A legend in the rear view: Bullitt screenwriter Alan Trustman
In 1954, Alan Trustman spent the summer in San Francisco and discovered how to get airborne in his little Ford car. A Harvard Law student, he had come to California from his native Boston for a summer job and while he was not particularly interested in cars or driving, he was nevertheless delighted to discover that by careening down the city’s streets with sufficient speed, he could make the Ford take flight as he bombed through the intersections. Youthful enthusiasm quickly took over and soon Trustman and his friends were having contests to see who could get the most air as they drove the hills of San Francisco. It was an experience that would eventually inspire one of the most iconic sequences in cinema history.
A decade later, Trustman—by now a young partner at law firm Nutter, McClennen & Fish in Boston—sat at his desk, staring out his office window at the First National Bank of Boston. A lifelong film lover and hobbyist writer, he began noodling with a story about a bank robbery. Thus was born his first film, The Thomas Crown Affair, starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway.
Following Thomas Crown’s success, Trustman decided to adapt a novel for the big screen. The book he chose was Mute Witness, Robert L. Fish’s story of a New York police detective charged with babysitting a witness in a mafia trial. Trustman moved the story to Philadelphia, added a female lead, and rechristened the main character Frank Bullitt. Never a victim of writer’s block, he churned out his first draft in one 20-hour burst.
“I started writing it just after the Harvard football game at 4:30 on a Saturday and I finished before the New York Giants went on TV on Sunday at one in the afternoon,” Trustman recalls.
The script now had a hard-edged cop, a female lead, and a Pennsylvania zip code. What it did not have, and what Trustman never imagined it needing at the time, was a car chase. Suffice to say, cinema—and automotive history—would be a lot less fun had the film retained the novel’s original form.
Fortunately, producer Philip D’Antoni soon moved production to San Francisco to take advantage of production incentives offered by the city, shifting the entire story’s setting. The new locale reminded Trustman of his earlier hill-jumping escapades.
“You know,” he told D’Antoni, “if you get a light car—even a four-door—and drive fast down those hills, you can fly through the air at the intersections.”
The city’s topography, Trustman pointed out, would make for one heck of a car chase. Trustman also knew from his experience on The Thomas Crown Affair that Steve McQueen was much easier to manage if the script provided him with a challenge, centered on machines or athleticism, into which the mercurial actor could pour his energies.
Trustman soon found himself back at his desk, crafting a car chase for Bullitt. His scripted sequence went into great detail about how the chase should unfold, how the cars should slide around corners and smash into various objects. Not much of a car guy, however, Trustman put little thought into what those onscreen cars should be. Drawing on his own experience, he merely specified that the car be a lightweight Ford.
“I didn’t know much about cars,” Trustman admits. “Still don’t to this day.”
The task of immortalizing a certain green Ford Mustang and a black Dodge Charger thus fell to somebody else. Perhaps Trustman cannot recall exactly who picked out the cars because, by the time the crew got around to filming the chase sequence, he had gotten himself fired by director Peter Yates. Trustman had suggested Yates as director after seeing Yates’ previous film Robbery and admiring its car chase scenes. By the time production began, though, Yates and Trustman were at loggerheads. Their disagreement centered on how to script the female lead, played by British actress Jacqueline Bisset, then at the height of her fame and glamour.
While Bullitt was generally a critical success upon its release, critics were scathing in their assessment of Bisset’s role (Roger Ebert referred to every line spoken by Bisset in the film as “disastrously inappropriate”), and Trustman remains spicy on the topic to this day.
“Peter kept getting me out to California to rewrite the Jackie Bisset character,” he recalls. “In my script, hers was a very strong character, but Peter kept weakening it. After four rounds of seeing the character weakened I exploded at a meeting and said, ‘The problem isn’t the script! The problem is Peter. He can’t get along with strong women!’”
That comment earned Trustman a ticket back to Boston.
Trustman, now 87 years old and living in Florida, nevertheless remains pleased with how Yates and editor Frank Keller (who won an Academy Award for his work on Bullitt) translated his work to the screen. Especially that chase sequence.
“Peter did a brilliant job,” Trustman says. “I was very proud of the car chase—I thought it would be the last car chase ever filmed. It was that good!”
With two consecutive successes to his name, Trustman—whose knack for pithy dialogue owed less to his own literary preferences than to McQueen’s inability to memorize more than five words at a time—had become the actor’s personal screenwriter. Next up? McQueen’s passion project about European sports car racing: Le Mans.
Despite McQueen’s reputation as a difficult personality, Trustman insists that he and McQueen always got along quite well. This relationship frayed almost instantly, however, as the two began work on Le Mans. McQueen insisted that the protagonist be a loser. Trustman had other ideas. In the end, they parted ways. With the benefit of hindsight, Trustman counts this as a blessing.
“I had a plot [for Le Mans] that was pretty good. At least it was a coherent screenplay, which I don’t think they had when they shot the film,” he recalls. “But thank God I wasn’t involved. I think [McQueen] went through 10–15 directors and 10–15 writers and fired pretty much everybody in his life.”
This split with McQueen effectively spelled the end of Trustman’s tenure as a Hollywood screenwriter. According to Trustman, his agent, Stan Kamen, felt that Trustman had embarrassed McQueen (whom Kamen also represented) and Kamen took to forwarding all writing inquiries for Trustman to the wastebasket. Trustman soon went from being one of the highest-paid screenwriters in Hollywood to an unemployed writer who couldn’t buy a phone call from the studios. A few sporadic writing projects came his way in the ensuing years (and The Thomas Crown Affair was remade in 1999 with Pierce Brosnan in the titular role), but Trustman never again returned to his former prominence.
Trustman also never claimed the Mustang offered to him by Ford in the wake of Bullitt’s success. Scared off by the tax implications at the time, he thanked the automaker for its offer and took a raincheck, which he attempted to redeem in 2017. Thus far, he has yet to hear back from Ford.
“They don’t have to give me the car,” Trustman says. “Just let me drive it for three years. I’m going to stop driving when I’m 90 years old anyway, and I’d love for a Mustang to be my last car. It would be very appropriate.”