Following Peter Yates recent death, it is fitting that Bullitt should be the next choice on my Writer Recommends series. Having seen Yates’s feature film debut, Robbery, and it’s use of real locations and real time car chases to add authenticity to the action, Steve McQueen selected him as the director to take his cop movie to another level. McQueen had been reluctant to make a cop movie because he had recognised the world was changing and had become more anti-establishment throughout the 1960’s. Nonetheless, the novel Mute Witness and its main protagonist Frank Bullitt and his air of anti-establishment ethos within the police department, won him round.
Following the death of his witness in police protection whilst awaiting the trial of a mafia don, Bullitt sets about tracing the killers back to their boss. Due to the death being in police custody, Bullitt is reluctant to trust his superiors and so begins a race against time to solve the crime before they realise his main witness is dead.
It’s easy to see what drew McQueen to this role, as it has Bullitt as a guy who has a heightened sense of justice and will follow that through to the bitter end, no matter what departmental bureaucracy stands in his way. McQueen was generally a smart cookie when it came to career choices and he seemed to know his audience well. And he knew that, in playing a cop, he may alienate a younger, more subversive, counter-culture audience (one that he felt he belonged in); but playing a cop that broke the rules to do the right thing would be a cop that the audience could relate, and even aspire, to.
With Yates at the helm, the film immerses itself in the life of a cop: the gritty realism of the crimes; the frustrating bureaucracy; the times when the job seems very distant, but is always lurking in the background. Bullitt, is probably most famous for the hair-raising car chase rampaging through the streets of San Francisco and it is the stand out sequence in the film. Having driven in San Francisco myself, I can vouch for how scary it is to go over the summit of those famous streets at normal speed; let alone the speeds McQueen et al tolerate.
It’s fair to say that Bullitt helped pave the way for Dirty Harry and the numerous “rogue cop” movies that have appeared since. I, personally, find the plot a little humdrum, but with the stylish direction of Yates and the easy cool of McQueen, it’s a movie that endures.
Further Peter Yates viewing:
Robbery (1967): Put Yates on the map: Features excellent locations and action sequences in a dramatic re-imagining of the infamous great train robbery.
The Hot Rock (1972): Fantastic crime-caper, penned by William Goldman, featuring George Segal and Robert Redford as crooks on the trail of a huge diamond.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973): Robert Mitchum is given the opportunity to show his acting chops in this gritty urban drama of small time crooks.
Breaking Away (1979): Oscar winning drama of a group of friends coming of age in small town America.
Krull (1983): Epic fantasy adventure of 80’s nostalgia. Bernard Bresslaw’s finest hour this side of Hawk The Slayer?
Suspect (1987): Surprisingly gripping crime drama with Cher, Dennis Quaid and Liam Neeson.
An Innocent Man (1989): A guilty pleasure. Any Magnum fan willing Tom Selleck to make it as a leading man will not be disappointed in this prison thriller.