Peter Yates’ slick direction is the cornerstone for Bullitt and all the action it entails. While the eponymous police officer does not feel sluggish or sound disgruntled, he certainly looks out of his element. There is a flicker of worry behind the eyes of Lieutenant Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen). All action heroes are flawed, and whether they show it or not makes no difference to the reality they find themselves in. Mobsters and senators butt heads, with Bullitt in the middle of it all. He is scared. More often than not he is terrified of playing into the hands of the losing side, and McQueen lets that guilty weakness show more than once throughout this feature.
Human error plays its part in the larger-than-life personalities that butt heads here. McQueen was an adept action star, but his work in Bullitt is not just his finest, but his most exceptionally grounded. Helping that exponentially is the utilisation of real areas and buildings, rather than sets and sound stages. Yates adapts his camera around the awkward support beams and cluttered desks, which give a lively and natural backdrop to these tense, no-nonsense characters. Busy restaurants and odd, iconography-catching cafes set the scene with a natural beauty that simply wouldn’t be possible if built from scratch and for purpose of a feature film. These moments are integral to building up the moments that do skirt away from reality. The car chases and supremely recognisable Ford Mustang are centre stage as McQueen burns rubber and fires through chase scenes.
They are the most engaging parts of the film. For all the detail and effort that Yates puts into his setting and the sounds that surround them, there is no greater moment within Bullitt than its car chase. A scene where a jazz band play comes close, the crashing variety of instruments pull together and fade into a scene of silent reflection from Bullitt. Another scene dedicating itself to showing just how overwhelmed Bullitt is. He is a man without sleep or satisfaction, and McQueen embodies that so well. His movement is methodical and slow, not just in the mundane actions of placing a phone on the receiver, but in his work as well. Bullitt represents that age-old blur between good cop and bad cop. McQueen embodies it so well, and with such fragility, that Bullitt stirs its finest moments not just through car chases, but through intense dialogue, delivered with a solemnity that understands the dire situation that surrounds these men. McQueen in the back on an ambulance questioning a dying witness has a potency to it because we can feel the grief Bullitt feels.
That is the intensity Yates hopes to bring to the screen, and he succeeds with such hard work. McQueen may embody the antihero styling, but it is almost impossible not to feel sorry for the man here. He is the man who lingers on death’s door, watching slightly out of frame as doctors operate on men vital to his investigation. He is glum, tired and stressed. Aren’t we all? That may be the trick to Bullitt. Here is an everyman who just so happens to be an officer of the law. He is not the indestructible action star that hypermasculinity would usher in on a wave of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s or Sylvester Stallone’s, but a man with problems that are put to the back of his mind as he hunts down danger.