Bullitt at 50

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Bullitt 50 Years On. Bullitt at 50 Julian Balme remembers the greatest movie car chase, half a century on Half a century after its release, Julian Balme revisits this Steve McQueen classic to assess its lasting impact. Photography Rex Features/Ford.


Bullitt: fabulous at 50 Still the top car chase?


Allegedly, the first words that the Hollywood legend said to British director Peter Yates were: “Hi, I’m Steve McQueen and I want you to direct my next movie.” That film was Bullitt, shot on the streets of San Francisco 50 years ago this May. It would cement the actor’s reputation as the ‘King of Cool’, set the bar for celluloid car chases, increase sales in navy rollneck jumpers and ignite a stampede to clone 1968 Mustang Fastbacks into the hero’s subtly modified, Highland Green Metallic example. Since the end of the 1990s and the subsequent wave of image exploitation, coupled with the insane prices paid at auction for some of his belongings, many an enthusiast is suffering from McQueen fatigue. And yet, after five decades and endless CGI’d Fast & Furious drifting, both the actor and the film remain the standards by which newcomers such as Baby Driver are judged.


1968 Bullitt 50 Years
Bullitt 50 Years

The only reason, most commentators reckon, that McQueen and his company Solar Productions green-lit the project was because the script required a ‘high-speed automotive action sequence’. According to Yates, however, this wasn’t the case: “It came about because Phil D’Antoni, who was producing the film, had seen the chase in my movie Robbery. He knew of McQueen’s love of fast driving, but I was a bit concerned because I’d already done a chase and didn’t want to do another one. The fact that Robbery had been seen by so few people in America hardly entered my head.”

Either way, the 10 minute and 53 second scene became the film’s centrepiece, and was the final element to be shot during a two-week period at the end of the production schedule.

If there were any watchwords hovering over the movie, they would have been authenticity and integrity – two ingredients still considered to be invaluable today, and no doubt the main reason why Bullitt endures. The film’s brief was that everything should appear as genuine as possible, hence the approach to Yates. The previous year, he had directed another filmstarbacked production, this time Stanley Baker in the aforementioned Robbery, a bleak and tough loose portrayal of the Great Train Robbery.


Bullitt 50 Years
Bullitt 50 Years. San Francisco Bay makes a stunning backdrop for the ‘King of Cool’.

The DNA is clear for anyone to see, the most important element being the use of real locations. Not one scene of Robbery or Bullitt was filmed on a studio lot. Even stylistic details from the former, shot in London, found their way into the latter – such as the moody soundtrack music building the expectancy of the chase, and the classic ‘car in the mirror’ shot.

Yates was an interesting choice. Born in Guildford, he’d enjoyed a privileged upbringing attending first Charterhouse and then, with a growing passion for the theatre, RADA. During the ’50s he worked as a dubbing assistant, cutter, stage manager and theatre director, eventually becoming an assistant director, most notably to Tony Richardson on A Taste of Honey, one of the better British kitchen-sink dramas of that and the following decade. Again, the handwriting is evident in the use of locations and gritty realism.

It’s also claimed that Yates dabbled in motorsport, from racing himself to managing Stirling Moss, neither of which have been substantiated – though he definitely worked fleetingly at HWM in Walton-on-Thames in an unknown capacity. In 1963 he made his directorial debut with the Cliff Richard double-decker singalong Summer Holiday. Not exactly a portent of the tough cop capers to come, but he did find himself conducting episodes of TV shows The Saint and Danger Man as the decade progressed.


Bullitt 50 Years
Bullitt 50 Years. From top: in-car views for the iconic chase were shot using bonnet-mounted camera rig; Highland Green Mustang on the San Francisco streets.

Only his third feature, Robbery immediately grabbed the viewer’s attention by opening with an audacious heist and subsequent chase. The plod are in a Jaguar S-type, the villains a Mk2 – a cliché now, but this was long before Regan and Carter were terrorising similarly equipped baddies in the back streets of Fulham. The action is fast, furious and – most importantly to McQueen and his team – appears very real. The character Frank Bullitt was an unsuccessful Boston-based cop, as written by author Robert Fish in Mute Witness, his novel on which the film is based. When originally optioned by Hollywood, the studio had, of all people, Spencer Tracy in mind for the part. The property only became available to McQueen and D’Antoni on the 67-year-old legend’s death. As for shifting the action to the West Coast, Yates recalled in 2005 that the mayor of San Francisco had been encouraging crews to shoot in the city, and that by not filming in LA they would also enjoy more freedom and avoid being scrutinised by the industry: “The city and the police were incredibly helpful. They were so co-operative, it was just extraordinary. As long as they knew exactly what we were going to do and they knew what roads to close off, they were fine. It wasn’t a very fast way to shoot as naturally we had to set up each shot… In those days the studios used to have deals with car companies – Warners was with Ford. Both Steve and I were very determined that we shouldn’t have a Ford chasing a Ford – it would look like a tie-up. Thankfully, through Steve’s influence, we got permission to use the Charger. I liked the Charger a lot. It had this evil, sharky, rather spooky look to it and contrasted well with the Mustang.”


Bullitt 50 Years
Bullitt 50 Years. Clockwise: famous reversing scene was a mistake; McQueen’s letter begs for his old car back; Charger leaps during the chase sequence; Yates and McQueen swap notes.

