For some of us 90s’ kids who grew up on a steady diet of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis and even Chuck Norris films – before realizing that Hollywood made films with other (and much better) actors too – the “give no shit, take no shit” cop character is someone who we all idolized and even dreamt of becoming someday, until adulthood took over and better sense prevailed.
And how did this happen? It happened when we discovered better, grittier films which showed us cop characters that were more convincing, were either flawed or not always victorious despite being good guys. Through films like Heat, Serpico, Prince of the City, The French Connection, Cop Land etc., we learned that not every cop character was as celebrated as John McClane was. Hell, even McClane had personal problems.
But what about these other guys who came much before him? If you look at the list of critically acclaimed police thrillers, William Friedkin’s The French Connection is arguably the most prominent and most discussed of them all. It was credited with doing something truly revolutionary with this genre. Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle character came with shades of gray – he was neither good nor bad and made questionable choices.
But before all that came Peter Yates’ seminal cop movie Bullitt, starring Steve McQueen as the eponymous character – a police lieutenant working in the San Francisco Police Department. There was nothing flawed about him. He was the ideal cop – stoic, classy, confident and determined. But every time this film comes up in discussions, most people remember its central, now iconic 10-min car chase more than anything else, which is quite unfair to the film, because there is so much else in it that needs to be appreciated as well.
First and foremost, let’s discuss McQueen: His character Frank Bullitt is the epitome of 60’s cool. Yates made good use of his larger-than-life persona and gave him one of his most iconic roles. It didn’t require him to do anything else other than being himself. He was born to play this role. His character served as the precursor to another iconic cop character, Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, who would make his appearance three years later. Both characters were based on Dave Toschi, the cop who was investigating the Zodiac murders. (Mark Ruffalo played him in David Fincher’s Zodiac.)
Now about the film’s style: Although its look may seem outdated now, it was fresh and innovative in the 60s, and you would appreciate the film more if you picture yourself as a viewer living in that time period. Right from its slick opening credits to the clinically precise editing in each frame to Lalo Schifrin’s jazzy score, everything about this film screamed ‘stylish’. Yates employed a “less is more” approach and while it works, for the most part, there are times when this dragged the film a bit and it is perhaps one of the reasons why, for some, the film hasn’t aged that well. But it’s definitely a film that I revisit at least once a year.
The famous car chase has influenced a lot of subsequent filmmakers, most notably Friedkin. He regards it as one of his favorite films and has spoken highly of it in several interviews. He said that while conceptualizing the car chase for The French Connection, he wanted to make sure that he wasn’t aping it, and came up with something entirely different – Hackman was going after an elevated train instead of another car. The chase in Bullitt – and The French Connection – aren’t flashy compared to today’s car chase and because of this, some might find it boring. But for me, it’s a relief from all the CGI-infested, seizure-inducing camerawork you mostly see these days.
The whole sequence is shot like a good sex scene, beginning with slow foreplay, then slow to vigorous thrusting, and finally ending with an “explosive” orgasm – all over in 10 minutes. The pleasure of it can be derived from the way it is filmed – neat framing of both interiors and exteriors, with Yates putting the viewers in the POVs of both McQueen and the killers. This gave you the feeling of being inside the cars, or, at least, playing a video game. Stuntman Bill Hickman played one of the killers and also starred in producer’s Philip D’Antoni’s The French Connection and its quasi-sequel The Seven-Ups.
The impact of Bullitt doesn’t just end there. I noticed traces of its DNA in Michael Mann’s Heat and the recent James Bond film Casino Royale. There is a long foot chase in the end of Bullitt where McQueen chases a bad guy through an airport, just as how Al Pacino pursues Robert De Niro in the end of Heat. And the airport truck chase in Casino Royale is presumably a nod to it as well. Also, I bet Mann got the inspiration to write the turbulent relationship Pacino’s character has with his wife from a scene in Bullitt where Jacqueline Bisset expresses her concerns about his dangerous profession getting in the way of their relationship.