What would you think if I told you that the greatest and most iconic car film of all time wasn’t really a car film at all? Or that the movie’s sole action sequence involving cars happens over an hour into the film and only lasts a few minutes?
You’d probably think that this humble movie reviewer had lost the plot. That is, until you realize that I am talking about Bullitt. For this 1968 classic is indeed the Holy Grail of car movies owing to its intense, albeit brief car chase, and is thus the subject of this month’s chapter of Rob’s Car Movie Review!
Released with much fanfare by Warner Brothers – Seven Arts in October of that halcyon year, Bullitt was based on the hit 1963 novel, Mute Witness by Robert L. Pike, and adapted for the screen by Alan R. Trustman.
Augmenting the film’s literary pedigree was an all-star cast and crew, including director Peter Yates, producer Philip D’Antoni, cinematographer William A. Fraker, composer Lalo Schifrin, and the biggest movie star in the world at the time, Steve McQueen, whose company, Solar Productions, produced the film. Filling out the cast was the positively luminous Jacqueline Bisset, Robert Vaughn, Robert Duvall, Norman Fell, and Vic Tayback.
Frank Bullitt (McQueen) is a fairly hip, but no nonsense San Francisco police detective, who is tasked by Chalmers (Vaughn), a rather shady and ambitious politician, to protect Johnny Ross, a witness due to testify against the Mafia in a Senate subcommittee hearing on organized crime.
When Ross is murdered by a mob hit-man, Bullitt hides this development from Chalmers, so as to give himself time to investigate. His inquiries lead to the discovery that the man that was murdered was in fact not Johnny Ross, but a body double employed by the real Ross to give him the opportunity to slip out of the country with a fortune in skimmed Mafia money. Bullitt steps in, and at the last moment prevents Ross from executing his plan.
If this all sounds like a fairly straightforward and somewhat generic cop film, you’d be right. Only Steve McQueen’s incredible screen presence, and Jacqueline Bisset’s searing beauty save the first half of the film from being somewhat ponderous. But it is precisely at the movie’s midpoint that the proceedings shift into top gear!
Much has been written over the years about the art and visual language of a car chase – how camera, mise-en-scène, blocking, editing and sound must be precisely utilized to create an immersive and intense sequence. Fail at this endeavor, and a car chase can fall flat, or leaves the viewer unsure of what is going on spatially and temporally on the screen. In the case of Bullitt, director Peter Yates essentially wrote the textbook on creating an exciting car chase, and to this very day, forty-eight years later, people still hail it as the quintessential example of this action film staple.
The sequence begins as Bullitt, driving his Highland Green 1968 Ford Mustang GT 390, finds himself being followed by an ominous looking, black 1968 Dodge Charger R/T 440 driven by the baddies. Bullitt manages to give his tail the slip, and then appears in the bad guys’ rear-view mirror, turning the hunters into the hunted. After a few blocks of sniffing each other out, both parties realize that it’s game on, and the fireworks ensue!
The chase takes place in and around the narrow, hilly streets of San Francisco, with cross traffic present the entire time. The crowded confines and steep slopes of the impromptu urban racetrack raise the level of jeopardy as high as it can go, with the cars drifting around corners, attaining serious air over the peaks of the hills, and sideswiping parked cars.
Yates heightened the sense of danger by using shots from inside the cars, highlighting the drivers struggling to maintain control as well as showing the view through the windshield – in both cases, the first time this was done effectively in a movie. Further enhancing the sequence’s impact is deft editing (that earned Frank P. Keller an Academy Award), prodigious use of location sound that captures every downshift and tire squeal, and an absolute lack of music during the entire scene.
But perhaps no other facet of the chase sequence made a bigger impact on audiences than the realism achieved by fact that the filmmakers actually did what is seen on screen. McQueen, Bill Hickman (the on-screen driver of the Charger, and one of Hollywood’s legendary stunt drivers) and a cadre of professionals spent four whole weeks on the streets of San Francisco, steering those muscle cars around every corner, boulevard and canyon, often exceeding speeds of 100 mph. And boy does doing things the old-fashioned way pay dividends. It’s a lesson today’s CGI obsessed directors could really benefit from learning.
I give this iconic box-office smash 9 out of 10 pistons.
About The Author: Rob Finkelman is a freelance writer for Street Muscle Magazine. He attended and graduated from New York University’s film school in 1992, and subsequently worked in the movie business for twenty years as a documentarian and screenwriter. Combining his two great passions in life – films and cars – and writing about them is a dream job for him. He will be bringing us a Car Movie Review each month, and he’s open to suggestions so list yours below.