Bullitt is an early example of the great tradition of giving your main character an exciting-sounding-if-preposterous last name so you can use it as the title of the film. In this case, the main character in question is Frank Bullitt, a brilliant police lieutenant played by Steve McQueen, who is tasked with protecting a witness. But when there’s an assassination attempt, he takes it on himself to go after those responsible.
A significant precursor to the action films of the eighties, it sets the pace with an incident and action filled opening sequence. But while it has immense car chases, guns and explosions, it’s primarily a plot-driven film, which significant amounts of time given over to Bullitt’s investigation. As such it keeps you engaged throughout and doesn’t feel gratuitous.
As with so many films set in the beautiful city of San Francisco, the city is almost a character in its own right, with its iconic hills, sweeping views and distinctive architecture both providing a backdrop for and guiding the course of the action. There’s some pioneering cinematography, particularly in a car chase sequence shown from the point of view of the pursuer flying down a busy city street.
There are elements of the plot which would feel like clichés if this weren’t one of the original films of the genre: the strained relationship with the girlfriend, the independent cop not doing what his superiors tell him. But the strength of the performances and writing, and the fact it was one of the first of its kind makes this easy to overlook and one of the greatest films to be set in San Francisco. And that’s saying something.