It was not of course the first movie to feature a car chase but it was the first to have a car chase as its centrepiece and its main selling point. It marks a crucial step in the development of the modern action movie. It was the first Hollywood cop movie to be done in an uncompromising gritty and realistic style. It was also unusual for its time in being shot entirely on location.
It’s also the ultimate Steve McQueen movie. If you want to know why McQueen was a very big deal this is the film you need to watch.
Acting as bodyguard for Ross turns out not to be so simple. In fact it all starts to go very wrong. Bullitt has the suspicion that it may have been a setup but untangling the details is going to mean putting his career on the line.
Robert Vaughn gives the performance of his career as Chalmers. Chalmers is evil but it’s not a melodrama villain sort of evil. This is the evil of men who take short cuts, who start making compromises and then can’t stop, who cannot resist the siren song of ambition. Vaughn, like McQueen, deliberately underplays his rôle and the quiet intensity of these two men who despise each other gives the movie its edge.
There are great supporting performances from Don Gordon as Bullitt’s sergeant, Delgetti, and Simon Oakland as his boss, Captain Bennet. Bennet has his own career to consider but he’ll back Bullitt as far as he dares.
The location shooting is quite superb. The hospital proves to be an incredibly effective location, as does the airport. The action finale at the airport is perhaps even better than the famous car chase.
As for the car chase, I love the way it starts very low-key with Bullitt just shadowing the bad guys’ car with the music building up the tension then as soon as the chase itself starts the music stops. The engine sounds are the only soundtrack needed for the chase.
The famous car chase was not filmed, as you might expect, by the second unit. Peter Yates wanted to direct it himself and of course since much of the stunt driving was being done by the star it was a logical enough decision. Maybe later movie car chases are more spectacular but this one still holds up pretty well.
The Special Edition DVD includes plenty of extras. Peter Yates provides an extremely informative audio commentary, there’s a documentary on McQueen and one on film editing plus a contemporary featurette on the making of the movie.
Bullitt redefined the action cop thriller so it has considerable historical importance. It doesn't feel at all dated and it’s great entertainment. Highly recommended.