An all guts, no glory San Francisco cop becomes determined to find the underworld kingpin that killed the witness in his protection.
If the late,extremely great Steve McQueen ever played cops and robbers when he was growing up then it seems safe to assume that the Great Escape star was never to be found on the side of the rozzers. One of Hollywood's most defiantly anti-authoritarian figures, the actor delighted in breaking the law, be it smoking dope or exceeding the speed limit on his beloved bikes. Indeed, if there was ever an actor designed for the 60s then it was McQueen and by the time of Bullitt he had become, to all intents and purposes, the most highly-paid flower child in town. Even if that town happened to be hippie Mecca San Francisco.
"Steve would come up to me and say things like, 'Hey, you're a soul chick, and you go up to these dudes and, man, you really dig the scene,'" said his co-star Jacqueline Bisset. "I would think, What on Earth is he talking about?" In fact, given that the film required McQueen to play a Frisco policeman investigating the brutal murder of a witness about to testify against "the organisation", it seems somewhat surprising that he signed on for Bullitt at all. "I'd never felt easy around cops," he would later recall. "As a kid running the streets I'd been hassled a lot by the police and I'd always figured they were one side of the fence with me on the other." But Bullitt was the first production by his own company, Solar, and McQueen knew that the combination of his pulling power and the thriller genre stood an above average chance of setting the cash tills ringing. Moreover, when McQueen began hanging out with San Francisco's finest to research the role, he discovered that his erstwhile tormentors weren't quite as bad as he had imagined: "It was a real eye-opener. The guys I rode with were straight, honest guys with a mean job to do. They really won my respect." And, in turn, McQueen had wholeheartedly won theirs. "Steve's cops tested him," explained McQueen's co-star and friend Don Gordon. "They took him to the morgue. But he showed up eating an apple."
Yet, while Bullitt was for its time an incredibly realistic and at times quite gruelling policier, its initial success was in large part due to the film's 12-minute car chase in which McQueen's Detective Frank Bullitt chases a pair of mob hitmen across San Franicsco. Traditionally, such sequences had been filmed by second units but, for Bullitt, director Peter Yates himself took charge. A wise move, given that McQueen intended to perform his own stunts. The actor had previously been forced to admit that his The Great Escape motorbike leap, which most people assumed he had done himself, had actually been performed by stuntman Bud Ekins. It was an embarrassment that McQueen didn't want to repeat on Bullitt. At first, all went well. Then came a shot where McQueen was required to swing fast around a narrow side street, clip a stationary car, then peel away at breakneck speed.
"When I reached the corner I overcooked it completely and smashed right into the parked car," McQueen subsequently confessed. "Just wrote it off entirely and bounced into another one next to it. We'd got a lot more realism than we'd bargained for."
Following this incident McQueen's then-wife Neile begged Yates to start using stuntmen. Which is why the star reported for duty one morning only to discover Bud Ekins driving Bullitt's Mustang down the hill while wearing his character's jacket and sunglasses.
"McQueen was mad" said Ekins. "He said, 'You fucker, you're doing it to me again.'"
Despite such problems, the resulting sequence was a tour de force which, with Yates' superb eye for detail and McQueen's brooding presence, would help create one of the classic thrillers of all time. But, even though its chase, scene has been left in the proverbial dust by subsequent generations of filmmakers, Bullitt is still remembered as the film that broke new ground when it came to what could be done with two cars and a lot of burning tarmac.
Stlick, stylish and ineffably cool, this was perhaps McQueen's defining role. Also mention goes to the uncreditied star of the film; San Francisco.