It has been well documented how the film’s two 390cu in big-block Mustangs were modified extensively by backyard special builder and racing driver Max Balchowsky, and how the two Chargers used were left relatively stock. (Many MOPAR fans like to tease that this was the only way our hero could stay with the Dodge.) All four cars were accounted for in that one of each model was thought to be destroyed, the lone surviving Mustang was squirrelled away in Return of the real Bullitt Mustang New Jersey and the other Charger was remarkably discovered by enthusiast Arnold Welch (C&SC, May 2013). That was until last year, however, when a story broke announcing that the remains of one Mustang had been found in a Mexican scrapyard, only to be trumped in January by the disinterment of the other Ford by the long-term owner’s son (see right).

In a promotional short, made at the time of the movie, McQueen provided some of the commentary: “We had Bill Hickman, one of the finest stunt drivers in the world today, and myself, probably the worst. We had eight stunt drivers and put them in cars to act as ‘pedestrians’; that way when we were passing them at over 100mph, we knew what they were going to do and they knew what we were going to do.”

‘THE PLOT COULD BE FROM ANY COP SHOW, BUT THE AESTHETIC WAS WAY AHEAD’

Hickman and McQueen spent three weeks practising driving together in close proximity “at well over the ton mark” at the now-closed Cotati Raceway, north of San Francisco. McQueen continued: “Then we had to plan out our route. We were involved in approximately 20 to 30 square blocks, so we had close to 50 people stationed with walkie-talkies to give us clearances over when to start and to stop people accidentally walking into the scene.”

For fans, the documentary also answers a question. It shows the moment when the Charger makes the right turn onto Chestnut Street, where in the finished film the stunt is edited abruptly – it’s pretty obvious that Hickman has lost control and hit something. Shot and shown from another angle, you can clearly see one of the cameras getting flung across the pavement by the Dodge before the Mustang enters, wheels locked up, stage right. That, too, was a mistake; ironically, it would lead to one of the film’s most iconic images. Having overshot the turning, McQueen slams the Ford into reverse before ably demonstrating the brutal effect that 325bhp-plus can have on a cart-sprung rear axle.

As the back end tramps and the rear tyres flail away, McQueen has the presence of mind to stick his head out of the window and look behind. As Yates said: “Steve wanted audiences to know exactly who was driving the car.”

The documentary also shows the skeleton high-speed camera rig used for shooting the low tracking shots, along with footage of the crew filming from inside the ‘trunk’ of the Charger. All of the cars directly involved were driven by stuntmen, the white Pontiac Firebird being particularly popular and popping up in at least three different locations during the chase. Yates recalls only having a morning to shoot the downhill, yumping segment on Taylor Street where the now-notorious green Beetle ambles along.


Bullitt 50 Years
Bullitt 50 Years. Clockwise, from above: image that made McQueen – and Mustang – an idol; wheelspinning its way after the Charger; McQueen felt it important that viewers knew he was driving; villains’ Dodge approaches its demise.

Having used two cameras, they ended up repeating the scene in the edit, hence the two cars making a left-hand turn in front of the same Cadillac twice. This steep section never fails to churn audience’s stomachs, the over-the-shoulder view perfectly accentuating the terrain of San Francisco as the horizon comes and goes.

Unusually, it was apparently composer Lalo Schifrin who suggested that there be no music during the chase, the sound of high-revving V8s and screeching tyres being sufficient. That said, his brooding score is perfect in setting up the action, and it’s a great touch to have the driver of the Charger clip his seatbelt just before the music is cut short by the sound of a waking V8 and the subsequent mayhem unleashed.

“It was like a gunfighter putting on his holster,” Yates recounted. “Bullitt to a certain extent was a modern Western – a genre also usually shot on location. Even the Mustang and Charger could be considered as underlining that Western theme. Most cop shows were shot on the lots. We simply had to keep away from what was expected of a normal TV police drama.”

MCQUEEN: “WE HAD HICKMAN, ONE OF THE FINEST DRIVERS, AND ME, ONE OF THE WORST”

It is true that the plot of Bullitt could have been used in an episode of any ’60s cop show, but the film’s production values and aesthetic were way ahead of anything else in 1968. Using lightweight cameras and long lenses with minimal, atmospheric lighting dispelled any fear of it being just a glossy TV programme. Yates went on to direct several significant films, but on his death in 2011 Guardian critic David Thomson suggested – rather unfairly – that in the US he’d done ‘nothing more profound than send hubcaps careering around corners’ – neatly overlooking that those same hubcaps were part of the most influential action sequence in cinema history.

As for that chase, the argument still rages. The stunts in Frankenheimer’s Parisian masterpiece Ronin are incredible and technically superior, but in 30 years will we be cloning 5 Series BMWs or Peugeot 406s? In the charisma stakes, they can’t hold a candle to a Dodge Charger 440 R/T or Mustang 390GT. Sure, there are continuity gaffes – the route, for instance, is hard to string together – yet 50 years later its look and ambience endure. The last word, though, should be from Yates, who did a director’s commentary on the 2005 release of the special-edition DVD: “I love chases. I think chases are such fun. It’s always difficult to time them properly, but when they work out like this one did, it’s so satisfying.” Best car chase ever? Probably.



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