I don’t remember the first time I saw BULLITT.
It certainly wasn’t on its original release. I was around in 1968 but the film was an X Certificate and so, as a mere stripling of 12, I wouldn’t be able to get in. It was reclassified in 1970 when the new AA certificate was introduced, so I would’ve seen it sometime after that.
It was, for its day, a tough thriller. There was blood and it spurted. There was menace and it oozed. And there was THAT car chase, and boy did it roar, culminating in a fiery explosion and a shot of two bodies being barbecued. It’s okay – they were bad guys.
And then there’s Steve McQueen. It’s often said that he was the king of cool. And he IS super cool in this film. He was a tortured fella in real life but you wouldn’t know that on film. All that reaches out from the celluloid is his ability to make you believe everything he’s doing. It was evident in ‘The Magnificent Seven’ when he shook those shotgun cartridges. God knows what he was supposed to be doing but it looked right.
And in ‘The Sand Pebbles’, in which he played a maritime engineer keeping a rusting old tub afloat, you believed he knew what every single cog and valve did. In fact, he probably did!
And then he got behind the wheel of that Mustang and took to the streets of San Francisco as no one had done before. And it was him, most of the time, much to his wife’s horror. And the insurance company’s irritable bowels.
Claims have been made that Ryan Gosling has inherited McQueen’s king of cool mantle. However, good though he is, I don’t see it. The comparison was made on the release of the film ‘Drive’ (a decent thriller but over rated) yet when I saw him working on the engine of the car I didn’t get the same feeling that he knew what he was doing.
But with Frank Bullitt, McQueen took cool to a whole new level. And then he made ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’ and kicked it up another notch.
I’m not a fan of things being ‘cool’ as a rule, because it generally just means its something the trendies like and, anyway, it’s more often than not forced or manufactured.
With McQueen it seemed natural.
Of course, he was aided in the film by a jazzy, rhythmic score by Lalo Schifrin, the brilliant Robert Vaughn in full slime mode, Jacqueline Bissett adding some utterly breathtaking glamour, albeit in an under-written role, and assured direction from Brit Peter Yates.
There are even a few glimpses of Robert Duvall in a rear-view mirror.
I won’t try to explain the plot because, despite repeated viewings, I’m never terribly sure what the hell’s going on. There’s a witness against the mob, who is killed but it wasn’t really him and then the real witness turns out to be the guy that McQueen is hunting down and ends up chasing through the airport. I’m sure someone out there understands it. For me, though, it doesn’t matter. I simply revel in the look and the sound and the feel of the picture.
This is another film they should never remake because they would mess it up, even if they put Ryan Gosling in the title role. The appeal of the central character is that we know very little about his past but now they would feel it necessary to add something in – and so screw up the mystique.
They might also feel the need to add some pumped up music to the car chase. I’m a fan of movie music but Schifrin’s score ends just as the chase begins, rather than ramps up. After that all we have is the sound of the roaring engines and the changing gears – and it’s perfect.
Also, it has to be said that it is a film very much of its day and to update it would remove part of its cool credentials.
On the wall of my office I have an Italian poster for the film. McQueen rocks a dark polo neck and a shoulder holster (a touch he lifted from, Dave Toschi, the real life cop he shadowed before filming. Toschi later went on to hunt the Zodiac killer and was played by Mark Ruffalo.)
I wish some of that coolness would rub off on me but I guess it’ll never happen. McQueen had some of it in real life but he had bad stuff going on, too, and it’s that negative energy that gets in the way of true coolness, man.
And we all have bad stuff.
Thank God, then, for the magic of movies like BULLITT. At least for a couple of hours we can believe true coolness exists.