Movie Night with Urbaniak: Bullitt

I’ve been on a bit of a Steve McQueen kick here at chez Wadpaw: a couple of weeks ago urbaniak and I watched the 1968 Thomas Crown Affair and the other night I finally got around to the 1958 Blob. free stats

One of the chief pleasures of The Blob is to watch Steve McQueen before he really became Steve McQueen. He’s still susceptible to direction, and tries to "help" scenes along by adding gestures and expressions for emphasis. Luckily, he learned to stop doing that really fast. The camera loves to look at him, and the less he does the more power he has as a performer. Urbaniak and I spent a portion of Bullitt comparing him to leading men of our time: who among our contemporaries possesses McQueen’s seemingly effortless magnetism and composure? Who today is as comfortable in his skin as McQueen is here?

I once made a movie with a very good leading man, and before we shot the movie, this actor went through the script and re-wrote every scene, giving himself more and more lines, taking lines away from everyone else so that he would "own" the movie. The result was a disaster; scenes went on way past their welcome and points were beaten mercilessly. McQueen famously took the opposite path: faced with a script, he demanded to have as many of his lines cut out entirely: he knew that a flicker of his blue eyes or the slightest twitch of his upper lip could convey more information than a page full of dialogue.

Think of the earnestly focused Tom Cruise, who is magnetic as the day is long but who always seems to be selling you something. Think of the brilliantly casual Brad Pitt, who bleeds charisma and rattles off wonderful lead performances full of subtle detail. Think of Matt Damon, or George Clooney, or Tom Hanks, big-time movie stars of great range and power. These are all great icons, utterly comfortable in front of the camera and capable of creating dozens of classic roles. But how many of them can simply be on camera and have the results be as compelling as Steve McQueen in Bullitt?

Film class can be a terrible thing. I’ve taken a number of them, and they did me no good at all. Film classes teach you everything about a movie: the direction, the acting, the special effects, the editing. They teach everything you might want to examine except the writing. They teach film from the top down instead of from the bottom up. And so film students end up with a lopsided, top-heavy understanding of what a movie is and why it works.

Bullitt is a perfect example. Bullitt is taught in film classes for its justly famous car chase (Urbaniak had never seen it before, and proclaimed it "the most visceral car chase I’ve ever seen"), as though there were not 70 minutes of narrative leading up to it and 40 more behind it. And so students are taught, by watching Bullitt in film class, how to shoot and cut an excitingchase sequence. This process makes for film students who grow up to be directors who shoot and cut wonderful action sequences that have nothing to do with the narratives they occur in, spectacles of motion and wit which are utterly devoid of meaning.

And so Bullitt was ruined for me for thirty years, thanks to the efforts of film teachers. When you are told "the important thing about Bullitt is this amazing car chase," you spend the first two acts of the movie sitting there wondering why this plodding police drama is so slow. The same thing happens with The French Connection and Ben-Hur; the great spectacles of the narratives are taught, but none of the drama holding them in place — which is where their power comes from.

Bullitt, as a police procedural or as a detective story, isn’t one for the record books. It’s not a tricky, high-stakes brain teaser like The Silence of the Lambs, it’s not a forceful, gimmick-laden stunt-fest like Die Hard, it’s not a reveal-filled masterpiece like Chinatown. It is, in the end, a simple character piece — the filmmakers want us to pause for a moment and think about the life of a police detective, where he stands in society, how he does his job, how the life effects him, and what is left for him at the end of the day.

Like its companion pieces The French Connection and The Seven-Ups (all produced and/or directed by Philip D’Antoni), Bullitt is about a policeman caught in an uncomfortable place. Bullitt just wants to do his job — catch the bad guy, do some good in the world, go home, make love to his beautiful English girlfriend. He’s caught between gangsters who are wealthier and better organized than the police and society folk who see law-enforcement as a stepping-stone to a political career. No one who affects Bullitt’s life sees any moral consequence in hunting down gangsters or keeping the streets safe, it’s all just a game, even the parts where you burst in the door and shotgun men to death.

Tonally, Bullitt is 1970s gritty realism before it had a name — or a decade, for that matter. Shot in real locations with long lenses that give it a flat, almost documentary look, often with "bad" lighting, it is, like its leading man, low-key and self-effacing. With McQueen at its center, the movie becomes about behavior, simply watching people perform specific tasks. There are very few inflected shots in the movie, mostly the director just wants to elegantly present the action, not tell you how to feel about it. This is how a pair of EMS workers gets a man in a stretcher out of a cramped elevator, this is how a team of doctors relates to one another during a tricky surgery, this is how a professional hitman goes about his business, this is how a canny detective turns the tables on his pursuers. With his contained, quiet, un-showy, utterly natural performance (Urbaniak calls him a "purely cinematic" actor — conceived and played for nothing but the camera), McQueen becomes cool by not calling attention to himself, but only through his precise, controlled actions. That is, his performance suggests a manhood qualified solely by the actions he performs, whether it’s listening to jazz, eating a sandwich over a counter, handling a car in a high-speed chase or watching an autopsy. We watch him act, and react, and we hope to posess some of his quiet dignity and moral rectitude.


