2018 Film Essays

‘Bullitt’ at 50: On Peter Yates’ Mastery of Visual Storytelling

Spectacular car chases, mob trickery, murder, conniving politicians, identity crisis and a strained romance — these are the captivating elements of Peter Yates’ Bullitt. Last month, TCM recognized the 50th anniversary of this quintessential Steve McQueen action film at the 2018 TCM Film Festival in Los Angeles, and I was excited to be among the fans waiting in line. What has made Bullitt such an amazing classic is Yates’ excellent visual storytelling, as he subtly addresses the social and political issues of 1968 America. Furthermore, it’s McQueen’s believable portrayal of Frank Bullitt that makes the film relevant today.

The introduction of Bullitt sets the tone for the entire movie, as Yates and cinematographer William A. Fraker waste no time dosing the viewer with kinetic energy and impactful visual language. Killers pose grimly in front of the camera. The lighting suddenly turns to black and white, as sinister undertones take hold. Fraker effectively captures the feeling of vicious intent written all over the men’s faces. This scene needs no narration to explain what will happen next or why these men are here. Precise comic book-like close-ups show a gas grenade one minute, then the camera smoothly transitions to display the face of Johnny Ross (Pat Renella). He throws a grenade and runs to meet his brother, Pete (Vic Tayback), in the parking lot. No talk occurs between the characters. Via their eye contact and facial expressions, a bond of brotherly love and trust appears to be evident. Johnny then drives off and the main plot begins. With this introductory scene, Yates establishes that Bullitt’s villain is a powerful mob figure worthy of star witness status.

This type of storytelling and framing is crucial throughout all of Bullitt, especially in revealing the personal character of the titular police detective whose assignment is to protect Johnny in San Francisco. At first glance, Bullitt appears to be the prototype for every typical law enforcement action hero that is to come. He only talks when it matters, has great one-liners and appears to be the consummate ladies’ man. However, it quickly becomes clear that there is more to Frank than meets the eye. He is a rebel, standing against the establishment in a variety of ways. Frank is awkwardly uncomfortable in elite social settings, preferring a beatnik jazz café over the pretentious gathering at the home of Senator Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn). He defies authority when he hides what he thinks is the body of the star mob witness from his superiors. Police work largely defines his life, evidenced by his early risings and TV dinners. Yates does his best to drive home that Bullitt is the real deal by having McQueen, himself, drive the Mustang in the car chases. To further enhance the film’s believability, Yates withheld several of the props (and their arrangement) from McQueen’s view in advance of film shooting, thereby yielding the actor’s spontaneous facial reactions.

There are several visual cues in Bullitt that further support this anti-establishment theme. First, the recurring newspaper headline, “Peace Talk and Flurry”, is an obvious reference to the 1968 youth movement. Additional allusions to the youth movement are the psychedelic and muscle car posters hanging on the wall of Frank’s apartment. Shortly after Chalmers commends Dr. Willard (Georg Stanford Brown) for his medical care of “Ross,” two-faced Chalmers demands the nursing supervisor to replace Willard, a young African American doctor, with another physician. This suggests that the established political system cannot be trusted. Yates complements this scene by next showing posters hanging in the hospital office that read, “When you’re not around” and “Suppose they gave a war and nobody came.” The first poster supports the notion that the establishment cannot be trusted, while the second is reflective of the youth rebellion against the Vietnam War, tying into Bullitt’s defiance of authority.

Matching Bullitt’s resistance to the norms of government and mainstream society is his reluctance to fully open himself to a loving relationship with his girlfriend, Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset). Bullitt confronts the reality of his existence and society in his interactions with Cathy. He stares in the mirror and recognizes that his work as a detective in a corrupt world of evil consumes him. He does not have a light-hearted, optimistic side to offer Cathy. In response to her questions about his work, Frank responds, “It’s not for you, baby.” When she gets a glimpse of his world, including a gruesome crime scene, she realizes Frank is “living in a sewer.” Yates delivers the message that our chosen professions and work environments define who we really are. One cannot successfully live a dual existence. Love requires the joining of oneself to another person as well as that person’s job.

Alan Trustman and Harry Kleiner’s clever screenplay makes Bullitt engaging until the very end, generating an adrenaline rush through car chases and criminal pursuits. The interjection of the philosophical introspection amidst the fast-paced action is a winning combination and yields a memorable film that appeals to generations. The multi-faceted commitment to reality by Yates and McQueen is the reason that a 50-year-old film, without the benefit of modern special effects, remains a crowd-pleaser today, worthy of celebration.

Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture. 

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