While the majority of you were catching a screening of The Avengers this past weekend I was off visiting and hanging out with my parents. The bulk of my time with them was spent shopping, eating my favorite homemade foods, cringing at a Sox game (c’mon, boys!) and complaining about how–despite the fact that I haven’t had access to cable TV for more than 8 months–there was nothing on TV. On Saturday night, however, my dad decided to introduce me to the joys of the movie Bullitt. I’ve been excited about Avengers for months, but I gotta say–screw your caped crusaders and iron men, ‘cuz Steve McQueen is the original Bad Ass Defender of Justice. There’s a reason he was dubbed “The King of Cool.” He was the strong silent type, and when he spoke on screen you knew he meant business. He didn’t take crap from anybody, and he was unflappable.
Of course, when I say Steve McQueen was a badass, I’m really saying that his film persona was badass. Though he was pretty awesome in real life, too. He really was an avid motorcycle and automobile enthusiast. He even studied martial arts with Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris. Yes, people, he’s credited with encouraging Walker, Texas Ranger to take acting classes. It’s fitting then, that McQueen’s most iconic onscreen moments involve vehicles. When you’re asked to describe the defining moments of McQueen’s work, one thinks of the motorcycle jump in the powerful war drama The Great Escape, and the car chase in Bullitt. The great irony remains, of course, that McQueen’s enthusiasm for cars and motorcycles is utilized to great effect in these films, yet he was not permitted to do his own stunts. The iconic Steve McQueen scenes feature very little Steve McQueen–by the time he was filming Bullitt he was too popular (and expensive) to risk hurting in the filming of stunt sequences, so the thrilling motorcycle jump and tension-filled car chase scenes were filmed using longtime stuntmen Bud Ekins and Loren Janes. McQueen was only permitted to drive while filming the close-ups for the Bullitt sequence.
It’s a credit to Peter Yates’ direction (and Frank P. Keller’s Academy Award-winning editing) that Bullitt‘s extensive car chase does not feel like a dupe–it always seems like McQueen is solidly in the driver’s seat. It’s a beautifully executed scene, replete with thrills, clever visuals, and the requisite crashes. The tension is so palpable that the scene doesn’t even need a soundtrack–all it requires are the sounds of screeching tires and revving engines. That is some seriously skillful filmmaking, my friends. And that’s what really made Steve McQueen a badass: spectacular directorial choices. A good actor can only take a script so far. Bullitt capitalized on McQueen’s strength–his masculine, sturdy presence, his flippant yet stern ‘I don’t give a damn what you think’ looks, and his athleticism. In Bullitt we see McQueen call “Bullshit” (literally), chase down perps in a car and by foot, and make sweet, sweet love to Jacqueline Bisset. It’s a Master Class in Coolness and Badassery, his stoicism and cool-headed demeanor metered by the sparse and direct script. When Bullitt speaks, we know it matters. He is all business and attitude. He does not suffer fools, and we love him for it.
Bullitt is an iconic film because it presents the King of Cool at his best, and because it was as perfect for him as he was for it. The chase sequence is still considered one of the best of its kind on celluloid, and Bullitt remains a thrilling antihero. The film has left an indelible mark on the American cinematic landscape, inspiring directors and editors, songstresses (if you’re feeling masochistic, listen to Sheryl Crow’s “Steve McQueen”), and even instigating the sudden popularity of the Ford Mustang. It’s the film that launched a thousand green automobiles, and solidified McQueen’s legacy as the King of Cool.