50 years ago at a theater near you

Readers of this blog know that this, out of my favorite genre of movies, is my favorite movie, which premiered in the U.S. 50 years ago today.

The movie was based on the novel Mute Witness, about a San Francisco police lieutenant — played by, Steve McQueen, one of The Three Cool Steves, and based on the same San Francisco police detective on whom “Dirty Harry” was based — assigned to protect a witness for a government hearing on organized crime, and what happens when said witness is killed. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.)

Robert Vaughn plays the politician (State legislator? District attorney? That’s never made clear) who thinks his career is going to skyrocket when the mob witness testifies, and seeks to castrate (direct quote from the movie) our hero when the witness dies.

The witness’ killers decide to follow Bullitt as he tries to solve the murder, leading to the greatest car chase in the history of cinema (which I have yet to see in a theater).

But all is not as it seems. Another murder takes place …

… and evidence at murder scene number two reveals that the dead guy isn’t who Chalmers thought he was, and that the supposed witness is still alive. Of course, slimy Chalmers still wants his witness to testify despite his having committed a murder.

The chase is, of course, fantastic, with appropriate vehicles. So is the soundtrack, by the great Lalo Schifrin. One might wonder about how a cop of approximately 40 has a girlfriend several years younger, but she’s Jacqueline Bisset, so stop asking impertinent questions.

As happens with many cop movies and TV shows, there is some rank inflation here. Bullitt is a lieutenant, which is more of a supervisory role in police departments than depicted here (think of Andy Sipowicz’s various superiors on “NYPD Blue”), unless San Francisco detective lieutenants (a group that includes Lt. Mike Stone of “The Streets of San Francisco,” by the way) supervise one detective sergeant and one inspector (what detectives were called in San Francisco, including Harry Callahan). Remember that the model for both Bullitt and Dirty Harry was a San Francisco detective, not a higher-ranked officer. And I’ve wondered for years about Bullitt’s boss’ comment, “The papers love you, Frank,” given how taciturn Bullitt is in this movie.

The story winds around as much as Lombard Street in San Francisco, but it’s a satisfying whodunit, though it poses after-viewing questions. Wikipedia’s summation of the movie suggests that the brother of the mob guy — who, Chalmers neglects to mention, stole $2 million from the Chicago mob — had him killed by the two who later chase Bullitt. (I’ve never pondered before whether if you hire a hit man to kill somebody you have to pay him if he kills the wrong person. Is there a money-back guarantee?) And then real mob guy, who hired fake guy, kills his girlfriend once he somehow finds out his impersonator is in stable condition at room temperature to eliminate the final person who knows about his plot.

Killing the wrong guy is one interpretation. Another that comes to my mind is that the real mob guy stole from the Chicago mob, hired the fake guy to portray him, then hired the two hitmen to kill fake guy and girlfriend, but had to kill the girlfriend himself once he somehow found out that his hitmen were dead.

I alluded to another question that comes to mind, about Chalmers. His office is never identified in the movie, but he’s powerful and/or wealthy enough to have underlings and be driven around in a limousine. The star witness is testifying at what I assume is a federal hearing (imdb.com claims it’s a Senate subcommittee hearing), since he’s from Chicago and the hearing is in San Francisco. One of Bullitt’s superiors mentions that Chalmers can help the SFPD in Sacramento. But Chalmers is never referred to anything but by his name — not Congressman or Senator or Assemblyman, and based on the aforementioned comment he’s evidently not a district attorney or U.S. attorney.

Successful fiction requires effective verisimilitude. You have to believe, for instance, that John Wayne in his mid-60s could be a Chicago police lieutenant in “Brannigan” and a Seattle police lieutenant in “McQ,” or that Dirty Harry could kill 45 people and stay employed and out of prison. The thing about “Bullitt” is that its almost documentary-style filming makes it seem realistic, whether or not it’s realistic to guard a government witness with one detective in a bad hotel, or to have a police lieutenant who stares down oily politicians and does things his own way, consequences be damned.

This movie also exudes style, as Dig With It observes:

Lieutenant Frank Bullitt worked for the San Francisco Police Department and drove a Ford Mustang GT 390 Fastback in Highland Green. He gunned that V8 engine to 115mph in pursuit of Chicago hitmen in a fierce chase around Fisherman’s Wharf, Russian Hill and Guadalupe Canyon Parkway. It’s one of the best-known car chases in film, stunningly edited. The cop wears a blue cashmere turtleneck and a tweed jacket but the composure is set to chill.

The Bullitt look was put together in the 1968 production by Doug Hayward the tailor and the costume designer Theodora Van Runkle. That said, McQueen was wearing similar clothes five years before the filming, so his own signature was there. The herringbone jacket with the notched lapels and unstructured shoulders is distinctly Ivy League, but the side vents and flap pockets are English. Likewise with the elongated elbow patch on the left sleeve, a pragmatic design for rifle shooting excursions, down and dirty.

Charcoal worsted trousers and a fast draw holster complete the ensemble. Since much of the action takes place at the weekend, the Lieutenant has put the navy suit aside. The task is witness protection, keeping Johnny Ross safe from the mob. But the situation is twisted and Bullitt’s charge is shot down at the Hotel Daniels.

Yet the Lieutenant will not tolerate the set-up. The District Attorney is Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn) who favours a shifty method. “Integrity is something you sell,” he hisses. But Bullitt looks at him with the blue, undimmed eyes. There a similar response when his girlfriend Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset) realises the brutal nature of his job. “You’re living in a sewer, Frank.”

Elsewhere in pop culture, hair was long, drugs were plentiful and the music was fried and electrified. In 1968 The Rolling Stones were singing ‘Street Fighting Man’ and the French students were having a riot of their own. Frank Bullitt may have looked square, but he was anti-establishment after his own classic fashion. He did not submit to The Man.

But you knew that.

A review I read suggests the ending suggests there could have been a “Bullitt” sequel. There are few successful sequels to the original, of course, although sequels can still be entertaining. It’s tantalizing for this fans of this movie to wonder about “Bullitt II,” including how you could possibly top that car chase. Others here suggested, believe it or don’t, Ryan Phillippe (with Bisset as his mother), Nicholas Cage, Lawrence Fishburne, McQueen’s real-life son Chad (who was in a movie that featured, surprise!, a 1968 Mustang), and even Sandra Bullock as Bullitt’s long-lost daughter. Of course, Ford decided to make a sequel to the Bullitt Mustang, the latest of which is available at a Ford dealership near you.

This being imagination-challenged Hollywood of the 21st century, there apparently were plans a decade ago to remake “Bullitt” with Brad Pitt in the lead, allegedly because “Brad shares a lot of the same passions as Steve McQueen – including a love of motorbikes and fast cars — so it was a dream role for him.” Or not. Perfection (though the movie is not perfect) cannot be remade. If you’re going to do that, then why not put Bullitt and Dirty Harry together, since the same detective inspired both, and the great Schifrin set both to music?




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