As of this writing, Furious 7 has grossed nearly $400 million worldwide within a week of its release, and has become the best-reviewed movie in its franchise. It draws its success from several places: Paul Walker’s death, the franchise’s evolution, the widespread critical praise, and so on.
But we’d need to go far, far back to understand why a movie like Furious 7 can exist in the first place. Just as there’d be no The Walking Dead without Night of the Living Dead, The Fast and the Furious would never come to be if it were not for Steve McQueen and a healthy dose of American muscle in the 1968 classic Bullitt.
I just had to watch Bullitt this week – not just because of the Furious 7 tie-in, but because it’s one of many movies on my must-watch list, provided to me by screenwriter and USC professor Frank McAdams.
McQueen was one of the biggest stars of his day – in 1974, he commanded a higher salary than any other actor in the world, and his popularity had soared to astronomical heights. Almost anything he touched became an instant collector’s item, and his memorabilia fetches absurdly high prices; just ask the guys from Pawn Stars. McQueen was just so damn cool back in the day that his rugged face and steel-blue eyes have been permanently etched into our collective American consciousness. Bullitt is a cornerstone of McQueen's legacy.
San Francisco cop Frank Bullitt (McQueen) is personally requested to protect Johnny Ross (Pat Renella), a crucial witness slated to speak at a a high-profile Senate hearing. Politician Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn) chooses Bullitt for his gutsiness that has made him famous in the city. McQueen was born to play the role; just as rough and rugged as Bullitt, McQueen was the only correct choice to play the top cop.
Bullitt and his colleagues, Sergeant Delgetti (Don Gordon) and Detective Carl Stanton (Carl Reindel), place Ross in a hotel of their choice. However, two hitmen break into their room and open fire, critically wounding Ross and Stanton. This is just one of few moments in the movie where blood is shed, but it’s the perfect balance of action movie mythology with violent realism. Even compared to modern movies, the blood on Bullitt’s silver screen runs a deep red.
Bullitt thwarts a second assassination attempt while Ross and Stanton are still hospitalized, and he must then get to the bottom of the case, aided by a cab driver (Robert Duvall). Only then does Bullitt play his full hand and we finally revel in pure, unadulterated McQueen-ism. As cool and badass as ever, McQueen’s performance as Bullitt is one of his finest.
Beyond the King of Cool himself, Bullitt has its apex in its car chase scene, which is perhaps the most influential and famous in cinematic history. The hitmen drive in a black ‘68 Dodge Charger R/T and Bullitt chases after them, riding a green ‘68 Ford Mustang GT.
The thrilling, roaring chase epitomized everything great about McQueen, cool cars, and action movies; it also distinguished the San Francisco car chase scene from any other kind. Only McQueen could pull it off with a special kind of poetic masculinity.
Yet McQueen also owes a great deal to Frank P. Keller, whose masterfully sharp editing captures the heated pace of the car chase. At the same time, Keller’s dexterity allows him to carefully navigate the movie’s tender, more nuanced moments – especially those involving Bullitt’s girlfriend, Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset). The Academy Award Keller won for his work in Bullitt is a testament to its immediate impact and lasting influence on the audience and on popular culture.
Admittedly, compared to even today’s tamest action movies, Bullitt now feels to go along at a relaxed pace, relatively speaking. Even so, the movie has aged incredibly well, not losing an ounce of its old-school charm in today's world of schizophrenic action movie editing.
What could be said about the chase scene equally applies to the entire movie: iconic, influential, and immortal. What we have in Bullitt is the rare occasion where everything – star power, writing, cinematography, direction, editing – coalesces into a harmonious whole. Because of this, Bullitt still has as much punch today as it did all the way back in 1968. And were it not for that punch, the testosterone-packed, gasoline-powered action flick as we know it would have been nowhere to be found.
Written by Alan Trustman and Harry Kleiner. Directed by Peter Yates.
Starring Steve McQueen, Jacqueline Bisset, Robert Vaughn, and Robert Duvall.