At the movies: Rewatching Bullitt

Steve McQueen with the Bullitt Mustang

“My concept of a chase is that it’s more exciting to see a succession of awesome near-misses than a costly series of collisions. For me the visual attraction of a car traveling at high speed is in the movement of the shock absorbers, the flexing of the tires, and the way a skilled driver handles the wheel. As an Englishman, I was fascinated by San Francisco’s streets and alleys: they were the capillaries and arteries of the city and I wanted to show them that way.” — Peter Yates

“There was class to the Bullitt chase, there was a reason for it, and that’s one of the key things people forget: the greatest stunt in the world is worthless if there isn’t a reason or story to it.” — Loren Janes

If you ask anyone who’s seen Peter Yates’s Bullitt, the iconic car chase is seared in their memory. They will remember the green Mustang, the exploding Dodge Charger, Lalo Schifrin’s score, and the eternal cool of Steve McQueen. They will remember revving engines and sawed-off shotgun blasts, smoking tires, broken glass, trails of dust billowing up into a blue San Francisco sky. For some, it’s maybe not the adrenaline rush it once was in 1968, but it was the first modern car chase that people could feel.

Steve McQueen in Bullitt
The start of the Bullitt chase

Bullitt is comprised of salient moments: the brutal shotgunning of a mafia witness, a bit of subterfuge with a corpse, a tense game of cat and mouse played out on the tarmac at San Francisco International Airport, and perhaps the best performance of Robert Vaughn’s career as ambitious senator Walter Chalmers.

Bullitt’s source material, Robert L. Fish’s 1963 novel Mute Witness, was convoluted, and screenwriters Alan R. Trustman and Harry Kleiner did their best to simplify it. Though it’s easy to lose track of the details surrounding the actual plot involving the witness, the mafia, and the senator, in the end these elements amount to trappings of the movie’s world and tone. Bullitt has style, and it belongs entirely to Steve McQueen as hard-boiled cop Frank Bullitt.

The chase was a story in and of itself. Warner Bros executives believed the film would be a disaster. McQueen recorded a cheering, gasping audience at a Radio City screening that proved otherwise. The $45 million it earned in the two years after its release didn’t hurt, either. And in the 50 years since Bullitt’s release, McQueen, the chase, and his Mustang remain iconic.

“Nobody drives better than Steve McQueen,” wrote Renata Adler in her review of Bullitt for The New York Times. Even then, McQueen was more myth than man, and legend has it that McQueen did all his own driving, but after he overshot a right turn (and perhaps with the intervention of McQueen’s concerned wife, Neile Adams), Yates called in the professionals. Legendary stuntman Bill Hickman was already cast as the driver of the Dodge Charger, and McQueen ultimately shared the driver’s seat with stuntmen Bud Ekins, Loren Janes, and Carey Loftin. Stunt driver Bud Ekins explained, “I think it was the first time they did a complete car chase at normal camera speed. What you saw is what really happened. It was real.”

Bullitt Mustang racing away from a Dodge Charger
Warner Bros.-Seven Arts

The reason that 1968 Ford Mustang 390 GT 2+2 Fastbacks and 1968 Dodge Charger 440s were chosen is as simple as it is unsexy: they were a good deal at the time. Bud Ekins recalls they picked the Mustang specifically because “they wanted it to look like a cop car. This was [Bullitt’s] personal car and he wasn’t a rich guy, he didn’t have a real nice car. And it was Steve’s idea to put the big dent in the fender, to show that it got banged up and he didn’t have enough money or the time to fix it.” His Mustang resonated with people because it was credible, accessible, and cool.

Car chases were once shot on a backlot, slowed down and then sped up on film afterward. Bullitt’s chase was neither—it was shot in real time on city streets. Bullitt was also the first film done with live sound, and the sounds of the road gradually overtake Lalo Schifrin’s score. Mafia men in a Dodge Charger tail Frank Bullitt, but he loses them easily. As they search for their lost target, they suddenly sight him in their rearview mirror, realizing he is now in pursuit of them, the chase’s first little twist. Seeing the Mustang and the Charger airborne still thrills, an idea that came from Steve McQueen himself.

“God, wouldn’t it be great to see a car do that?” McQueen once said to co-star Don Gordon one night after flying over one of San Francisco’s hills on his motorcycle. Even McQueen’s mistake when he misses his turn and smokes his tires to correct it looks so good that the filmmakers kept it. These moments stay with people, and they make Bullitt an enduring classic—it’s a breath of fresh air compared to the CGI-heavy, aphysics-defying stunts of modern car films. Bullitt’s stripped-down chase is its own story, with tension building, a twist, a climax, an explosive resolution.

airborn Mustang in Bullitt
Bullitt Charger R/T

Bullitt helped create the police procedural as we know it, and it engineered a cinematic blueprint for a good car chase: low-angle shots of cars heading straight for you, interior shots of the road that put you in the driver seat, smoking tires, near-misses and sideswipes, lost hubcaps, the way a skilled driver handles the wheel, and danger on the road, from errant pedestrians to traffic in the intersections.

In an interview with Motor Trend, McQueen described the appeal of a car chase set on city streets: “An audience digs sitting there watching somebody do something that I’m sure almost all of them would like to do.”

Maybe that explains some of Bullitt’s staying power. Yes, the chase is the essence of the movie, but consider this: There is a moment in the movie when McQueen stands outside the entrance to a grocery store at the corner of Taylor and Clay. He has no change on him, so he hits a newspaper machine with his fist, and steals a paper. “People still walk up to that paper machine and pound on it,” says the store’s current owner. “They still remember.”