Some movies are so linked to one particular scene or set-piece that it’s nearly impossible to separate the two. For Pulp Fiction, it’s the dance scene. In The Empire Strikes Back, it’s Luke learning that Darth Vader is his father. And for Bullitt, it’s the car chase.
Oftentimes lauded as the finest car chase ever put to film, the one in Bullitt is impressive, to say the very least. Filmed in a kinetic, frantic style, the camera oftentimes very nearly approximates Steve McQueen’s view from behind the wheel making the viewer feel as if he or she is in the driver’s seat bouncing along the streets of San Francisco. The car chase in Bullitt is exciting and tense. Everything that a good car chase should be.
Due no doubt to the chase’s sheer brilliance, the remainder of the film has a lot of work to do to live up to a high standard. It does this with mixed results. Performances are good from McQueen, Robert Vaughan, Jacqueline Bisset, and others, and the entire movie is steeped in a realistic, grim and gritty tone which lends weight to the by-the-book police procedurals on display. Despite these positives, the film is rather slow and – unfortunately – at times, lacking in tension; an always necessary component of a good action film.
Those criticisms aside, however, Bullitt still manages to be an engaging film; a motion picture certainly ahead of its time. Its single set piece would give rise to entire films structured around brilliant car chases, but few have pulled them off with the conviction and forthrightness that Bullitt does. While the sum of its parts may not equal a total breathless, heart-pounding success, when those components are looked at individually, then there is much good to be found in Bullitt.