Bullitt and the Evolution of Cool

In Bullitt, we see the final revolution from the rebellious character of James Dean in “Rebel without a Cause” carried through to the seedy and corrupt world of organized crime and politics. The plot of ‘Bullitt” takes the Rebel character to a different level. In this film, the Rebel character, played in Bullitt by Steve McQueen, is hand-picked by a smooth and smarmy politician to basically take the blame for botching the case of a mobster turned snitch who is under police protection in a high profile court case.

When the witness is killed early in the movie, Steve McQueen is still at the hospital when Robert Vaughn, the politician who hired him, begins to chew him out in front of everyone. Most would take this dressing down in silence or choose to fight back, which would have been utterly pointless in this case. The character of Bullitt, quietly but firmly asks the right question at the right moment.

“Who else knew where this man was?” Robert Vaughn is visibly taken aback and pushes aside the query, contending that it hardly matters at this point. This is where the greatness of a truly cool character permeates the screen. With a complete lack of hyperbole, McQueen says, “It certainly does matter….My men were shot too”. He proceeds from this point to unravel the thread of a complex case which leads him all over San Francisco, with a quiet but deadly determination to discover the truth.

One can only look at an existential novel or play by Pinter to find the type of character willing to risk all, without thought for career or glory, simply to discover the truth behind the initial act of violence. This is the heart of “Bullitt” and the reason it stands up so well even a half century later.

These films tend to leave you asking questions about the character long after the film is done.
It’s not the revolutionary car chase sequence, although that is remarkable in itself. It’s the existential element of the character of Bullitt, the loner quality in him that takes the plot to a different level. We don’t see endings in Film Noir or the Rebel character films that are neatly tied up without leaving a trail of questions. That is the point.

There is a quote about Steve McQueen in Bullitt that is telling. He is standing under a clock, waiting for someone. Yet, even though he is not facing the camera, we know the underpinnings of impatience and curiosity eating at him. Thus, the critic says, ‘McQueen can act with the back of his head.” The point being this- we are anxious to know because he is. The wave of coolly controlled anxiety is something that is unique to the character of the Rebel.

Few actors have been able to master this curious balance of coolly controlled anger with the right amount of righteous indignation and poetic justice. Something that is found at the core of the characters is the ability to balance the emotion and to bring the audience with them on their journey. A delicate balancing act, for sure, and one we have not seen in many years on film. McQueen got it right in Bullitt, and the film still stands as a testament to his unique gift. That is the ability to represent the epitome of cool in all its understated glory.

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