As soon as that jazz Lalo Schifrin score kicks in and the titles start playing, Bullitt (1968) throws you back to a different time. It's sixties cool, with the distance of detective cinema history palpable in its every frame, is somewhere in-between the new Hollywood of the seventies and the old studio system. It's certainly more radical in execution than some of the films being made around that time, taking a lot of influence from European cinema – the French New-Wave in particular – and having a detached air of cool. It's very close to what would now be labelled as neo-noir.

The film was directed by Peter Yates, a Brit who had primarily directed television at that point – but it was the likes of The Saint with Roger Moore and Danger Man with Patrick McGoohan, some of the most inventive of the British wave of procedural series, that played well with audiences worldwide. That outsider's eye becomes obvious when watching Bullitt. The film is based on the novel "Mute Witness" by Robert L. Fish, but contains numerous changes from that book, including its iconic San Francisco locations – which used zero sets.

Our first glimpse of Detective Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) is when a detective comes to find him for a new case. He's in bed, probably hung-over, and either way hasn't had much sleep. The case, as it turns out, is to protect a vital witness, Chicago mobster Johnny Ross, for a political candidate called Walter Chambers (played in a deliciously smarmy – and slimy – manner by Robert Vaughn, McQueen's co-star in The Magnificent Seven). When Ross is gunned down whilst in the ostensible protection of Bullitt and his co-workers, Chambers wants answers and Bullitt wants revenge. The plot of the film, for what it is, ends up taking a twist with the delivery of the Ross character, and could be said to be vaguely nonsensical in its conclusion. But that's half the fun of genre pieces like Bullitt. It's more about atmosphere than plot-specifics.

Steve McQueen as detective Frank Bullitt in 1968's BULLITT.

McQueen heavily based his character on Dave Toschi, the infamous San Francisco detective in charge of the Zodiac killings investigation, and later portrayed by Mark Ruffalo in David Fincher's Zodiac (2007), a film that owes more than a little in its stylistic choices to Yates’s film. Clint Eastwood would later use Toschi as his own influence for Dirty Harry (1971).

There are a couple of sequences that give you an idea of what that influence might have been. One is a sequence where we see Bullitt go shopping after an extended evening spent at the hospital. We see him pick up a newspaper, head into the store and go straight to the frozen food section and pick up a pile of near-identical TV dinners. This is a man who doesn't have time or the inclination to prepare elaborate meals. A subtle detail about his private life, in a film that's interested in him as a representation of sixties masculinity. Something that McQueen might have picked up on in his research into Toschi. The only character who interacts with him on a human emotional level is his girlfriend, Cathy, played by Jacqueline Bisset. We see her on a couple of occasions lying alongside him in bed, often silently, and unaware as he heads back out on the beat.

It's a very delicately paced film, one that would probably be classed as an art-house feature in 2018 despite its creation of most of the police procedural picture clichés in modern films. There are long stretches that take place in a glacial, distant manner. They are almost a reflection of Bullitt himself and our distance towards his world. Whilst not quite up there with, say, the work of Michelangelo Antonioni and his cinema of slow paced environment-as-character, it's very close to containing the elements of it. It's fascinating to note that it probably wouldn't get released by Warner Bros. – or indeed any major studio today – for that reason.

The two cars in BULLITT's legendary car chase sequence: a 1968 Ford Mustang 390 GT 2+2 Fastback (driven by Detective Bullitt) and a 1968 Dodge Charger 440 Magnum. The Charger is .02 second faster then the Mustang when timed on a quarter-mile course.

Of course, the legendary car chase sequence that occurs two-thirds into the film is the one that everybody knows this film for – even those who haven't watched it – and it's justifiably exalted. From the moment that the Ford Mustang starts to give chase, the modern film action car chase is born.

The realism of the sequence is helped by McQueen's commitment to performing as many shots as possible himself, letting audiences believe that he was at the wheel of the car because, well, for a few shots, he was. Peter Yates insisting on keeping McQueen's face near the window so audiences wouldn’t even question it. One memorable moment sees him reverse out of a burnout after missing a turn. It wasn't planned to be in the film, McQueen genuinely missed the turn. Yates liked it so much that it remained in the picture. In the end, a stunt-man was deployed for the more dangerous sequences. See the clip of the infamous burnout below via Fandango on YouTube (the entire car chase can be watched over a few videos there too).

The infamous burn-out in BULLITT's car chase, courtesy of Fandango on YouTube. The full chase can also be watched in sequence through their channel.

It's the editing that gives it a ferocity, almost at odds with the delicately measured pacing of the rest of the picture. Short sharp blasts of movement and tight close-ups of McQueen behind the wheel, aided by the noise of the engine's tire screeches and windscreen perspective shots as Bullitt careers around San Francisco in pursuit. Indeed, Schifrin's score is nowhere to be seen, or heard, during this chase, the noise of the cars more than enough to keep the attention. It remains a fantastic sequence to this day, and a clear influence on William Friedkin for The French Connection (1971), which it shares a producer with in Philip D'Antoni.

The film concludes with a lengthy on-foot chase through a busy airport terminus -and across the runway, and serves as a metaphor for the films hero. He's not infallable, he's a human but one who keeps his own emotions at a distance and in check. He chases down the criminals and inevitably catches them and that's his life. McQueen and Yates seem to truly understand the character.  Hollywood would strip-mine the film for its own uses in the decades to come, but none ever really came close to the vibe that the film has. Its art-house leanings and considered pacing might not make it into a modern action film, but that's Hollywood's loss. It's 1960's reflection of masculinity still holds up to this day.