The assignment is to watch Ross for the weekend until he can testify on Monday. Bullitt has two partners team to cover the watch, Sergeant Delgetti (Don Gordon) and Detective Carl Stanton (Carl Reindel). Chalmers tells him the hotel room where Ross is staying and Bullitt is given the authority to do anything he needs to to keep Ross safe by Captain Bennett (Simon Oakland)
Ross seems surprised at the arrangement and asks a lot of questions, but Bullitt doesn't bother coddling him, telling Ross that the only concern he should have is staying away from the windows. Ross does inform them that Chalmers picked the hotel. They divide up the watch into shifts and Bullitt goes out to a club to meet his girlfriend Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset). Delgetti calls Bullitt to let him know they're changing shifts and Cathy gets annoyed because he won't tell her anything about the call.
Stanton is now watching Ross, and the front desk annouces two visitors at 1:00 in the morning, claiming to be "Mr. Chalmers and a friend." This makes Ross noticeably uneasy. Stanton calls Bullitt, who tells him not to let them in and he'll be there in five minutes. The visitors don't wait at the front desk however, busting into the hotel room shooting, leaving Ross and Stanton unconscious and bleeding. Bullitt arrives at the hotel with police and ambulances already at the scene. Stanton was shot in the leg but has some bleeding problems, while Ross is in worse shape. Bullitt questions Stanton in the ambulance, getting a description of one of the men and his gun. He also reveals that Ross had taken the chain off the door, which helped the men get in. The hospital informs them that Stanton will be alright, but Ross is in critical condition. Captain Bennett meets Bullitt at the hospital to inform him that Chalmers is upset and likely to make up political points by blaming the Police Department for his lack of the promised witness. Bullitt answers the Captain, "Does Chalmers run this case or do I?" The Captain gives him authority saying "Do what you think is best, and I'll try to back you up."
Chalmers and some associates soon vist the hospital themselves. Chalmers attempts to put Bullitt on the spot asking what went wrong, but Bullitt counters by asking "Who else knew where he was?" He pushes further, asking what deal Chalmers had with Ross. Chalmers won't answer and claims that the only problem is that the officer's didn't handle their responsibility. Chalmers clearly intends to be intimidating, but Bullitt isn't bothered, dismissing Chalmers, by saying
"You believe what you want. You work your side of the street, I'll work mine."
Chalmers informs Bullitt that he'll come back in the morning with his own people to watch Ross. On his way out he demands to have his own surgeon replace the one who had been treating Ross. After he leaves, one of the killers from the hotel shows up at the hospital, claiming to be looking for a relative with a gunshot wound. Bullitt is alerted to the killer's presence by a call from a hospital employee. He informs Delgetti that one of the killers is in the building and they start searching the hospital. The killer escapes, but they keep him from Ross. Bullitt is in the operating room shortly afterwards when Ross dies during surgery. Bullitt asks the surgeon to keep the file open, not telling anyone (particularly Chalmers) about the death, hoping this will help catch the killers. The surgeon agrees to "misplace" the file. The body is then sent to the morgue as a John Doe.
Chalmers arrives the next morning at the hospital with a large entourage. When he finds Ross is not in the same room, he gets frantic and starts throwing his name around to get results.Captain Baker (Norman Fell) accompanies Chalmers, lending the authority of an official police request to his demands. He then calls Bullitt and asks where the witness is. Bullitt says "I've got him." He refuses to tell Chalmers where Ross is, hanging up when Chalmers puts Capt. Baker on the phone. He then order Baker to write him up, and Baker quickly agrees.
Bullitt goes back to the hotel room for a look around. Degetti and Bullitt question the hotel clerk who says they knocked him out before he saw anything. Bullitt starts intimidating the man which jogs his memory, and he soon remembers seeing them arrive and what cab company they used. Bullitt starts checking out Sunshine Cabs and finds the driver, Weissberg (Robert Duval) who dropped the men off. He has Weissberg show him where they went and calls an informant, Eddie, for information on Johnny Ross. The killers meanwhile, are parked nearby watching Bullitt.
Chalmers pays a visit to Captain Bennett at church, promising him career advancement and vague financial reward. The Captain tells him that it's Bullitt's case and if he's hiding the witness, he's doing so for a reason, Chalmers, frustrated, hands the Captain a "writ of habeas corpus" telling him he's now responsible for delivering the witness. Eddie reveals that Johnny Ross was stealing money, and they tried and failed to have him killed and the mob is now watching the airports and ports so he can't go anywhere.
Bullitt gets back to his own car, a 1968 Ford Mustang GT 390 CID Fastback, and notices the killers car close by following him in a 1968 Dodge Charger R/T 440 Magnum. Bullitt quickly turns the tables and ends up behind them. When they panic, this leads to the most famous chase scene in movie history as Bullitt chases them through the streets of San Francisco for nearly ten minutes.The killers get blown up when they lose control of the car and drive into gas pumps.
