Great Film Car Chases: Bullitt

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Last week I began a month-long spotlight on great film chases with The French Connection. This week I will be writing about my favorite car chase in movie history: the iconic chase through the streets of San Fransisco in Bullitt (1968).

I must confess before I start discussing the chase that I’m a huge fan of Steve McQueen and Bullitt is my favorite of his films. McQueen had a love of cars and motorcycles in real-life,so the iconic scene in Bullitt is all the more amazing. In the film,

San Francisco Police Lieutenant Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) is asked personally by ambitious Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn), who is in town to hold a US Senate subcommittee hearing on organized crime, to guard Johnny Ross (Pat Renella), a Chicago based mobster who is about to turn evidence against the organization at the hearing. Chalmers wants Ross’ safety at all cost, or else Bullitt will pay the consequences. Bullitt and his team of Sergeant Delgetti (Don Gordon) and Detective Carl Stanton (Carl Reindel) have Ross in protective custody for 48 hours over the weekend until Ross provides his testimony that upcoming Monday. Bullitt’s immediate superior, Captain Samuel Bennet (Simon Oakland), gives Bullitt full authority to lead the case, no questions asked for any move Bullitt makes. When an incident occurs early during their watch, Bullitt is certain that Ross and/or Chalmers are not telling them the full story to protect Ross properly. Without telling Bennet or an incensed Chalmers, Bullitt clandestinely moves Ross while he tries to find out who is after Ross, and why Ross has seemingly made it so easy for “them” to find him. As Bullitt enlists the help of his live-in artist girlfriend Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset) over the weekend and as she sees for the first time with what he deals every day, she wonders if he is indeed the man with whom she should be.–IMDB

The film’s iconic chase comes about when Bullitt is being pursued by the same hit men who came after Ross. When Bullitt tries to turn the tables on the bad guys,the result is an adrenaline-packed car chase through the streets of San Fransisco.

Like The French Connection‘s iconic chase that I discussed last week,Bullitt‘s iconic scene was shot on location with real cars. It has a grittiness that is lacking in the CGI-filled monstrosities we see far too often in today’s films. Here are some fun facts about the chase from Internet Movie Database:

  • Two Mustangs and two Dodge Chargers were used for the famous chase scene. Both Mustangs were owned by the Ford Motor Company and part of a promotional loan agreement with Warner Brothers. The cars were modified for the high-speed chase by veteran auto racer Max Balchowsky. Stunt coordinator Carey Loftin got Bud Ekins to drive the Mustang for the bulk of the stunts. Both of the Dodges were junked after the filming, as was one of the Mustangs. The other less banged-up Mustang was purchased by a WB employee after all production and post-production was completed. The car ended up in New Jersey a few years later, where Steve McQueen attempted to buy it. The owner refused to sell, and the car now sits in a barn and has not been driven in many years.
  • According to director Peter Yates, Steve McQueen made a point to keep his head near the open car window during the famous chase scene so that audiences would be reassured that it was he, not a stunt man, who was driving,
  • Bullitt’s reverse burnout during the chase scene actually wasn’t in the script–Steve McQueen had mistakenly missed the turn. The footage was still kept, though.
  • Frank Bullitt’s car is a 1968 Ford Mustang 390 GT 2+2 Fastback. The bad guys drive a 1968 Dodge Charger 440 Magnum. The Charger is just barely faster than the Mustang, with a 13.6-second quarter-mile compared to the Mustang’s 13.8-second.
  • Director Peter Yates called for speeds of about 75-80 mph, but the cars (including the ones containing the cameras) reached speeds of over 110 mph. Filming of the chase scene took three weeks, resulting in 9 minutes and 42 seconds of footage. They were denied permission to film on the Golden Gate Bridge.
  • Although Steve McQueen was credited with the driving during the chase sequence it was actually shared by McQueen and Bud Ekins, one of Hollywood’s best stunt drivers. From the interior shots looking forward inside the Mustang it’s easy to see which one is driving. When McQueen is driving the rear view mirror is down reflecting his face. When Ekins is driving it is up, so his face is hidden.
  • At the time, San Francisco was not a big filmmaking mecca and the mayor, Joseph L. Alioto, was very keen to promote it as such. Consequently Bullitt enjoyed a freedom of movement around the city that would be hard to come by today, including giving up an entire hospital wing for filming, closing down multiple streets for three weeks for a car chase scene and taking over San Francisco International Airport at night.
  • Bud Ekins, who drives the Mustang, also did the motorcycle jump for Steve McQueen in The Great Escape.
  • Bill Hickman, seen as the baddie “Phil” who drives the Dodge Charger, actually did drive the Charger in the movie. The driving scenes netted him additional stunt work, which included yet another classic car chase for The French Connection (1971). In 1973 he drove the Pontiac Bonneville as Bo in the chase of Roy Scheider’s character Buddy driving the Pontiac Ventura Sprint coupe in The Seven-Ups (1973).

There are lots of reasons why this is my favorite film car chase. First is that it features Steve McQueen,the “king of cool,” and my dream car: a 1968 Ford Mustang. I would get the car in red instead of green,but I digress. Another is the great use of location. Seeing all those iconic San Fransisco locations,classic muscle cars cruising over those steep hills…it’s electrifying! The city is a character in the movie,and that adds to the realism. Finally,there’s all the great stunt work by legends Bill Hickman and Bud Ekins. The importance of their contributions cannot be overstated.

Bullitt stands the test of time because of the iconic chase,Peter Yates’ superb direction,and because it was a part that Steve McQueen was born to play. The McQueen swagger is on full display in his performance,the way he dresses,and,of course,the way he handles himself behind the wheel of a muscle car. I’ve seen Bullitt probably a dozen times,and the car chase is one of many reasons I will likely watch it a dozen more.

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