1968’s Bullitt: Bullets & Blood (And the Lack Thereof)

by Matthew Cabe


(Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/Seven Arts)

We first glimpse Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) in the morning hours after a crime has been committed. He’s groggy and struggles to shake off the fact that he hasn’t had much sleep in probably his whole adult life. He’s a workaholic who doesn’t know when enough is enough.

But as Bullitt (1968) continues, Frank reveals himself not as superhero impervious to pain or death, but as a regular, cardigan-wearing Joe who works weekends to ensure the rent for his cramped apartment gets paid. He stocks up on frozen dinners. Sometimes his girlfriend Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset) stays over. He’s the type of guy who rarely enjoys a night out for dinner and music; however, when he does, the waiter smacks his face with a menu. That’s alright though. Frank Bullitt cooly dismisses the accident with a wave of his hand and a light chuckle.

Ah, he thinks, shit happens.

These seeming trifles of existence are crucial to our relationship with his character because he won’t give us much with his words. More importantly, they’re crucial to the life of the world he inhabits. There are moments in Bullitt when we think we might know more about the on-screen lives of the extras than we do our exhausted yet tireless hero.

One such moment comes during scene in which the eldest son of Frank’s boss, Captain Sam Bennett (Simon Oakland), answers the family telephone. It’s the weekend, so the son is going out with his friends; they impatiently wait for him near the door with their arms wrapped around one another. And while he holds the phone and hollers to his dad that the call is for him, his kid brother screams at him because he wants to go out, too. But he’s the kid brother and he’ll just be a drag.   

A lesser director would simply cut to a ringing phone that is promptly answered by the Captain himself. But Peter Yates isn’t a lesser director here. He has a story to tell, and it’s the story of a city and its inhabitants, one of whom happens to be a decent cop trying to solve a few murders. That doesn’t mean he’s more important than the woman whose hands are in disrepair from all the rosebush pruning she does, or the unheralded cop who expertly operates the telecopier machine and waits, without complaint, for the damn thing to finish doing whatever the hell a telecopier does.

Yet there’s more to these tiny flourishes than simply bringing the city and characters to life. Frank is a controlled obsessive, and Yates’s direction begs us to ponder exactly how much life can be lived when we bury our precious time and energy into one act, one thought, one duty.

If we try to reckon with Yates’s question during the exhilarating, ten-minute car chase between Frank’s souped up Mustang and the bespectacled bad guy’s even more souped up Dodge Charger, the answer might be, “A whole lot of life! Hell yes!” This, after all, is a film infamous for its car chases—er, chase—wait, there’s only one? And it lasts but ten minutes in an otherwise nearly two-hours long film? Yep, and that’s partly the point.

Because obsession might render an occasional moment of unadulterated bliss, but that moment is fleeting, intangible. Real living is done in the day-to-day trenches of the mundane. And whether we believe it or not, cops (obsessed and otherwise) are ordinary people. Like Frank, most cops don’t unholster their guns all that often, even if they are equipped with a fast-draw shoulder holster.

In fact, we’re all just a bunch ordinary Joes trying to figure out who we are and why we have to die and whether or not God exists and if we’ll ever fall in love while simultaneously choosing between plain deodorant and the fancier one that’s also an antiperspirant. So should we really want to spend some of that precious time watching a cop flash his badge at people in order to use their telephones?

Yes. Because like the possibilities of God,love, and anything else worthwhile, Bullitt leaves us wanting more. More chases, more shootouts, more Frank. We yearn for him to open up to us. We want to know if he saw the game last night and for whom he plans on voting. And just like his distressed and baffled girlfriend, we’ll always yearn for more.

Near the end of the film, after a character is killed and lies in a gruesome mess, a shocked on-looker shouts, “I wonder who he was!” This statement weighs heavily on us as an audience, and as Frank hangs up his gun for the night and washes that chiseled-from-stone face of his, we can’t help but wonder the same thing.

We’re obsessed with his car, his gun, and with him. He represents that long list of what gets a man’s heart pumping fast: Bullets, blood, explosions. We gleefully stare at the carnage with eyes wide enough for multiple exclamation points. What Yates forces upon us, however, is, the question of “Why?”