Because of its legendary car chase through the streets of San Francisco, Bullitt probably has a reputation as a more action-packed movie than it really is. In reality, it’s a fairly realistic and low key cop drama about a witness protection detail that goes horribly wrong.
Bullitt is also the film that makes the best use of the onscreen image of Steve McQueen. He remains, to this day, the quintessential embodiment of “cool.” Almost without effort, he exudes a presence that most actors would kill for and he does it with a minimalist style that sometimes makes Clint Eastwood look like Al Pacino in Heat.
McQueen plays Lt. Frank Bullitt, a police detective who, we gather, has a fairly high public profile. He is the prototypical “cop who does things his own way” before that became a cliche. He is recruited by Senator Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn at his snarky and insincere best) to guard a mob witness until he can testify before Chalmers’ committee. Things don’t go well, however, and the witness and one of the cops are wounded by a pair of hitmen. Something doesn’t sit right with Bullitt when it appears that the witness seemed remarkably unconcerned for his own safety, at least for someone who knows the mob is after him.
When the witness dies of his wounds, Bullitt hides him in the morgue under a John Doe to keep Chalmers at bay. The Senator, it seems, is rather upset that his witness was shot and is looking for a way make Bullitt a scapegoat.
Despite its reputation as an action film, what really sets Bullitt apart from the crowd is its rigorous approach to authentic procedure and details, in the police work, the morgue and at the hospital as they fight to save the witnesses life. This is due almost entirely to McQueen’s insistence upon making the film as realistic as possible. Since he was also the producer, he got his way.
Also in the cast is Simon Oakland as Bullitt’s superior. Unlike police captains in a modern cop movie, he doesn’t spend the whole movie yelling at the star but instead backs Bullitt’s play while covering his own rear end. Fortunately, most of the cop movie cliches that we’re used to hadn’t been discovered when Bullitt was made.