Celebrating some of the great crime films of the decade known for moral ambivalence.
American cinema experienced a golden age in the 1970s, and no genre had more of a rebirth than the crime thriller. Films such as The French Connection, Dog Day Afternoon, the Dirty Harry series, and The Conversation (among many others) gave a new voice to the structure and narrative of the typical cops-and-robbers saga, which spent much of the 1950s and 60s languishing beneath a pontificating morality. Reflecting the uncertainty of the era, the new crime films boasted ethically ambivalent protagonists who often brandished the same ruthlessness as their opponents. The films were an idea whose time had come, and their brooding relativism would inform not only other crime movies but also the science fiction and Western genres throughout the 1980s and 90s.
But as proof that time hates a calendar, the new breed began two years ahead of their decade with the 1968 release of Peter Yates’ Bullitt. The taut, engrossing story (based on the novel by Robert L. Fish) centered on titular loose cannon Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen), a San Francisco police detective charged with protecting a mob witness until a district attorney (Robert Vaughn) can bring him to trial. When Bullitt’s assistants fail to guard the witness from mob hitmen, it falls to him to uncover the wide-ranging conspiracy behind the attack.
As a character Bullitt is archetypal of the 70s crime cinema anti-hero: noncomformist even among other cops but especially with respect to his superiors, he’s what in today’s jargon would be considered a “rogue.” Ignoring the district attorney and a writ served against him, he enlists his girlfriend Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset) into the investigation, which soon reveals that the witness Bullitt’s men guarded was not actually a mob witness at all but someone else entirely.
The two are not quite Nick and Nora Charles: horrified by the scene of a dead body, Cathy attacks Bullitt with recognition of his world. “You live in a sewer, Frank!” she screams. (Her dread represents another new archetype that screenwriters have used to soften their cop characters edges ever since: the everywoman love interest, in turns nurturing and supportive yet terrified by the main character’s reality.) Despite her revulsion, Bullitt has to stop the true mob turncoat from escaping the country that same day.
The centerpiece of the film is the gripping 11-minute car chase through the San Francisco streets, a set piece that proved so popular with audiences that dozens of imitator films would make its use cliché by the end of the 70s. Yates (Breaking Away) shot the sequence on location, keeping the action not on deserted streets but rather on crowded avenues and through intersections, narrowing the viewer’s perspective while raising the tension.
Small wonder that the film proved a boon to the Ford Motor Company, whose 390 CID V8 Mustang essentially enjoyed a co-starring role as Bullitt’s vehicle of choice.
Other smaller details almost seemed aggressive in promoting a new image of masculine cool: Bullitt’s all-black wardrobe, his sleek underarm shoulder holsters (inspired by legendary SFPD Inspector David Toschi, who served as technical adviser on the film), and the aforementioned anti-authoritarian attitude all resonated with audiences grown bored with the straight-arrow lawmen that had populated crime movies and television since the heyday of Dragnet in the 1950s.
Similarly, Bullitt and Cathy enjoy a very modern relationship: highly sexualized but with little sense of real commitment. They each have their own careers (she’s an architect) but their lives intersect easily and without strain. Watching the film now, it’s easy and even tempting to misunderstand their dynamic as bullying or one-sided. But Bullitt only pulls Cathy into his world when he has no alternative, implying a protectiveness and trust towards her that stays powerful by remaining unspoken. The film ends with him staring at himself in a mirror while she sleeps in the next room, possibly reasserting his dedication to self-reliance in the future.
- Michael Kabel
(We’ll be republishing more of our 70s Crime Cinema series of articles in the coming weeks.)