I distinctly remember going to a Talkin’ Loud night at The Fridge in Brixton in the early 90s dressed as Frank Bullitt. I had grey flannel trousers on, Sanders ‘Hi Tops’ (though the ‘spotters’ it is said McQueen wore the brand Hutton in the film), a navy blue roll neck and a brown herringbone jacket, picked up second-hand and complete with geography teacher leather elbow patches.
You may feel that remembering that amount of detail somewhat odd. But if nothing else it shows the amount of influence the film ‘Bullitt’ had on me. I must have watched it 50 times or so in one year, the very year when I was going through a serious Steve McQueen phase.
McQueen of course played my sartorial hero Frank in the 1968 film. I had collected as many of McQueen’s other films as I could by then, including lesser known gems such ‘Junior Bonner,’ ‘The Sand Pebbles’ and ‘Love with a Proper Stranger,’ (He had without doubt the best haircut in a film EVER) as well as the classics, ‘The Thomas Crown Affair,’ ‘The Cincinnati Kid’ and my then current obsession ‘Bullitt.’
In it, our man Steve once again plays the strong silent ‘King of Cool’ type, with a fine taste in clobber.
It also came with a fine supporting cast, with Robert Vaughan as the slimy ambitious politician ‘Walter Chalmers’ and Jacqueline Bisset as Frank’s love interest ‘Cathy.’ Minor roles were secured by long time McQueen friend Don Gordon as ‘Delgeti and it features an early appearance from Robert Duvall as a taxi driver.
The film also had a fine soundtrack from the one and only Lalo Schifrin, which was never a bad thing. As I can hear some of you asking ‘who is on the flute on that?’ I’ll tell you, its Bud Shank and the jazz quartet in the restaurant scene, where McQueen nearly loses an eye to a stray menu (I did tell you I have watched this film a few times) were called Meridan West, personally selected to appear in the film by McQueen.
Britain’s Peter Yates took the directorial chair and the story was based on the book ‘Mute Witness’ by Robert L. Pike. The budget was near $6 million and it went on to take $45 million at the box office. Such was the popularity of McQueen at the time.
The main plot involves Chalmers, selfish to his Ivy League loafers, proudly boasting that he will reveal a sensational witness in an upcoming committal hearing on organised crime. That witness turns out to be one Johnny Ross and no nonsense Frank Bullitt – who was based on a real life detective Dave Toschi – is put in charge of protecting him until show time.
However, hitmen using the name of Chalmers gain entrance to Ross’s hotel hideout and brutally shoot him. Bullitt then hides the badly injured Ross while he works out what is going on. Ross however dies of his wounds.
‘Look, Chalmers, let’s understand each other… I don’t like you…’
‘Come on, now. Don’t be naive, Lieutenant. We both know how careers are made. Integrity is something you sell the public.’
Bullitt then proceeds to unravel the case with the help of his super cool informant Eddy, and finds out that Ross is the number one target for the Chicago mob, after he was found with his sticky fingers in their till.
As a result of Frank knowing this, the hitmen then target Bullitt in what is perhaps the finest car chase ever put on screen; it is certainly the most memorable for this correspondent. A Dodge Charger chases down a Bullit’s Mustang, with McQueen driving for real in the close ups, with the rest being handled by stunt drivers, including Bud Ekins, a long time pal of McQueen’s and the guy who actually performed the barb wire motor cycle jump in the film ‘The Great Escape.’
As I write this, I can still hear the engine roar of the Mustang from the 11 minute scene. The hitmen come a cropper, as Bullitt switches the chase onto them, with this all set against the real backdrop of the streets of San Francisco. Superb editing on show here, which was duly noted by the Oscar won later by the editor on the film, Frank P. Keller
Bullitt finally discovers that the Johnny Ross shot in the hotel room is in fact a look-a-like named Albert Renick, who was used by Ross to cover up his own planned escape from the mob.
Ross books himself on a flight out of the US that night. Bullitt learns of that just in time and stops the plane from leaving. A gunfight and chase across the runways, all in between the departing and landing planes ensues. Frank gets his man and kills Ross, leaving the ambitious Chalmers empty handed.
So, from its sensational opening titles by Pablo Ferrer Films,to its inspired use of real locations, to the costume design of Theadora Von Runkle, Bullitt for me, has the lot.
It is certainly in my top twenty films of all time.
The Mumper of SE5