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Film / Bullitt

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"You work your side of the street, and I'll work mine."

Highly influential 1968 cop movie set in San Francisco. Steve McQueen stars as the eponymous Lt. Frank Bullitt, a TV dinner-eating, workaday Cowboy Cop (in fact, he's the Trope Maker) who goes after the Mafia hitmen who killed a witness he was protecting.

Best known for a legendary, nearly ten-minute-long Chase Scene in which McQueen, largely eschewing stuntmen, famously drove a dark green 1968 Ford Mustang GT Fastback all over San Francisco in pursuit of two bad guys in a black Dodge Charger. Also one of the first chase scenes filmed with cars at full speed instead of using sped-up film as a cheat.

Directed by Peter Yates.

This film provides examples of:

  • Action Film, Quiet Drama Scene:
    • Bullitt and Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset) talking about how he might be getting too callous about violence in his job.
    • The ending, in which Bullitt comes home thinking about how Cathy might be right.
  • Adaptational Attractiveness: The book Mute Witness describes Frank Bullitt as a cop who "eats a lot of ice cream and never solves a case". The rights were originally secured for a movie to star Spencer Tracy, who more closely resembled the book's version of the character, but died before production could begin.
  • Adaptational Name Change: In Mute Witness, the hero was Lt. Clancy (no first name). For the movie, the name was changed to the more memorable Frank Bullitt.
  • Artistic License Geography: The path of the chase scene jumps all over San Francisco, primarily around Russian Hill, Potrero Hill, and San Bruno Mountain.
  • Bittersweet Ending: See Pyrrhic Victory. The final scene of the film has Bullitt go home, see his girlfriend sleeping in his bed, then, without waking her, go quietly into the bathroom to wash up before taking a good, long look at himself in the mirror.
  • Camera Abuse: Early in the chase, the Charger hits a car, and then suddenly the Charger and skid marks are missing. As shown in the "making of" feature, it had smashed through the camera.
  • Chase Scene: Boy howdy. Hell, it set the standard for the modern filmed car chase as we know it. Before then, most car chases were staged by Driving a Desk and/or speeding up the film.
  • Cool Car:
    • Bullitt's Highland Green 1968 Ford Mustang 390 CID Fastback (ask a gearhead if they can recite that if you need proof) has become so iconic that Ford has released two Mustang Bullitt editions over the years.
    • Also, the black Dodge Charger R/T driven by the hitmen. Said black Charger R/T was not only so much faster than the Mustang that the crew had to remove two of its spark plugs and install thin tires from a base Charger to slow it down, but it survived the repeated jumping and abuse of the chase scene filming with ease, while the Mustang needed constant repairs. Cool car indeed. Specifically, there were two of both cars, but only one of the Chargers was an R/T. Afterwards, one Mustang had to be destroyed for liability purposes,note  and the other was sold to a production crew member, and disappeared sometime after McQueen's death.note The R/T Charger was sold to Arnold Welch, the non-R/T was sold back to the Chrysler dealership, repainted yellow and sold to an unsuspecting customer (the same thing happened with Vanishing Point).
    • Bullitt's girlfriend Cathy has a snazzy yellow Porsche 356.
  • Cowboy Cop: Regarded as the Trope Maker, also a fine example of an Unbuilt Trope as things don't turn out quite how we'd expect. Glenn Ford in The Big Heat is kind of a Cowboy Cop, but more along the lines of The Unfettered working for a hopelessly corrupt police force. Bullitt is probably the first pure example.
  • Da Chief:
    • Captain Bennett. Unlike most examples of the character type, he's a Reasonable Authority Figure who gives Bullitt freedom to run the investigation in his own way, and takes the cop's side against Senator Chalmers.
    • Subverted with Captain Baker, who spends most of the movie with his head up Chalmers's ass.
  • Dies Wide Open: Dorothy Rennick, found strangled.
    • And then Johnny Ross at the end.
  • Every Car Is a Pinto: The legendary car Chase scene ends with the Mafia men's Charger barreling out of the road and careening against a fuel truck before exploding like it was full of dynamite.
  • Faking the Dead: As it turns out, the real Johnny Ross was playing just about everyone in order to escape scot-free by faking his own death.
  • Film Noir: One of the better Post-Classic ones out there.
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: When McQueen breaks the glass door at the hospital to try and catch the killer, the black 1968 Charger can be seen parked on the left side of the screen, across from an ambulance.
  • Good Cop/Bad Cop: Bullitt and Delgetti use this on a reluctant witness at one point.
  • The Hunter Becomes the Hunted: The car chase begins with Bullitt deliberately drawing out his would-be killers, then quickly losing them and ending up behind them.