27 Responses to “Movie Night with Urbaniak: Bullitt”
  1. thunder24 says:

    Steve McQueen is always been my man-crush. Who wouldn’t have like to have been Steve McQueen? And Bullitt is a great flick.

  2. perich says:

    When you are told “the important thing about Bullitt is this amazing car chase,” you spend the first two acts of the movie sitting there wondering why this plodding police drama is so slow. The same thing happens with The French Connection

    Indeed. The car chase in French Connection felt like a bit of an anticlimax. There are so many beautiful little touches in the movie up to that point – Popeye staking out, and losing, the crook; the two cops rousting a bar; all of it – and then the car chase.

    For my money, Ronin beats FC for nail-biting action. But what FC has going for it is tension. It’s not that there’s a lot of near misses – it’s that Popeye almost hits several people. It’s that he’s chasing an elevated train. It’s the circumstance, not any particular gem of editing or timing.

  3. richaje says:

    When I was growing up my father impressed upon me the Four Kings of Cool: Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery and Steve McQueen. These four have always defined what a movie star ought to be. Of course growing up in San Francisco made Bullit and the Dirty Harry Films especially cool. Magnificent Seven (which I actually enjoy more than the Seven Samurai), the Great Escape, Sand Pebbles, Thomas Crowne Affair, Bullit, Papillon… I mean those movies just rocked.

  4. pseydtonne says:

    My roommate showed me Bullitt for the first time last year. I couldn’t look away. It just grabbed me and won me: this is what every movie in the decade after it wanted to be but spent too much money trying to be instead of just being.

    Don’t forget Robert Duvall has a small part, before anyone knew he could own a film as strongly as McQueen.

    Damn, I love that movie. I was juiced to see it on sale in every DVD shop in France as if it were the Bible.

  5. sheherazahde says:

    “wonderful action sequences that have nothing to do with the narratives they occur in, spectacles of motion and wit which are utterly devoid of meaning.”

    That’s exactly how I felt about “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”. Only, I did say it was well as you did.

    • robjmiller says:

      Except that the action sequences in LEG were cartoonish and none of the actors were up to pulling them off. A better comparison would be Ronin, another film widely known for its incredible car chases (probably the best car chases of any movie I’ve ever seen) and written off by many as a lackluster De Niro vehicle (so, so wrong).

      Another would be Banlieue 13 (obviously doesn’t hold a candle to Ronin), a film created specifically to show off David Belle’s parkour chase scenes. The script is simple and the acting is poor (slightly better than a Van Damme flick), but the action sequences are so amazing that it became an international cult action hit. NBC’s Chuck even copied the first parkour chase scene for the pilot, practically a shot for shot recreation (although without David Belle it looked silly).

  6. zodmicrobe says:

    Also, for fans of this sort of thing: one of the best credit sequences EVER.

  7. seamusd says:

    I love that car chase scene–it’s a classic, what with the muscle cars and the hills of San Francisco. But I think it is usually over-rated, that other movies have more exciting chase scenes–think of “The French Connection” or even “What’s Up, Doc?” for two contemporaneous examples of car chases that are more heart-stopping, intricate, or longer.

    • Todd says:

      The chase in Bullitt is cited so often not because it’s the best necessarily, but because it was the first.

      I was fortunate enough to work on a movie with Bullitt‘s director, Peter Yates, and while we were working one day one of his friends stopped by and told me “You know, Peter is responsible for two great additions to the cinema: the car chase, and the wet t-shirt” — the article of clothing Jacqueline Bissett made famous in Yates’s The Deep.

  8. I was fortunate enough to a) see Bullitt for the first time at an impressionably young age and b) have a Film Studies teacher whose main point about the film was that it was a critique of cool — if you are as cool as Frank Bullitt, what is it you’re missing?
    Being cool is cool, but it’s not necessarily something you always want to be.

    I first saw Bullitt when I was about 10, and even more than the car chase (which I of course thought was the most amazing thing ever), the final shot of him at the sink has stuck with me ever since.

  9. voiceofisaac says:

    I haven’t seen Bullitt yet, but I will make an effort to find it as soon as possible now, thanks to you.

    I have a question for you, though. How would you compare McQueen’s THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR with Pierce Brosnan’s remake? I find myself comparing both the two actor’s specific performances, but also comparing the larger movies to each other, beyond just the leading men.

    Is this a topic you’d be interested in?

    • Todd says:

      I actually think McQueen is miscast in his Thomas Crown Affair, and Brosnan is not. McQueen, although I’m sure was a very intelligent man, did not seem like a very educated man, and I have a hard time buying him as an arbitrageur. Brosnan, on the other hand, is brilliant in the part, much better than I would have expected him to be actually, and I also prefer the script to the remake, because it gives the female lead more time and makes for a stronger love story.

      Also, as sexy as Faye Dunaway is in the original, you get to actually see Renee Russo’s breasts in the remake, and that’s hard to top for me.

