Welcome to San Francisco month, where I look at crime films from San Francisco, decade by decade, starting with the 1968 thriller, Bullitt. This film is a quintessential crime film for two reasons: the car chase, and Steve McQueen.
There isn’t much going for this movie besides McQueen, the car chase, a bitchin’ jazz score, and top notch blood effects. This Peter Yates directed flick is fairly slow and simple. It follows Lieutenant Frank Bullitt (who doesn’t play by The Man’s rules) as he tries to protect a key witness in an investigation, and take down mobsters that are in his way. The sixties and seventies were full of silent no nonsense protagonists and Bullitt is a prime example. McQueen plays this character as silent and straightforward as possible, but it works. Bullit is a seriously cool guy, and I root for him. He doesn’t need to say much because the situations he’s placed in don’t call for conversation.
I said this movie was simple, and yet I had no idea what was going on for the first ten minutes. Bullitt starts with a sweet opening, full of great atmosphere, harsh lighting, a great use of titles, and dramatic expressions. A lot happens during these opening ten minutes but it’s impossible to understand why until Bullitt’s boss/nemesis assigns him a job and tells him what the deal is. These first ten minutes are confusing, but after that the film becomes full of long, expository scenes that explain everything. I’m all for showing procedure in a police procedural, but when every scene spends a good ten minutes going into every detail my mind starts to wander. These scenes always end with something exciting or interesting, but at times, the wait can be painful.
Many scenes are long, but generally, they serve a purpose. The scenes with Bullitt’s girlfriend are the exception. I don’t find anything interesting about her (besides that sexy figure and british accent); she doesn’t help the investigation, or even develop Bullitt as a character. Cutting her scenes out would have helped the pacing of this film, which is its main problem. The story is simple, but it takes a long time for each plot point to play out. There aren’t many twists and turns in the investigation, and when there are, there isn’t a lot of time spent focusing on them. The dialogue is raw and stripped down, which is good for this kind of film, but the reality is that most characters don’t say anything interesting. The best moments of the film are the quiet moments that let the character’s actions do the talking.
The best part of this film is the amazing car chase about halfway through the movie. It is widely considered one of the best car chases of all time, and for good reason. The cars driven are badass, Mcqueen (the badass that he is) did his own stunts, and the entire scene remains tense throughout. San Francisco as a setting really shines in this scene. The steep streets make great terrain to up the ante of the chase, and the wide freeway works well to change things up. This scene is worth the price of admission.
Another very impressive aspect of this film is the blood effects. These are some of the most realistic, and brutal blood effects I have seen, especially in the 60s flick where most movie blood looks like red paint. The murders in this film are effectively grizzly and realistic.
Another highlight is the climax that takes place at the SF airport. It’s a great chase scene that uses its setting effectively. It also looks like it inspired the Airport chase scenes in Heat, and Casino Royale.
This is a decent San Francisco crime film. It has many recognizable wide angle shots of downtown SF, and a great car chase in Bernal Heights. Many of the interiors are sets, but any San Franciscan can recognize some of their favorite spots and appreciate the effort to best represent the city. Watch this film for the great lead performance, a stunning car chase and some sweet gore effects.
Favorite Scene: The car chase, what else could it be?
Written by Tyler Ducheneaux
Images from Bullitt