When you talk about the history of action movies, you sort of have to define what an action movie is first. As with any movie genre, lines blur, and movies can be multiple things at once. Action—fights, chases, bodies forced into extreme circumstances—has been a part of narrative cinema since narrative cinema became a thing. If you wanted to be ultra-pedantic, you could say that the 1903 silent film The Great Train Robbery was the first action movie, though it would take a whole lot of work to draw a historical line between that and John Wick.
For the purposes of this column, action movies didn’t arrive in their modern and fully-formed state until the late ’60s. There were other genres of movies that supplied the kinds of thrills that action movies would later provide: Westerns, war movies, crime thrillers. (All those genres will appear, in hybridized forms, in this column later on. We’re also going to stay away from things like superhero movies, sci-fi, fantasy, and Oscar bait, except in the rare instances when those genres cross over fully with the action genre.) And there were movies that could be considered proto-action movies: John Sturges’ 1955 Bad Day At Black Rock, Hitchcock’s 1959 North By Northwest, all the early movies in the Bond series.
I should also add that the whole goal of this column is to pick the most important action movie of every year, not necessarily the best or most beloved. (Most of the time, though, it probably will be the best or most beloved action movie of its year, partly because bullshit usually doesn’t leave that deep of an impact and partly because I have no desire to rewatch a bunch of bullshit.) Think my friend Shea Serrano’s The Rap Year Book, the obvious inspiration for this column, which you should definitely go read.
This column could’ve honestly started a year earlier, with John Boorman’s tough and stylish Lee Marvin revenge yarn Point Blank. (See that movie if you haven’t.) And maybe it’s a little arbitrary to start in 1968 instead. But this was the moment when a hard-edged, unflinching, modern action movie—one built as much around its set pieces as its characters—found mass acceptance. With minimal changes, Bullitt could’ve come out at any point in the last 50 years, and Charles Bronson or Bruce Willis or Jason Statham could’ve filled the role of San Francisco police lieutenant Frank Bullitt, a man so tough he’s named after a misspelling of the word “bullet.” But we’re lucky we had Steve McQueen.
Bullitt was absolutely McQueen’s baby. Solar Productions, McQueen’s company, made the movie, and McQueen himself recruited its director, Peter Yates. McQueen specifically hired Yates because he wanted a kickass chase scene in his movie and because he was impressed by the chase in Yates’s previous movie, the 1967 British caper Robbery. Even though Bullitt’s famous car chase only arrives two thirds of the way through and doesn’t have that much of an impact on its plot, it’s the part of the movie that everyone remembers. That’s no accident. It seems like McQueen had that scene in mind when he started putting it together.
It almost seems too obvious to say, but McQueen could not possibly be more perfect for the role. His Frank Bullitt is a hard-edged cop who doesn’t give a damn about office politics and who is going to get his man whatever happens—a type we’ve seen again and again over the years. He also has a life outside his job, though we only get to see bits and pieces of it. (He hangs out with Jacqueline Bisset in restaurants where funky jazz bands are playing, which seems like a pretty good way to spend your time.) When we first see him, he’s recovering from a wicked hangover, an entrance that Bruce Willis may have stolen for, what, 75 percent of his movies? We don’t have to be told that Bullitt is an ice-cold motherfucker; Lalo Schifrin’s strutting score and McQueen’s icy blue-eyed intensity does all that work for us. His best line, directed at a meddling politician: “You work your side of the street, and I’ll work mine.” When he’s working, McQueen’s Bullitt is edgy and alert and perfectly willing to drive at ridiculous speeds while Chicago mob hit men fire off shotguns at him.
McQueen did his own driving in that chase scene, which pitted his Mustang against a Dodge Charger driven by a pair of hit men. And while the cinematic car chase has evolved plenty in the years since, it’s still a hell of a scene, with the two cars whipping around corners and speeding past bystanders, each trying to figure out a way to cause the other car to explode in a fireball. The scene is beautifully edited—Frank P. Keller won an Oscar for his work in the booth—and you can always figure out where the two cars are in relation to each other. Yates used cutting-edge lightweight cameras to film the scene, and he creates the then-novel effect that you’re right there, in the passenger-seat next to Bullitt. McQueen never does Jackie Chan-level stuntwork—he’s not jumping tractor-trailers or anything—but his sheer willingness to vroom through those San Francisco streets is a beautiful thing.
Beyond the chase scene, Bullitt actually has a fairly involved plot, with local political machinations and a central mystery. Yates films the whole thing with a sort of vérité naturalism. There’s very little expository dialogue, and you have to figure out where these people exist in relation to each other just by watching how they react to each other. There’s a great moment when a young black doctor agrees to help Bullitt hide a body so that he can keep his investigation going. The doctor never has to explain that he’s helping because an asshole politician has insulted him; it’s understood. That level of subtlety did not exist in action movies for long, so enjoy it while it lasts.
The plot involves a mob informant who’s under police protection because he’s set to testify in a Senate subcommittee hearing. And the car chase isn’t the only set piece; there are also a couple of foot chases and one nasty shooting. The movie maintains a nice momentum without taking too much focus off its central character. In a cool moment, Robert Duvall shows up in a role that would’ve been called a cameo if Duvall had been famous when he made it.
Most of the movie’s principal figures wouldn’t go on to have the sort of career that Duvall did. McQueen, of course, made a bunch more great movies before dying young in 1980. Yates, meanwhile, went on to make some badass crime movies—The Hot Rock, The Friends Of Eddie Coyle—as well as the great bike-racing romance Breaking Away and the cheesed-out ’80s fantasy Krull.
But the legacy of Bullitt isn’t necessarily what the star and director would do afterward. Instead, Bullitt pioneered the chase scene, making it hectic and believable and somehow entirely coherent at the same time, a trick that a present-day director like Michael Bay still hasn’t mastered. And it proved that the world had an appetite for that sort of brisk, tough, modern action movie. It was a big hit, it cemented McQueen’s stardom, and it left a blueprint that plenty of other movies would follow. It very much deserves to be the first movie in this series.
Other noteworthy 1968 action movies: There weren’t many of them! Once Upon A Time In The West, maybe the greatest Western ever made, came out in 1968, but it wasn’t really an action movie. It was also a big year for war movies, with The Green Berets, Ice Station Zebra, and Where Eagles Dare, the latter of which gave a young Clint Eastwood so many chances to upstage an aging Richard Burton. There were a few biker-gang movies, early kung-fu movies, and Japanese entries in the Zatoichi series, but none of them are all that significant. The only real competition for Bullitt—and it’s not serious competition—is Coogan’s Bluff, in which Eastwood plays a cowboy cop running around psychedelic-era Manhattan. It’s a pretty fun movie on its own, but it’s mostly notable for being the first time Eastwood worked with Don Siegel, who would go on to direct him in Dirty Harry and a bunch of other movies.
Next time: Sam Peckinpah raises standards for gore and body counts with The Wild Bunch, a Western so grimy you can only barely call it a Western. Along the way, he accidentally invents the John Woo shoot-’em-up.