  • Karma Houdini: Downplayed with Chalmers. Although he suffers no immediate repercussions for being an Obstructive Bureaucrat, he is left empty-handed without a witness to testify against the Mafia or the means to shift the blame onto the San Francisco Police Department. Without Johnny Ross' testimony, Chalmer's political career and reputation will likely suffer a setback.
  • Killer Rabbit: The mob hitman is a grey-haired man in plain clothes. His driver looks like a middle-aged accountant, but Bullitt has to work hard to keep up with him.
  • The Mafia: The bad guys in the film. Referred to by Chalmers as "The Organization".
  • Meaningful Name: Bullitt does, indeed, end up using his gun.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: A scene near the climax revolves around extreme document printing.
  • Personal Effects Reveal: This happens as Bullitt and Del go through the dead couple's suitcases and realize why both were killed.
  • Pet the Dog: Much is made of how callous Bullitt is towards the violence he faces on the job. But, at the airport, after he shoots Ross dead, he covers the dead man's face with his jacket when he sees how upset the bystanders are.
  • Precision F-Strike: It was even more effective in 1968, when the word in question was very rarely uttered in cinema.
    Chalmers: Frank, we must all compromise.
    Bullitt: Bullshit.
  • Product Placement: Ford Motor Company paid for Bullitt to drive a Ford Mustang in the chase scene. As noted elsewhere on this page, they reaped huge dividends. Originally, the chase car was to be a Ford Galaxie sedan, but the suspension required too much modification.
  • Protagonist Title: Bullitt
  • Pyrrhic Victory: Bullitt finds everyone responsible for the death of the witness, and clears the department of the charge that their negligence led to his death. However, all the criminals responsible end up dead—and with them, any chance of bringing the rest of the Mafia to justice.
  • Rated M for Manly: The film not only stars Steve McQueen, but it basically created the Chase Scene.
  • Reality Has No Soundtrack: The score drops out of the movie as soon as the car chase starts in earnest. The car chase is a symphony of screeching tires, revving motors, bouncing suspensions, and shotgun blasts.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: While the film is unrelated to the Zodiac killings, Steve McQueen based Bullitt on San Francisco Inspector Dave Toschi, who investigated the case.
  • Sexy Shirt Switch: Cathy looks good in Bullitt's shirt.
  • Sickbed Slaying: A hitman sneaks into the hospital with the intent of finishing off his target, but is recognised and chased off by Bullitt.
  • Sleazy Politician: Chalmers. In fact, he's so sleazy that he's almost a Red Herring. Especially in the scene where he attempts to bribe Bennett into ordering Bullitt to turn Ross over... while Bennett and his family are going into church.
  • Satellite Love Interest: Cathy, Bullit's much younger girlfriend doesn't get much more depth than being his sympathetic paramour.
  • The Stool Pigeon: Johnny Ross, a mobster who embezzled money from the mob, then cut a deal with Chalmers to testify against the mob in exchange for immunity and witness protection.
  • Television Geography: In the chase scene, it seems like every time they take a right turn onto a downhill street, there's a beige Volkswagen Beetle parked on the right with its back to the camera, in the same spot every time...
  • Thicker Than Water: Pete Ross helps his brother Johnny escape the Chicago hit in the opening. (He's told afterwards that the Organization will find somebody else to do the job... and Pete will pay for it.)
  • Unbuilt Trope: This was actually the first Cowboy Cop movie, but seen today, it looks like a deconstruction of the genre: the cop ignores his superiors and dismisses the quite reasonable demands of a slimy politician out of distrust, but accidentally kills all the witnesses and ruins any chances of finding the real mob bosses. The film ends with him staring into a mirror, realizing just how badly he's screwed up.
  • The Unsolved Mystery: Bullitt kills a key witness whom he was supposed to bring in alive, so they never find out who is behind the organized crime operation. Movie over.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Cathy gives Bullitt a mild one when she inadvertently sees his cool and business-like attitude towards the scene of a brutal murder. Tellingly, he doesn't disagree with her assessment.
  • Witless Protection Program: Johnny Ross, a member of The Mafia, wishes to provide State's evidence and is put in witness protection. Then Mafia hitmen find him and blow him away, forcing Frank Bullitt (who was part of the protection detail) to prove that it wasn't the result of the SFPD being corrupt or incompetent. Turns out that the man who set it up was Johnny Ross himself, who told the Mafia where to find him so they would kill a body double and, with everybody thinking him dead, he would go off and live large in another country.
  • Witness Protection: The movie starts with Bullitt on this detail.