt for the first movie; is at least you didn’t pick The Fast & the Furious.
In this movie we see the following: A hypno fan, a man buying groceries, and a few close-ups of a telecopier at work.
Bullitt. The quintessential reason for the Movieclips channel to exist on YouTube. This film is a slow and dark detective drama that just happens to have a long car chase scene thrown in half way through. Admittedly my first foray into watching Bullitt was after watching the aforementioned chase when I was a teen coming from The Fast and Furious era. Needless to say, I didn’t last more than 15 minutes. As this was not my first attempt I came in with a slightly more open mind.
Unlike the modern movies that contain simplistic and engaging starts. Bullitt starts out dark and offering no answers. It’s perhaps makes a strong case why movies start out with narration. Exactly what is happening is not made clear until we meet the major players some minutes into the film. To strip down the film it’s simply a corporation, politician, and a detective engage in a multi-tiered witness protection shell game. Unfortunately this surprisingly strong plot suffers from nitwit like decisions in order to advance the story and the alluded filler.
The chase is arguably the most drawing part of the film. The turn of the tables on the hills of San Francisco has been the inspiration of many products. In these minutes the film shows some colour, sound, and entertainment. It’s a much-needed interlude for anyone from the ADHD age. Ignoring the Volkswagen Beetle and hubcap inaccuracies, it’s a must see scene for any car enthusiast.
In conclusion, a rather cumbersome and dark detective drama overbears the chase scene into a rather disappointing viewing experience. I think Bullitt actually could be done justice with a cleaned up and modernized remake featuring Daniel Craig on lead showcasing a 2019 Mustang Bullitt and a Hellcat Charger on the streets of San Fran.
Movie: This tangled story gets a C for it’s unnecessary filler and lack of dialogue despite a strong plot and interesting twists.
Car Movie: Also the receiving end of a C as they are not the focus of the movie despite having a long chase scene.
I’ve seen Bullitt a fair number of times. Outside of the chase, it’s really nothing special. In fact, I find it rather dull and quiet. I like a good slow burning movie, but this one has little substance to make up for it, besides Steve McQueen’s rabid cool factor and of course that chase. I’d give it a resounding 5/10.
The notoriety of the Bullitt car chase has had two related negative effects. The first, as noted above, is a warping of expectations. The second is a warping of those who tend to watch the film, of which your inaugural review is a perfect example. Because of a single sequence in the movie, you are devoting the entire film to close inspection from the point of view of automotive nerdery, with what will almost certainly be predictable results.
There are very few movies in the history of film which have become more distorted because of a single sequence. I refer of course to the car chase, for which Bullitt is rightly and widely known. Yes, it was ground-breaking in its day, but it was also unique because it was of-a-piece not only with the plotting, but the main character. In very few films that are grounded in physical realism is an action sequence so perfectly and seamlessly motivated.
For the average Jalopper, the majority of the film will almost certainly be seen as a bore because it does not feature car worship and car chases. For the average smartphone-obsessed millennial the majority of the film will almost certainly be seen as a bore because it does not feature the ceaseless quick cutting that keeps the ADD-afflicted glued to whatever screen they happen to be viewing at the time.
For those who have a slightly larger wheelhouse for art, Bullitt is a tour de force of storytelling, with elements of both Japanese and French cinema woven into the plot, the characters, and the direction. At its most basic, the entire movie is a chase, with three action sequences: the chase in the hospital, the chase across San Francisco, and the chase in the airport.
Minimalism is also a key element in the film, from the dialogue to the camera work to the physical movement of the actors, all of which helps the action sequences stand out by contrast in their intensity. From a historical perspective it is also a fascinating look back in time, and one of the things your readers may enjoy most is checking out the other vehicles on the streets. (Even Robert Duvall’s cab has its own starring role in a way.)
Bullitt is an easy movie to dismiss, and an easy movie to underestimate. For surety and coherence of craft, however, you will find fewer movies that are constructed as tightly. If it’s not your cup of 40-weight, that’s fine. If you think it wasn’t well made or doesn’t hold up, you are objectively wrong.
