Bullitt (1968) Special Edition
1.85:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital 2.0
Warner Home Video, $26.99

Bullitt is a triumph of style over story, an example of how a perfectly cast star, an inventive cinematographer and dynamic editing can transcend even the most familiar plot. The narrative, which follows a San Francisco detective who is out to find the killer of a star witness, is rather routine and hasn’t aged particularly well — alongside TV shows like The Shield and recent urban action films such as Dark Blue, it seems a bit stilted and simplistic. Yet Bullitt maintains its status as a cult classic, and Warner Home Video recently released a two-disc special edition DVD that lovingly showcases the film’s strengths.

Perhaps the most significant of these strengths is the film’s star, Steve McQueen, whose work in the title role ranks among the best of his performances. The actor is startlingly charismatic, and director of photography William A. Fraker, ASC frames and lights him in a manner that accentuates his aura as the coolest of all action heroes. Fraker makes extensive use of long lenses to isolate McQueen in the frame, giving him a larger-than-life quality while also emphasizing his character’s physical and emotional separation from those around him.

Bullitt was Fraker’s fourth feature as a director of photography, but the visuals exhibit the precision and assurance of a veteran. His work earned an award from the National Society of Film Critics and a nomination by the British Academy. The cinematographer composes many images through windows, doorways and other frames, giving the picture a voyeuristic quality; this approach, combined with the decision to shoot the entire picture on location, gives the movie a sense of realism that helps to overcome the routine storyline. In fact, Bullitt’s innovations have been so widely imitated that it’s easy to forget just how groundbreaking it was.

The picture’s most famous scene is its car chase, which Fraker and director Peter Yates decided to film from the perspective of cameras placed in each car. Frank P. Keller’s spectacular editing of this sequence won the film its sole Academy Award, and the setpiece holds up today as a masterpiece of action filmmaking. Aside from the striking visuals, the chase contains some audacious sound design: once the action begins, the music drops out and the whole scene is “scored” with a cacophony of revving engines and screeching tires, details that have been well preserved on this DVD’s monaural soundtrack.

This DVD features a new transfer that is noticeably better than that of the previous DVD release. The subtlety of Fraker’s cinematography is more apparent in this edition, particularly in a beautifully lit sequence in which McQueen chases a killer through a hospital’s dark spaces before emerging into harsh sunlight. The transfer impeccably captures the wide tonal range of the piece, which includes dimly lit interiors in scummy hotel rooms as well as some lovely exteriors that showcase the geography and architecture of San Francisco.

In a terrific commentary track, Yates acknowledges Fraker’s contributions to the film, and he notes that he and the cinematographer shared a background in commercials that led them to make unusual choices in terms of lenses and lighting. Yates’ commentary is the best justification for purchasing the DVD; he provides an articulate description of his approach to the material and offers many anecdotes about his collaboration with Fraker.

The second disc in the set features three documentaries. Steve McQueen: The Essence of Cool is a Turner Classic Movies profile of the actor that provides an informative overview of his career and features some amusing interviews with the actors and stuntmen who worked with him. Another cable documentary, The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing, is an insightful look at the art of editing that includes interviews with several masters of the craft. Shot by John Bailey, ASC, the feature-length documentary is to editing what Visions of Light is to cinematography: an entertaining and inspiring overview of the history of an art form.

The final supplement is a featurette made when Bullitt was released, “Steve McQueen’s Commitment to Reality.” This promotional film is of interest mainly for the way in which it focuses on McQueen’s contributions to the film at the expense of everyone else involved. The unintentionally hilarious narration (written by Jay Anson, who went on to pen The Amityville Horror) treats the actor with a reverence normally reserved for saints and war heroes. Fortunately, the disc’s other supplements tell the full story of Bullitt’s production.

— Jim Hemphill

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© 2005 American Cinematographer.