Has there ever been a cooler cat in the cinema than Steve McQueen? Sure, there's Jack Nicholson. And Redford and Newman. And maybe even 'Dirty Harry'-era Clint Eastwood. But when it comes to vintage mod style, bad-ass swagger and the ultimate too-cool-to-care attitude, McQueen beats them all, hands down. Though he only really enjoyed A-list marquee value for a few short years in the late '60s and early '70s, damn if his wasn't one hell of a oeuvre.
'Bullitt' was certainly McQueen's pinnacle as a critically-respected actor, budding producer and commercial sex symbol. Though I personally prefer the more chilled-out grooves of the original 'The Thomas Crown Affair' and the campy thrills of 'The Towering Inferno,' 'Bullitt' is to McQueen what 'Dirty Harry' is to Eastwood. It's his magnum opus -- the one film you absolutely cannot separate from its star. Sure, it's got the legendary car chase, a crackerjack cast, a twisty cop-thriller plot, and it's a career best for director Peter Yates ('Mother, Jugs & Speed,' 'Breaking Away'). But all of that would likely just be a house of cards without the McQueen mystique. McQueen is more than just the reason for 'Bullitt's lasting success -- McQueen is 'Bullitt.'
The original script for 'Bullitt' was reportedly so poor that it was declared unfilmable, that is until McQueen came onboard as shepherd as well as star. Growing in clout by the end of the '60s, he rescued the project from turnaround, seeing it as a perfect vehicle for his laconic, strong-but-silent anti-hero persona. It is indeed a great fit -- which is a good thing, because the plot is, quite frankly, a bit of an incoherent mess, and the film is shot like an icicle-cool police procedural with the rhythms of a European art film. Even on this, my third viewing, there were story threads I just couldn't follow. Many characters are forgettable. The dialogue is so staccato and curt that the minimalism just feels affected. The pace also lags behind by today's standards -- what this movie takes two hours to do most of today's movies get through in their opening credit montage.
Yet 'Bullitt' earns its continued esteem, because it is clearly the template for every cop flick that followed. The movie is actually based on a little-known novel called "Mute Witness" by Robert L. Pike. I don't know how much of the film's style was distilled from the book by Yates and screenwriters Alan Trustman and Harry Kleiner, but today it reads like the playbook for Tarantino, Scorsese and Fincher. The uber-cool hero. The detached, neo-documentary style. The jazzy score. And the hard-boiled, hard-bitten dialogue. If you've seen any thriller in the past four decades, you can trace its roots back to 'Bullitt.'
Then there is the car chase. The mutha of all car chases. Younger viewers may not get what all the fuss is about, but action like this just wasn't seen on the screen in 1968, even in Bond pictures. There is still an elegant craftsmanship -- an exquisite timing -- to the sequence that blows away all the fast-cut MTV editing and silly, CG imagery that has transformed today's action movies into cartoons. This is real bodies in real motion, and the danger is palpable. The complexity of the scene remains astounding, both as a physical achievement and as a structural one -- the construction of the shots to create speed, tempo and suspense has few rivals in the history of cinema. 'Bullitt' may not be about very much -- and without McQueen it would have been nothing at all -- but in only a few short minutes, it revolutionized the look, feel and style of modern motion pictures.
'Bullitt' has hit standard-def DVD a couple of times, most recently in 2005 as a two-disc remastered special edition. It was another very fine catalog effort from Warner, a great improvement over the previous, rather muddy-looking movie-only release. This first-ever next-gen version comes from that re-done master, with both the HD DVD and Blu-ray editions receiving the same 1.85:1 widescreen 1080p/VC-1 transfer. (Note that both versions are mislabeled as 2.40:1 on the back packaging.)
The results are nice, if somewhat dated. The print has been cleaned up nicely, with only the expected thin grain present, and that late '60s/early '70s softness. Blacks are consistent and solid, but shadow delineation suffers. Darker scenes can be murky, with fine detail usually lost to the darkness. Colors are a clear improvement, with better fleshtones and richer primaries. Here, though, I felt there was sometimes an oversaturated look to the presentation, suggesting a slight bit of digital processing. Sharpness and detail are superior in brightly lit scenes, and contrast does not suffer from that blown-out, overly-tweaked sheen. All things considered, this is certainly the best 'Bullitt' has every looked -- and likely ever will -- even if I wouldn't place this in the top tier of Warner catalog remasters.