      Thomas Crown Affair is one of my favorite scripts ever, and one day soon I will analyze the scripts back-to-back.

      • voiceofisaac says:

        Interesting. I hadn’t thought about McQueen’s casting in that sense.

        One thing that I prefer about the remake is the Denis Leary character. He actually contributes something to the movie, and represents a credible choice for the Russo character. He never stands a chance against Brosnan for her affections, but he’s at least an interesting presence. As opposed to the original, where the third side of that triangle was a forgettable shlub played by Paul Burke as a walking cliche.

        Also, I have to hand it to the remake in one other respect that ties into your mention of Russo’s very nice body — that scene is the only good film example I can think of for believable, passionate, grudge sex.

        • Todd says:

          Denis Leary is, essentially, the audience in the Thomas Crown remake. He’s the moral center of the movie, and when he decides to let Crown off the hook, we let him off the hook too. He is, essentially, Frank Bullitt, an Irish-American detective with a crappy income who gets dicked around by rich people and has only his integrity to keep him company at the end of the day.

          • voiceofisaac says:

            Makes sense.

            “She keeps an apartment here. I keep GOLDFISH.”

            On a seperate note, the remake also does one other thing that I thought was an interesting twist on the Caper Movie style. Throughout the film, we’re given step-by-step instructions of how Crown pulls off his crimes. The special gear he has made. The reveal about the Monet’s location — it’s all spelled out for the audience. Pretty standard caper scripting.


            His final theft is different. The painting for Russo that he steals. The audience is never told how he pulled it off, and in the end, it doesn’t really matter, since she returns it to the museum anyway, so no harm done (so to speak). I thought it an interesting choice for the writer to add that last dash of mystery there. I would imagine that the point is to hammer home that Crown is just that much more of a Bad-Ass-Hoopy-Frood-That-Knows-Where-His-Towel-Is than we had known, and only at the very end did he call upon his true “magic”. That in the grand scheme, no one ever had a chance against him, that he truly had the game sewn up from the very beginning.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Would I be betraying youth and ignorance in nominating Daniel Craig as this generation’s Steve McQueen? Besides the uncanny physical resemblance, which Spielberg seemed to deliberately play up in Munich, he seems to have that same effortless presence and brooding, don’t-give-a-damn mystique.

    — N.A.

  11. ndgmtlcd says:

    “But how many of them can simply be on camera and have the results be as compelling as Steve McQueen in Bullitt?”

    Fernandel, Philippe Noiret, GĂ©rard Philippe.

  12. Alas I’ve only seen the chase scene from Bullitt…Former acquaintances of mine have shown me the car chase, saying how “awesome” it is (and it is quite spectacular, I must admit). I’m fairly sure they can’t appreciate the rest of the film which is why they never showed me it in it’s entirety. But thanks to you, I’m reminded to see it all as soon as possible.

  13. Anonymous says:

    So Todd, this is Kay Lauster aka Grant, mother of Robin Grant of Funambule days. You are still one of the funiest and most insightful people I have known. It’s funny you are bringing up Steve McQueen. I’m living in Prescott AZ now, where they filmed Junior Bonner, starring S. McQ. We just had a fundraiser for or local Access channel where they showed the film, the screenwriter was there to tell us stories of the filming, etc. Evidently S. McQ was the biggest box office draw at the time. Do you have any insights into that film or his performance in it?

    • Todd says:

      I’ve actually never seen Junior Bonner, or any of McQueen’s westerns for that matter — except The Magnificent Seven, which doesn’t really count.

      • Anonymous says:

        Junior Bonner

        “Junior Bonner” is really quite good. If you like Peckinpah & ’70’s film technique then check it out. It’s only technically a Western, as it is set in the 1970’s. I guess you could call it a classic western of the 1970’s. Definitely a genre workout.

        – Bob

  14. dougo says:

    I was going to say Harrison Ford, but now that I think of it, he does do a lot of mugging.

    Also, Heath Ledger. Sigh.

  15. With McQueen at its center, the movie becomes about behavior, simply watching people perform specific tasks.

    I think that is exactly the center of the movie. They pretty much announce it from the first shot. And why would they want to mess up all that McQueeny goodness with silly, overly complicated plot?

    I think is the problem with contemporary actors (beside most of them getting in their own way) is that there are few writers, directors or producers who have the faith in giving a movie the kind space that works so well for McQueen.
    Steve McQueen is like a redwood- he knows that just to stand there is enough to inspire awe. There are perhaps a few actors who could muster that still (Daniel Craig might be a good candidate or Viggo Mortensen) but fear of empty space is the cool killer here.

    • Anonymous says:


      Anybody see Viggo in “Appaloosa”? There’s a big-time weirdo movie star performance.

      – Bob

  16. Anonymous says:

    I watched Bullitt for the first time recently and you hit the nail on the head. Part of me was saying, gee, for such a famous movie, this is slow; where’s the chase scene? But a stronger part couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. Steve McQueen was special, even if he ran somewhat unathletically (shares that with Pierce Brosnan, btw; just watch his bond movies)