High Octane Cinema: Bullitt (1968)
San Francisco. A jazzy score, full of bass lines and hi-hats. Excitingly fluid camerawork from William A. Fraker. A prosecutor’s star witness is on the run from his own brother’s accomplices, not wanting to be found by them or the law. A single cop tries to outmaneuver everyone to keep the case together.
Then the witness is killed while in custody, and the real chase begins. Who’s playing who becomes a question thrown back into the mix more than once. Steve McQueen, the King of Cool himself, took the title role in the 1968 cop thriller, Bullitt, heading a cast that includes solid performances from Robert Vaughn, Robert Duvall, Norman Fell and Jacqueline Bisset.
McQueen plays Frank Bullitt, a man who hardly fits into the thriving community he polices, a straightforward man who analyzes every detail and remains skeptical of every one of them. Bullitt’s a man of few words, letting the world explain itself to him through evidence, presentation, and his instincts. He paces around hotel rooms and hospital wards, sniffing out things that don’t fit. He chases his prey like a bulldog. Interesting side note: McQueen tailed famous Zodiac homicide inspector Dave Toschi, going so far as to have a copy of Toschi’s quick-draw shoulder holster made for himself.
Peter Yates directed Bullitt like a lived-in, but hip and lively, world with myriad personalities, full of music, noise, and activity. His San Francisco bustles, shifts and speeds along as only a city at the front of a society’s progress could be, just like the West Coast of the US drove the culture of the time. While this sense of style does date the film, the sense of place is impeccable, and make the coming car chase that much more vital.
Bullitt tracks down the duo whom he believes killed his witness and begins following their ’68 Charger 440 with his Mustang. They get wise to his tail and take off like a bat out of hell, careening over and across the famous hills in an attempt to shake Bullitt’s pursuit. The American muscle cars tailspin around corners lesser drives would spin out in and bottom out their suspensions on landings that would prove to total all but one of the four cars used in the chase (McQueen’s ‘stang, which changed hands to a collector who wouldn’t even sell to the King of Cool himself before he died of cardiac arrest).
Fraker’s camerawork, Frank Keller’s Academy Award-winning editing, and Yates’ sense of geography for the action, if not the actual geography of the city itself, join together in a harmony of purpose that keeps a ten-minute long car chase fluid, frenetic, tense, but still a treat to follow along. The crew modified the cars pretty heavily to ensure they could make the turns necessary to achieve some of the more fantastic shots, and despite rumors to the contrary, McQueen only drove the ‘68 Mustang 390 GT himself on straightaways after he nearly crashed trying to pull off one of the more strenuous high-speed corners. His friend and master stuntman Bud Ekins (who also pulled off the famous motorcycle jump from The Great Escape) did most the driving stunts for him. Still, during those straightaways, Yates had said McQueen tried to keep his head out the driver’s side window so the audience would see it was him behind the wheel. Bill Hickman, however, who played one of the killers in the film, did do the driving of the Charger, which got him the gig to do the driving for our previous entry, The French Connection.
These cars thread more needles in this chase than most modern car chases do with CGI, and these were real cars on real streets! More than one corner is taken at speed, where other vehicles are cutting off the radius on either side of the intersection.
No dialogue or music is found during this chase — it’s just the grit of the road, the roar of Detroit steel, and a purely distilled celebration of American muscle, as a San Francisco cop hounds after the heels of the men who killed his witness and threw his career into turmoil. It’s a clear, thrilling cat-and-mouse game, using nothing more than the real world, physics, and a few heavily modified classic sports cars to tell its story. And if it weren’t for producer Philip D’Antoni wanting to tailor the script to McQueen’s rep as a steely-eyed “car guy,” the chase never would’ve been shot at all.