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BULLITT(director: Peter Yates; screenwriters: Harry Kleiner/Alan R. Trustman/from book by Robert Pike “Mute Witness”; cinematographer: William A. Fraker; editor: Frank Keller; cast: Steve McQueen (Frank Bullitt), Robert Vaughn (Chalmers), Jacqueline Bisset (Cathy), Robert Duvall (Weissberg, Cabbie), Don Gordon (Delgetti), Simon Oakland (Capt. Bennett), Norman Fell (Baker), Carl Reindel (Det. Sgt. Stanton), George Stanford Brown (Dr. Willard), Pat Renella (Johnny Ross), John Aprea (Hit Man), Felice Orlandi (Arthur Rennick); Runtime: 115; Warner Bros.; 1968)
“It will always be remembered by film buffs as the forerunner of the modern cop thriller.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A well-executed work of trash. This explosive actioner is set in San Francisco and mainly involves the conflict of an honest, hard-nosed police lieutenant, Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen), and a slimy, ambitious politico prosecutor named Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn). The film is hardly believable — filled with clich√© villains and even the antihero cop McQueen plays, is nothing short of being a stock character. The real star in this film is the Ford Mustang Steve McQueen drives in the film’s memorable 12 minute chase scene through the hilly streets of San Francisco. It took this scene two weeks to shoot and was not originally part of the script, but becomes the essence of the film. There were two other long chase scenes, as the film was strong on chases but weak as far as dialogue and story line. The closing chase by foot in the airport is more typical for this kind of a ‘cops & robbers’ film. In its day “Bullitt” was noted for its revolutionary style of filmmaking using quick editing and going long stretches without dialogue; but looking back at the film in 2000, it plays more like a typical modern TV cop show than a feature movie. It won an Oscar for Frank Keller’s editing and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Sound.

Warning: spoilers throughout.

Bullitt is requested for a prestigious assignment by Chalmers because of his reputation as a reliable cop. He is asked to protect a key mobster witness until the date of the racketeering trial. By prosecuting these mobsters, Chalmers hopes he will catapult his name favorably in the public eye, as he vies for higher office. The assignment has been cleared by Bullitt’s burly, good-guy boss, Captain Bennett (Oakland). Johnnny Ross (Renella) is the mysterious witness. He is about to turn state evidence against the mob after stealing a few million from them and going on the run, with even his own brother trying to bring him down.

Ross is seen entering a Sunshine cab driven by Robert Duvall, who has a small part. He is able to help Bullitt out later on with some vital information he observed while driving the so-called Ross to his hideout spot.

When Chalmers tells Bullitt the hotel where he has Ross stashed away Bullitt’s detective team, made up of Sgt. Delgetti (Don Gordon) and Sgt. Stanton (Reindel), immediately guard him around-the-clock. On Stanton’s watch two hitmen burst into the hotel room as Ross unlocked the chain, and they pump the startled victim full of bullets using their Winchester shotguns. He is knocked clean off his bed and slumps down against the wall, while Stanton is on the floor bleeding profusely from his wounds. Somehow Ross is still alive when rushed to the hospital in critical condition. Stanton is also critically hurt, but is expected to live. It seemed unlikely that two professional hitmen would leave without making sure their intended victims were both dead…as the film managed to look phony despite its efforts to make the action scenes seem authentic.

In the hospital Chalmers goes into a fit and moves to get his own men to guard the dying Ross, accusing Bullitt of gross negligence. Meanwhile the white-haired, middle-age hit man (Aprea) returns to the hospital to finish off Ross but Bullitt spots him and we have a chase between the two, with the hit man vanishing into thin air. But the witness dies and Bullitt decides to take a risk and have no one know that he died, by arranging with the sympathetic doctor (Brown) on duty to have him shipped as a John Doe to the coroner. Chalmers becomes furious that he doesn’t know where his star witness is and hands out a writ to Bullitt’s boss to produce the witness and warns Bullitt that he will be brought up on charges if he doesn’t obey the writ.

But the catch here is that Ross hired a stand-in to pose as him, Arthur Rennick (Felice Orlandi). He was promised some money and a vacation with his wife in Rome and had been told that there would be someone coming to the hotel to let him escape from the cops. Instead, the hitmen silenced him in the hotel room and also killed his wife in her hotel room, as Ross’s plan is to escape the country by using Rennick’s passport.

When Bullitt figures this out he acts with moral indignation at the system and the film begins to have a routine look to it, and if it weren’t for that famous car chase of Bullitt pursuing the two hitmen this would be a routine film. Peter Yates, for the most part, directs this thriller’s action scenes very ably making most of the action scenes seem low-key and detached. The beautiful Jacqueline Bisset was around for decoration as McQueen’s main squeeze, in a wasted perfunctory role. Her only significant line in the film is when the artist inside her laments that her boyfriend has become so used to murder and seeing maimed bodies, that he doesn’t get emotional about it. The viewer is, of course, supposed to see this differently — that McQueen is the good cop we can trust. He’s only upset with the system and all the hacks in it that make his job impossible. His unorthodox drastic actions and violent reactions are supposed to be necessitated by the times we live in, that one shouldn’t just do things by the book if it means justice will not be served.

I really didn’t see too much in this film that was mind-bending even though it was critically acclaimed by many film critics at the time and was a commercial success, instead I found it to be an entertaining film in a crass way. It will always be remembered by film buffs as the forerunner of the modern cop thriller…an historical film that should still remain well-received today just for that, even though it is dated. There are also some who might like the film just for McQueen’s cool performance. Though I’m not a big fan of his, I still thought McQueen delivered a forceful and appealing performance.

REVIEWED ON 12/27/2000 GRADE: B-

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”