Bullitt now has to answer to both Chiefs. Baker, as we know is deep in Chalmer's pocket, and Bennett, who has run out of options after the car chase. Bennett has no choice but to insist that he turn over Ross. Bullitt reveals when ordered, that Ross is dead, which causes Baker to berate him. Bullitt reveals he has a lead to follow up, a girl's number that Ross had called.The Chief agrees to hold the writ for Ross until Monday morning (upsetting Baker) Bullitt takes the opportunity to follow up his lead. He gets to the girl's apartment to find her strangled to death. Cathy, who drove him to the scene, gets bored and concerned and goes inside to check on him.
She's severely disturbed by seeing the dead woman and Bullitt has to make her stop looking at the body. His callous attitude when dealing with such a horrific scene makes her question if she knows him at all and if anything can ever reach him. Reasoning that his living with violence and death will make him grow more distant from her.
"What will happen to us in time?" she asks
"Time starts now" Bullitt answers.
The dead woman's luggage is sent to the police department from the airport. They discover men's things in one of her luggage trunks along with travel arrangements to Rome minus passport and tickets, as well as a lot of money and evidence with the name of Albert Rennick. He orders a copy of Rennick's passport photo and fingerprints on file for Ross. Chalmers shows up during his investigating and demands a signed admission that Ross died in his care. Bullitt says "when I'm ready" and finally when Chalmers insists just says "excuse me" and leaves Chalmer's standing there. Bullitt reveals that Rennick is actually a used car salesman, Ross set up to pose as him, and the dead woman was his his wife, killed to keep her quiet about the arrangement so Ross can leave the country using Rennick's identity.
Bullitt, Delgatti, and Chalmers head to the airport to catch the real Ross. Chalmers attempts a conversation with Bullitt, reminding him that Ross is still his witness. Bullitt is clear with his response, snarling:
Bullitt: "Look, let's get something clear. I don't like you."
Chalmers: "Come on, now. Don't be naive, Lieutenant. We both know how careers are made. Integrity is something you sell the public."
Bullitt: You sell whatever you want, but don't sell it here tonight.
Chalmers: Frank, we must all compromise.
Bullitt: Bullshit!...Get the hell out of here, Now.
Chalmers has the sense to comply. Bullit gets an escort to the plane and makes his way to Ross, who jumps out an emergency exit and takes off down the runway leading to an extended foot chase which ends with Bullitt shooting Ross dead. Chalmer's drives away in his chauffered car, while Bullitt stays at the scene. He heads home to find his girlfriend and he takes a long look in the mirror, before the camera moves to his gun, which he'd set aside to wash up.
Bullitt is one of the most influential action movies ever made. Peter Yates has an interesting style, keeping the story moving at a fast pace and trusting the audience to keep up. The various chase scenes are worthy of praise in their own right, yet most of the movie is watching Steve Mcqueen glower, keeping everything to himself. While Bullitt is no Dirty Harry, there could have been no Dirty Harry without him. Bullitt is the ultimate loner, and when Cathy worries about him growing more callous, no one can doubt she's right to be concerned. While everyone else in the movie is bound by clear rules and agendas, Bullitt is impossible to figure out. He obviously despises the system he works in, yet for reasons of his own he continues. He thinks no more of a enacting a possibly career ending deception, than he would of brushing his teeth.
McQueen's acting is great to watch. He plays the role with several convincing facial expressions, which he has down to perfection. Vaughan is also fantastic, playing sleaze to the hilt. You wonder how anyone can bear to talk to him. Their scenes together are wonderful, each representing an alien world to the other. The supporting roles are all solid if slight. It's also very cool to see a young Robert Duvall, if only for a moment.
Bullitt is not bothered by anything; his character, the epitome of cool and detached. He does what he feels he should do, unnaffected by anyone else's thoughts. He doesn't care about status or success, he just does what he has to, because for some reason he's good at being a cop. Chalmers is Bullitt's opposite number, completely driven by what others think, and the prospect of obtaining more money and influence. The crime is strictly an excuse to put Bullitt and Chalmers against each other. The fact that there are two police chiefs is also significant. Chief Baker is happy to play Chalmer's flunky, while Bennett sympathizes with Bullitt but ends up unable to back him because of the system they work in. His partners may sympathize, but they simply follow the rules while Bullitt is making moves. We're to understand that he doesn't have a real ally anywhere. McQueen's demeanor only changes radically once in the movie, when Chalmers suggest he should compromise. "Bullshit!" he says, and we believe him. He won't compromise and that's what leaves him outside the system, not only at work, but in his relationship with Cathy, and presumably in his own life. To me, the ending scene suggests that he knows Cathy is right.
Bullitt is a story about one man at odds with the system, who also knows he's powerless to change it. The Chalmers of the world just drive away when things go badly, and chauffered at that. Even his supporters eye him cautiously, not comfortable with an intensity they can't understand. Bullitt looks good in the headlines, but he doesn't really care about how he looks. He keeps a steady romantic relationship, but lives like a single man. He won't compromise his self sufficiency, any more than he would compromise his own sense of integrity. While some may find it admirable, for Bullitt it looks like steady torture, fortunately for the length of the film, it's torture he can manage. But watching the last scene you wonder how long he can tolerate being surrounded by compromises, and what he'll do when he can't anymore.