Warner again does a good job with this retooled English Dolby Digital-Plus 2.0 stereo track, but there is just no getting around the aged source elements. Simply put, this track just doesn't shine. (Note that the film's original mono mix is not offered -- only dubs in French and Latin-Spanish.)
Fidelity is quite poor, and the mid-range has a very cramped, compressed feel. Higher frequencies, though not distorted, still sound tinny and weak. Low end is also as dull as a flat tire. And of course, being a stereo-only mix, envelopment is non-existent. Even separation across the front is hardly distinct. I guess the best thing I can say about this soundtrack is that there are no major source defects, such as hiss or dropouts, and it is certainly listenable enough throughout.
Unfortunately, 'Bullitt' is predictably slim on new making-of materials. That's not to say that Warner has skimped out -- making the journey to HD DVD are two very lengthy documentaries, an audio commentary and a couple of promo items that appeared on the previous two-disc standard-def edition.
The only supplement to focus on the actual making of 'Bullitt' is the audio commentary with director Peter Yates. At the risk of sounding ageist, the guy is pushing 80 years-old, and the track can be slow and is marred with gaps of silence. The result is just a decent commentary. Yates focuses a hefty amount on the technical aspects of the production, from detailing specific shots to, of course, the construction of the famous chase scene. Intriguingly, he does not spend very much time at all talking about Steve McQueen, offering only a few nods to his skill as an actor. McQueen the man remains, here at least, an enigma.
Thankfully, Warner picks up the slack for Yates with the hefty 86-minute documentary "Steve McQueen: The Essence of Cool." Originally produced for Turner Classic Movies, the doc is essentially a career overview, though it doesn't shy away from -- nor does it exploit -- his personal troubles. His two sons Adams and Chad McQueen show up for fresh interviews, and their dad's alcoholism and womanizing are interwoven with his rise as a screen icon. Tellingly, perhaps, McQueen's widow Ali MacGraw does not appear -- though she is perhaps the one person diehard McQueen fans would most like to hear from. Among the impressive roster of other interviewees are collaborators Robert Culp, Suzanne Pleschette, Martin Landau, David Foster, Lawrence Kasdan and Richard Attenborough.
The second documentary is a bit more superfluous to the film. "The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing" runs 99-minutes and was originally produced for the Starz cable network. Kathy Bates is our host, and it is quite an excellent tour through the evolution of cinema cut-and-paste. 'Bullitt' is only one of many movies featured, though clearly the film's chase sequence is the reason the doc is included here at all. However, with an interview roster that includes everyone from Martin Scorsese to Quentin Tarantino to Steven Spielberg, as well as editing legend Walter Murch, it's a fabulous documentary. Consider it a bonus -- and a grand one at that. (Note that unlike the rest of the 480i-only supplementary material on the disc, this one is presented in full 1080p. Sweet!)
The sole vintage extra is "Bullitt: Steve McQueen's Commitment to Reality," a 1968 production featurette. It is typical of the period, with super-serious narration and wonderfully scratchy video quality. There are a few gems here, though, particularly some unedited takes from the film and footage of McQueen and the stunt team during shooting of the chase sequence. This full-frame feature runs 11 minutes.
The set closes with the film's Theatrical Trailer. (Note that both documentaries enjoy a considerable number of chapter stops each, which are appreciated.)
'Bullitt' is an action classic, the standard by which all post early-'70s cop flicks were judged. It also contains one of the most praised car chases in history. I can't say I'm quite as sold on the film as its cult of admirers, but it is certainly required viewing for any even half-serious student of the genre. This HD DVD release is cause for celebration, as it brings the 2005 remaster of the film to high-def for the first time. The audio may be weak, but the nice extras bring the complete package up a notch. A no-brainer for fans, and well worth a rent for the curious.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.