San Francisco police lieutenant Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) is awakened in his apartment much against his wishes by a colleague, and is ordered to head over to a private function being held by rising star attorney Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn) who is drumming up support for a political career. He goes straight up to Bullitt the moment he arrives and tells him they can help each other - but does Chalmers need him more? What the lieutenant is being asked to do is protect crucial witness against the so-called Organisation Johnny Ross (Pat Renella), but that will be easier said than done with the criminals hot on his trail...
There were two films released in 1968 that brought a fresh cachet to the car chase; for comedies, it was The Love Bug, meaning that a humorous, Keystone Kops pursuit would not be considered out of place for a long while after. For thrillers, it was Bullitt, whose car chase exploded onto the screen halfway through and made audiences lulled by the low key suspense in that film suddenly sit up and notice they were watching a revolution in the genre. For years following this, the Hollywood thriller and its foreign imitators would attempt to emulate the McQueen movie's mixture of grit, icy cool and pulse pounding excitement.
Some of them better it, but Bullitt, with its title character sounding as if he had leapt from the pages of a pulp paperback, was the instigator that so many owed a debt to. In spite of its late sixties setting, it still feels modern such was its innovation that inspired so many, and McQueen was the action star who became a benchmark which most were measured by, not least because of his penchant for getting up close to his setpieces and performing as many of the driving stunts as he possibly could. Although he took quite a bit of persuading to play a cop, once he got used to the idea he threw himself into this film, taking care of much of the creative choices to ensure it worked out the way he wanted.
One of those choices was to hire British director Peter Yates thanks to being so impressed with the previous year's film Robbery, and its major car chase centrepiece, exhibiting a flair that Yates brought to this, from its brilliant title sequence to the final manhunt at the airport. Lalo Schifrin's proto-jazz-funk score was the icing on the cake, it was one of those movies where the actors barely needed to say any lines at all for the images and music did all the talking. Vaughn was never better as the aspiring man of influence, insidious in the manner in which he pulls the strings thanks to his shadowy connections but slick enough to get away with too much, an excellent foil to Bullitt's moral, driven and hitherto by the book cop. Only Jacqueline Bisset's love interest felt extraneous.
Her speech where she makes clear that her man has a job that is bringing him down to the level of the sewer is entirely unnecessary, and one of the missteps, as if the filmmakers were finding their feet with their new approach to crime thrillers. But Bullitt is a genuine favourite for rewatching, not merely due to its surface gloss and meaty suspense sequences, but because that plot is so dense that you are likely to forget much of it before you return to it for another viewing, rendering it as crisp as the first time you saw it. With its storyline getting bogged down in deliberately confusing double dealings - an actual double is involved - it's easy to get lost and simply look forward to the next big scene, but in its way this didn't matter so much when McQueen was so in control, both behind the scenes and in front of the camera. The movie worships him, and his fans never found a better vehicle - so to speak - with which to do the same.