Classic Film Review: Should “Bullitt” (1968) be remade?

Yes, the headline is a rhetorical question. Because if there’s one thing the 50+ years since “Bullitt” has proven, it’s that most every big screen cop thriller has been in many if not most ways a remake of this Steve McQueen/Peter Yates classic.

We’ve had half a century of the “renegade” “outsider,” “goes his own way” cops, hunting for justice in a broken and/or corrupt system. There have been hundreds of films in which the cop hero drove a “car with character,” and any car buff or film fan knows what you mean when you say “Bullitt Mustang.” The “GT” is understood, the image iconic.

But let’s take that headline literally, shall we? Watching the film again for the umpteenth time last night, I gave it a hard, unsentimental pass for the first time in years.

The story — Lt. Frank Bullitt (McQueen) is tasked by his boss (the redoubtable Simon Oakland) to protect a mob witness (Felice Orlandi) expected to testify at hearings being held by an ambitious, self-important peacocking Congressman (Robert Vaughn).

The Chicago “Outfit” (Vic Tayback plays a mobster) “gets to” the witness, almost killing him. Bullitt and a sympathetic doctor (Georg Stanford Brown) conspire to hide him — dead or alive — to lure the bad guys (John Aprea and Bill Hickman, later a cop in “The French Connection”) into trying again.

Bullitt is followed, and this being his town, he turns the tables on the Dodge Charger-driving heavies and a chase ensues. More wrinkles in the plot unravel, but Bullitt — with dogged determination, the love of a beautiful woman (Jacqueline Bissett) and a wardrobe that became the quintessence of cool because Steve McQueen wore it — won’t be denied.

Truth be told, it’s a thriller that peaks with the epic car chase, and fizzles out afterwards. There’s a nice buildup, some terrific tone-and-setting scenes that show us San Francisco as the “cool” was about to give way to the hippies, turtle-necked hipsters in jazz clubs transitioning towards tie-dyed Deadheads in ballrooms or parks. And then that chase, the crashes at its climax, and the movie winds down, the tempo changing from cool jazz to smooth jazz.

As much as many a police procedural owes to this Yates film — he also did “Breaking Away” — and this formulaic Alan Trustman and Harry Kleiner screenplay (based on Robert L. Fish’s novel “Mute Witness”), there’s a LOT of room for improvement. It’s a 90 minute thriller in a 114 minute package.

Some of the performances pop — McQueen, Vaughn and Oakland stand out. Many seem performed in the shadows. Robert Duvall gives away none of the “finest actor of his generation” glory that was to come, here playing a cab driver who leads Bullitt around town, checking out stops their “witness” made before turning himself in.

As a car nut and McQueen buff, I treat this film as a period piece any time I watch it these days. It’s a lovely, gritty San Francisco time capsule from the Golden Age of Muscle Cars. It’s not just the Mustang and the Dodge Charger with the 34 falling off hubcaps (apparently) that draw the eye, or the green VW Beetle they keep passing, the white GTO and white Austin Healey (my pick of the lot) they weave around or pass by repeatedly.

That’s always an economy that filmmakers whose movies become classics live to regret — using the same rented (or crew members) vehicles several times in shots over the course of the film. You don’t notice unless the film hits and people end up watching it over and over again over the years. Check out the driving scenes of Walter Hill’s “48 Hours.” You see the vintage Porsche that figures into the plot in random early traffic “filler” scenes. Stuff like that happens a lot.

Even “Bullit’s” iconic hill-hurtling race through the Streets of San Francisco, gold standard that it is, has been bested by any number of (mostly) European car chases in the ensuing decades — “French Connection” to “The Transporter” movies, “Ronin” to a good moment here and there in this Bond or Tom Cruise film or that “Fast/Furious” effort. “Bullitt” won the Oscar for editing, but largely because it was such a quantum leap ahead of filmed car chases that came before it.

“The French Connection” was the first film whose chase bettered it, and that was five years later and William Friedkin is a madman. So they had that going for them.

But yes, you could remake “Bullitt,” make it tighter although perhaps not more tense, jazz up the chase a bit or a lot. You’d have to set it somewhere more exotic and unusual, I dare say. New Orleans, post Katrina? Half-abandoned Detroit? Somewhere abroad that hasn’t been filmed to death?

But you’d still run up against that roadblock presented by the film’s star. McQueen was a master of acting with his eyes, doing less with more in a way that Eastwood and Cruise emulated but never could quite match, that Denzel has dabbled in more recently with some success. Lean and blond, he cut an angular figure in the film frame. And yes, he did many of his own stunts, something only Cruise can boast of today.

It’s hard to think of a modern star under 40 who embodies “cool” the way McQueen did then.

One of the many definitions of a “film classic” is a movie that cannot or should not ever be remade. Nobody ever has remade “Bullitt.” There was never a “limited series,” never a reboot.

Fifty years later and the closest anyone has ever come to that is simply stealing plot points here, an action beat there, and wishing that their leading man was a tenth as cool as Steve McQueen.

Rating: PG (violence)

Cast: Steven McQueen, Robert Vaughn, Jacqueline Bissett, Simon Oakland, Vic Tayback, Norman Fell, Felice Orlandi, Georg Stanford Brown and Robert Duvall.

Credits: Directed by Peter Yates, scripted by Alan Trustman and Harry Kleiner, based on a novel by Robert L. Fish.

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
This entry was posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Classic Film Review: Should “Bullitt” (1968) be remade?

  1. Mark Garyait says:

    No one as cool as Steve McQueen’ hard act to follow.the movie is a classic. Don’t need to be redone……..

Comments are closed.