Viking Night: Bullitt
By Bruce Hall
January 18, 2011
Most consumers have no problem loving a huge budget blockbuster. Movies that are meant to appeal to the widest possible audience usually do just that. But some films have a narrower vision, or simply contain more complex meaning than meets the eye. They aren't always art, and they aren't always even very successful. But for a devoted and eccentric few, they're the best entertainment money can buy. Once, beginning with Erik the Viking, a group of dedicated irregulars gathered weekly in a dingy dorm room to watch these films and discuss how what pleases the few might also appeal to the many. Time has separated the others in those discussions so that I alone remain to ponder the wider significance of cult cinema. But while the room is cleaner and I no longer have to skip class to do it, I still think of my far off friends whenever I hold Viking Night.
Steve McQueen is easily the most awesome individual who has ever lived – which is why jealous naysayers occasionally refer to him as "overrated." It’s a common gripe leveled against those whose popularity crosses the border from fame into legend, particularly when it happens during their lifetime. Some celebrities’ reputation is only the result of the material they produce or the image they cultivate. But others are fundamentally the real McCoy or in this case – the real McQueen. Go ahead and report me to the Bad Pun Police if you’d like and I’ll gladly go without a fight.
Because McQueen was an orphan, a one time lumberjack and a former United States Marine. He raced cars and motorbikes at a professional level, knew his way around a gun, studied martial arts with Bruce Lee, ran five miles a day and performed most of his own stunts. When he was at his best, his acting style did not require him to act – the hard boiled tough guys he was famous for playing were almost always the same person McQueen saw in the mirror when he brushed his teeth every morning. Not everybody gets to be famous, and not everyone who is stays that way for long after their death. But 30 years on, Steve McQueen is still known as the “King of Cool” and if you ask me, it is no accident.
This is the persona McQueen brought to Bullitt, Peter Yates’ adaptation of a well reviewed but largely forgotten novel by author Robert L. Fish. McQueen plays Detective Lieutenant Frank Bullitt, an improbably named but hard working San Francisco police detective with a reputation for doing his job well. He is approached by aspiring D.A. Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn) to guard a very important witness for a high profile government hearing scheduled to take place several days hence. Slick as butter mobster Johnny Ross (Vic Tayback) finds himself estranged from the Syndicate and to save himself, has agreed to testify against his bosses and bring down the organization.
Bullitt and his men are assigned simply to keep Ross safe until the deposition. But what seems like a relatively simple assignment goes bad quickly, as a pair of enforcers (Paul Genge, Bill Hickman) track Ross down, putting him and one of Bullitt’s men in the hospital. With the star witness and one of his best men now fighting for their lives, it quickly becomes clear that the killers had inside information and that Chalmers has been less than honest with Bullitt about what’s really going on. Eager to redeem his reputation, Bullitt takes his investigation outside the box and starts reconstructing Ross’s movements, putting the puzzle together piece by piece. Under pressure from his superiors and himself now the target of a vengeful Mob, the detective has just two days to uncover the conspiracy, solve the case – and save his career.