A Cop That Doesn't Bite: 'Bullitt' Review

Updated on October 15, 2018


San Francisco police lieutenant Frank Bullitt has his hands full with a witness protection assignment in the 1968 movie Bullitt. Bullitt (Steve McQueen) has the lead role in providing around-the-clock protection to a mobster set to testify about illegal activity in The Organization, and had taken $2 million of their money as well. This man fled Chicago before The Organization had a chance to kill him. He had presented his evidence of illegal activity to local politician Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn), who in turn took this report to a Senate subcommittee. They have arranged to hear what this mobster on the lam has to say, but he has to stay out of sight at a nearby hotel. The mob still manages to learn where he is, and visit, claiming to be Chalmers and an associate. They ambush the cop and the witness, who soon dies from his wounds at the hospital.

Bullitt works with attending physician Dr. Willard (Georg Sanford Brown) to conceal the death from Chalmers, who made a scene in the ICU before his witness died. Chalmers also promises to hold Bullitt responsible for the breakdown in protection. Telling Chalmers his man has been moved to a more secure location, Bullitt works with his partner, Delgetti (Don Gordon) to retrace the witness's steps before he checked into the hotel. They follow the trail the witness left and discover some things they didn't expect. Bullitt also finds that the hit men have him in their sights.


Bullitt is best known for its exciting car chase between Frank Bullitt and the mobsters who don't care for the lieutenant's snooping. That conflict leads to a stellar showdown between Bullitt in his Ford Mustang and the hit men in their Dodge Charger. The rest of the film, however, is a fairly standard police procedural based on the novel Mute Witness by Robert L. Fish. It's not that the story isn't good. It just takes a back seat to the key action sequence of the movie, which helped to win Frank P. Keller an Oscar for his editing. It's one of the more noteworthy films of director Peter Yates, who worked in auto racing before turning his focus to film. This movie plays like a grittier version of Dragnet. Joe Friday, though, never had such a hot car, uttered pejorative language, or encountered any problems with politicians concerned with their own agenda. Bullitt, like Friday, is a plain-talking cop whose tone almost never changes.

McQueen, though, is a tough and smart cop who sees through the stories people try and tell him. For example, he knows the night desk clerk is withholding on him with regards to the hit men. He makes sure the clerk knows that telling the truth would be beneficial to himself and the hotel. While he doesn't let his feelings show on duty, Bullitt finds himself needing to explain his career to his girlfriend, Cathy (Jacqueiine Bisset) as he finds himself under pressure to get answers. Vaughn also shines as the pushy and ambitious Chalmers, who thinks he should have enough sway to affect Bullitt's job. In one scene, viewers get to see a bumper sticker on the back of his chauffeur-driven limousine that belies the way he treats Bullitt. Besides the actors already mentioned, others who add solid support include Norman Fell and Simon Oakland as superiors of Bullitt, and Robert Duvall as a cab driver who retraces the witness's rounds for Bullitt.


Bullitt, which is now a part of the National Film Registry, helped to set the stage for movies that followed with their elaborate chase scenes and sporty cars. The procedural and car chase worked more effectively just a few years later in The French Connection, whose Oscars included both Best Editing and Best Picture. A funny tribute to the Bullitt scene appears in the final Dirty Harry movie, The Dead Pool. Great looking cars and elaborate chases have been a part of every Fast & Furious film. The Mustang and the Charger have built a legacy of being fast cars. Bullitt proudly shows what these cars could do, and recalls one of the better known works of an actor who left us far too soon.

On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Bullitt three stars. Don't mess with Frank.

Bullitt trailer

© 2018 Pat Mills


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