Scouting for Zen:
That being said, I grew to appreciate Chalmers a bit. As a kind of secondary antagonist, he resembles someone I’d find annoying and reprehensible, attempting to grab power while ostensibly doing something good; in other words, a Congressman. He’s one of the most realistic people in this movie.
While there are some great aspects of Bullitt—the music, the lack of music in some scenes (such as when the heart monitor flatlines) the interesting camera angles used in and around the taxi cab scenes, the chase scene (obvi) and how the Charger is presented as this larger-than-life menacing beast beforehand, some of the great scenery cars (Austin-Healey 3000, and the 50s Bentley), and the ending shots of the movie when Bullitt comes back to his apartment—I just don’t think it’s that great of a movie.
Some of the dialogue serves no obvious purpose, with the bit with the ambulance door coming immediately to mind, and beyond the chase scene, there doesn’t really seem to be any dramatic tension. Seeing the officer in the hospital: that entire scene, I know logically I should be worried about his chances at living, but emotionally I don’t care enough about the characters, and nothing about how the scene is staged really makes me. Once the movie gets into the actual police investigation, it perks up a bit, to be fair. But even then, I struggle to really care about the characters. When Bullitt and his girlfriend are by the river, I understand that cops have difficult jobs, but I don’t know enough about Bullitt or what he’s seen to make the ‘violence and death’ line resonate or feel cutting.
But in the end, I think the movie is best summed up by its airplane scenes. Great attempts to capture realism, with interesting cinematography, but ultimately boring.
Bullitt is definitely a movie for a different time. While it is considered one of the “400 Greatest American Films” I can see why many say it’s, “Boring as Hell”. The pacing is slow, it’s almost nothing but dialogue and the storyline can be hard to follow at times. I remember when I was in high school, just getting into film and also after buying my first car, a 2002 Mustang Gt, I sat myself down to watch this incredible piece I had heard about all the way through. After 10 minutes, I fast forwarded to the chase scene and then went to watch something else.
Now that about a decade has passed and that I’m actually involved in Video and production for a living, my appreciation for this movie is actually very high. What we see is lieutenant Bullitt having his own gritty world become involved with the shady world of politics (not much different from today’s world) and having to make his own way to get to the bottom of who killed Chalmer’s witness, even with pushback from Chalmers.
Nowadays movies including themes with cops who “don’t play by the book” is a worn out subject matter. It’s just been done so much to the point of being a cliché which might art do the fact that people don’t enjoy this one.
The beauty of Bullitt is it’s a film you have to invest in, it is in fact telling a story, one deeper than the surface. It’s Frank Bullitt’s story of how far and how mixed up in this sewer of violence he’ll go to get the job done, and how numb he is becoming to it all.
There are numerous goofs in the movie for sure. For example in the car chase, as the challenger goes down a hill, it hits the corner of a parked vehicle. Blink and you’ll miss it, but there’s a 1 second cut that tries to edit that out. It’s actually kind of humorous when you catch it. But I feel that it’s things like that, that give this movie heart.
In today’s films it seems like no one wants to invest in a story anymore. We want to be dazzled by CGI soup and get tickled by movies that have terrible storylines but have really catchy songs. Bullitt is a film that needs your invested attention, but when you really sit down and analyze it, it’s something great.
And that wraps it up for our first ever Jalopnik Movie Club review! Thank you to everyone who wrote in with their takes, which I encourage you all to do for next week!
Speaking of next week, we’ll be reviewing the original 1969 The Italian Job, so be sure to get it watched and collect your thoughts, and write in with your opinions and hot takes to justin at jalopnik dot com, formatted like this:
Subject: Jalopnik Movie Club
Body: [Your Kinja username if you have one!]
[Your hot movie take!]
[A movie suggestion for a future review!]
In the meantime, sound off below about the good and bad of Bullitt and Steve McQueen, and see you all next week!