Movies to Watch With Your Dad: Bullitt
Steve McQueen did not know kung-fu, nor did he go through extensive personal training for any of his roles. To the best of my knowledge. And even if he did, I kind of refuse to believe it. What he did do, however, was pretty much all of his own stunt driving, which is all kinds of cool. The point I’m getting at is that he, and others of his ilk, was a different sort of action star. Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin, and others didn’t need six-packs to be believable as men who could save the day, which is something that we don’t get to see a lot of today.
Bullitt is one of the first movies I even remember seeing with my dad. It was on TV, of course, and it was a lazy Sunday afternoon. At my age, I typically thought of older movies like it as boring and lacking in much needed fight scenes and explosions, but for some reason, this was different. I paid attention, and it pretty much changed a great many things for me.
Anyone who knows what Bullitt is will probably give you the oft-quoted trivia piece, “one of the best car chases in movie history,” which is absolutely true. But no one ever mentions how cool Steve McQueen is as a cop who refuses to play into the politics of the job. There’s something about his quiet insubordination that makes him a badass. He plays Frank Bullitt, a police lieutenant in San Francisco who is approached by politician Walter Chalmers, played to his utmost smarminess by Robert Vaughn, to guard a mobster-turned-informant for 48 hours until his testimony. Well, as they often do, things go wrong very early in the vigil, leading Frank to secretly move his informant, much to the chagrin of Chalmers. Rather than just sit on the informant, Frank begins his own investigation regarding why the man was so easy to find in the first place.
One of the great themes of this movie is portrayed through Bullitt’s girlfriend, played by Jacqueline Bisset. After she accompanies him on part of his investigation and gets a first-hand view of how gruesome the job can be, she questions what sort of man would be able to do this job and not be affected by it. From there, to me, the film becomes a sort of meditation on the desensitization to violence. This idea is made even more evident when one juxtaposes this film against another famous cop movie set in San Francisco, which was released just a few short years later. Give up? It’s Dirty Harry, starring Clint Eastwood as the titular cop who seems to celebrate violence in an almost fascist manner.
The best part about this movie is how coolly Steve McQueen portrays his rebellious cop. This is a man who doesn’t care about how this assignment will affect his reputation in the public eye. Rather, he wants to do the thing he was trained to do – put the bad guys behind bars. McQueen doesn’t give big speeches, he doesn’t shout, and he doesn’t talk back when he’s being chewed out by his superiors or Chalmers. There’s something about his quiet insubordination that makes him a badass. And when he does snap, he’s going to let you finish your speech, turn and look you right in the eye, and utter one word: “Bullshit.”
The last shots of this film leave you thinking. He returns home after a fatal incident at the airport to his sleeping girlfriend, washes his hands, and stares into his reflection into the mirror. She was afraid of what experiencing all the violence would do to a man. Was she right?
After watching Bullitt with my dad, I resolved to tell everyone about it. This is the kind of cop movie that has soul, that has something to say, and there is just something about seeing action stars from this time period act with their shirts on.
Please watch this movie with your Dad.