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High-Octane Cool

Steve McQueen in Peter Yates’s ‘Bullitt’ (1968)
Steve McQueen in Peter Yates’s ‘Bullitt’ (1968) Photo: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Fifty years ago this month, “Bullitt” opened in the U.S. and became one of the most financially successful thrillers of all time, costing a mere $5.5 million and reaping a gross of $42.3 million—more than $300 million today—at the domestic box office. This story of a San Francisco detective on the trail of ruthless hit men marked the apotheosis of Steve McQueen as an action star. In celebration of the anniversary, “Bullitt” is running in selected theaters across the U.S. this Tuesday.

Still relishing his one and only Oscar nomination, for his role in “The Sand Pebbles,” and just four months after appearing in “The Thomas Crown Affair,” McQueen enjoyed a position of immense power. His company, Solar Productions, controlled “Bullitt” from start to finish, despite the film’s being financed by Warner Brothers/Seven Arts. McQueen himself selected British director Peter Yates, given his skill at staging the car chase in “Robbery” the previous year. And it was McQueen who spent interminable preparatory sessions at a track north of San Francisco, racing alongside and against Bill Hickman, a brilliant stunt driver whose Magnum Dodge Charger 440 sought to outrun police lieutenant Frank Bullitt’s Ford Mustang 390 GT in the now legendary pursuit through San Francisco. The 10-minute sequence took three weeks to record, with eight cameras involved (one operated by director Yates, hidden inside McQueen’s Mustang).

What distinguished McQueen from other action stars before and since? His idol was Humphrey Bogart, but such major stars traditionally were forbidden from performing risky stunts. McQueen, however, almost relished putting himself in harm’s way. Warners was appalled by the prospect of a live car chase in heavily populated San Francisco and by the scene when McQueen’s detective throws himself beneath the wheels of a taxiing Boeing 747 at San Francisco International Airport. Only Jackie Chan and, more recently, Tom Cruise have inherited this flair and sangfroid.

Steve McQueen in ‘Bullitt’ (1968)
Steve McQueen in ‘Bullitt’ (1968) Photo: Everett Collection

His contemporary Clint Eastwood (both born in 1930) was as laconic as McQueen, without exuding quite the same charismatic appeal to young and old alike. Then came the generation of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, each trumpeting the sex appeal of a muscular physique. Today actors like Tom Hardy and Dwayne Johnson seek to fill the shoes of a McQueen, who had suffered a brutal death from cancer at just 50 years of age.

You always felt that McQueen was the real deal, a rebel of flesh and blood with the carefree courage of an auto racer and the rumpled tenderness of a loner who had survived reform school and run away to join the merchant navy. “I’m not an actor, I’m a reactor,” he told Yates during the filming of “Bullitt,” and yet his early training at the Actors Studio nurtured some of his most beguiling traits—the defiant gaze that could change in an instant to a clown’s split grin, or his habit of looking down as he listens and then raising his blue-eyed glare like a searchlight to quell even such a suave adversary as Edward G. Robinson in “The Cincinnati Kid.”

McQueen’s talent as a driver onscreen also set him apart from all save perhaps the older Paul Newman. McQueen could outrun the Nazis on a motorcycle in “The Great Escape,” and he could drive a Porsche 917 alongside Jacky Ickx and Jo Siffert for the 24-hour race in “Le Mans.” He could ride a horse with aplomb and draw a six-gun as fast as any cowboy star (notably in “Nevada Smith” and “The Magnificent Seven”).

A scene from ‘Bullitt’; the film, directed by Peter Yates, still has wheels, thanks to its star’s charisma and the snarling vigor of its car chase.
A scene from ‘Bullitt’; the film, directed by Peter Yates, still has wheels, thanks to its star’s charisma and the snarling vigor of its car chase. Photo: Everett Collection

“Bullitt” was made in 1968, yet far from Vietnam and even from the spirit of nearby Haight-Ashbury. It may seem no more than an above-average gangster movie, but its iconic status continues to resonate today due in part to the snarling vigor of that car chase and in even larger measure to the abiding sense of a Steve McQueen at the top of his game, committed to adding a razor-sharp realism to every sequence. The action features numerous city landmarks, from San Francisco General Hospital to Grace Cathedral and the Mark Hopkins Hotel. “Bullitt” remains a benchmark in the crime-movie genre, and influenced such future classics as “The French Connection,” “Heat,” and especially the Jason Bourne franchise.

In “Bullitt” McQueen found himself on the side of justice for once, but not quite of the law, refusing to kowtow to ruthless superiors like Robert Vaughn’s district attorney. He remained, until the very end of his career, the outsider, as exemplified by “Junior Bonner,” “Tom Horn” and “The Hunter.” He appeared casual, even shy, but never self-effacing; and when the chips were, literally, down in a film like “The Cincinnati Kid,” McQueen’s nerve never faltered. He lived, like the characters he often played, with a ferocious desire for liberty that no other action star could match and to which even today’s Bond, Daniel Craig, can only aspire. And in “Bullitt” he was the quintessence of cool.

Mr. Cowie has written numerous books on filmmakers, including Orson Welles, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa and Francis Ford Coppola.

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