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Ring a Ding Ding

Bullitt (1968)

     Bullitt is probably most well known for its fantastic, and rather long, car chase scene, but focus on the action sequence perhaps detracts from the merits of the plot. The film involves Steve McQueen playing a fairly stoic detective: Lt. Bullitt. He is assigned to protect a state’s witness who is brutally murdered during another detective’s watch. Even before the witness is officially dead, McQueen is out to find the murderer and potentially the reason behind the killing.  The mystery gets a bit complicated, however, when McQueen’s character discovers the man who was killed was actually a look-alike for the real witness.

     There is a scene in a hospital basement when McQueen is chasing down the hit man responsible for the shooting. Puzzlingly, however, is that McQueen is unarmed. The murderer carries an ice pick or some kind of metal shank, yet our protagonist pursues him empty handed. First this raises the question of why does a detective not carry a gun (were they forbidden in hospitals–I find that hard to fathom) but even more so, what does McQueen expect to do if he does manage to catch the villain? Perhaps the stylish sweater McQueen dons just does not have room for a gun–who knows.

     Returning to the car chase, if might interest you to know that the action was not all conducted by a stunt driver. McQueen allegedly learned to drive the Ford to be able to participate in the tire-squealing, hill-jumping fun that has become so well-known among movie lovers. The film takes place in San Francisco, so the steep inclines and declines add fuel to the excitement and add difficulty to the motorists’ maneuvers. The scene ends in a crash and considerable inferno resulting in the loss of another two individuals who might be able to tell us what the hell’s going on.

     Ultimately, neither McQueen nor the viewer fully unravels the mystery as (and perhaps this calls for a Spoiler Alert) all the characters who could reveal the meaning behind the initial murder and witness switcheroo are killed.  Despite this — and perhaps this is what prevents Bullitt from being a spectacular picture — is that I nearly did not care what the answer was. I was left with many questions but was content to let them go at the final fade-to-black. Bullitt seems to be more driven by catching a particular antagonist than revealing any sort of truth.

     Finally, I learned something about myself by watching Bullitt. The final shot of the movie is McQueen washing his hands in a bathroom sink, face down to the basin with a medicine cabinet mirror in front of him. I clearly have watched too many horror movies and thrillers, because anytime a shot is set up to show someone before a small mirror and not looking directly into said mirror, I have to assume the subject will raise his head and find a villain behind him ready to attack.

     Therefore, the ending of this film put me a bit on edge as a prepared for a shock, which is just about the opposite of the intent. The finale is supposed to convey a.) Bullitt washing “the blood” off his hands and b.) a moment of self analysis as he looks himself in the mirror and wonders if maybe his girlfriend was right–he is totally numb to the horrors of murder.

Source: Robert Osborne

One Response

  1. Bullit made a huge impression on me when I originally saw it back in 1968. I was a grade schooler and it was the first adult themed (violence, sexual themes, blood) film I viewed on the big screen. Don’t think I was able to really follow the plot, I just took it all in. Haven’t seen it since, but I clearly remember the guy getting shot up like swiss cheese in the hotel room, the car chase through San Fran and Bullit’s girlfriend who spent a good amount of time in a man’s blue dress shirt and nothing else.

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