Bullitt (1968), from director Peter Yates, is an unusual crime-thriller for the period. Relying on a slow-burning plot and scenes that avoid rapid intercutting, Bullitt favors a developing plot that doesn’t spoon-feed the audience resolution to questions that don’t need answered. In fact, many scenes restrict the viewer from even listening to two characters speak. At the hospital, Bullitt’s (Steve McQueen) conversations with Chalmers (Robert Vaughn), and conversations between the hospital staff are often obstructed by glass. This ultimately assists the film when key pieces of exposition are revealed through the dialogue, because the viewer hasn’t been bombarded with pointless, throwaway lines. Beyond this, Bullitt’s style is unique, particularly with how the action scenes are captured.
Take, for instance, the 10-minute car chase sequence. For the first portion of the scene the camera is following Bullitt, but it quickly transitions to the perspective of the hit men when he succeeds in losing them. The next few minutes are compiled using stylized intercutting, but avoids the common trope of rapid intercuts and instead positions the spectator to simply find a rhythm in the pace. This occurs for quite some time before the two hit men discover that Bullitt has been following them the whole time, using a quick zoom into the rear-view mirror of their car. From this point forward the real chase begins between the machines, as the sloped terrain of San Francisco becomes a giant playground—with hurling intensity. None of the shots inside the car are processed, specifically during the POV shots; these moments will turn your stomach inside out. Bullitt isn’t overly violent, either.
The only instance where the main protagonist pulls his gun and fires is during the final act, in the rather large set piece. Bullitt chases a suspect through an airport, allowing cinematographer William Fracker to creatively express, and subvert, a typical sixties action scene (the airport allowing the crew to cut a hole in the wall for a specific dolly-in on the first entrance into the hospital). It should be noted that for these sequences, both the car chase and the airport scene, the film was shot on location, meaning that McQueen and the crew were parading in-between real airplanes on the runway.
There’s a sense of intensity from the diegetic sound of the airplanes taking off, with long fluid shots of Bullitt dodging the next plane coming straight for him. However, one quality that is consistent with the Sixties crime-thriller is the detached protagonist who can’t escape his work. Even when he goes home, he knows he’s just going to have to go back out again on another dirty assignment sooner or later, and probably sooner. There’s real truth in what his girlfriend Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset) tells Bullitt at one point: “You’re living in a sewer, Frank. Day after day.”