Friday at the Movies: Bullitt

By: Bridget Clerkin April 6, 2018
Every week, DMV.ORG takes you behind the scenes of some of the best movie car chases ever. This week: Bullitt.
Share This Page
Share Pin It Email Print

We here at DMV.ORG have great reverence for history. Not a year goes by when we don’t celebrate the Vehicle Act of 1915, which gave us the gift of the Department of Motor Vehicles.

We also appreciate things other than laws about cars—like movies about cars. And when it comes to movies about cars, there’s nothing better than a good car chase scene. And when it comes to good car chase scenes, any history buff would be remiss not to mention 1968’s Bullitt.

It’s the granddaddy of them all; the genesis; the patient zero of cinematic road racing. And it’s gorgeously shot: in a movie otherwise filled with confusing plotlines, it’s a gloriously straightforward 10-minute symphony of squealing tires, rumbling engines, gunshots, and explosions, starring none other than the king of cool himself, Steve McQueen.

Other than being the first of its kind, the scene is notable for a number of other firsts—like being the first chase seen to be shot “at speed,” meaning the daredevil driving performed at upwards of 110 MPH through the streets of San Francisco was 100% real. (An offer made by stunt coordinator Carey Loftin to shoot at different angles or camera speeds in order to enhance the appearance of speed was steadfastly refused by McQueen.)

The sequence has deservingly gone on to inspire a number of copycats and homages—and at least one DMV.ORG review. Keep on reading to see how the scene was put together—and how it stacks up on our official rating scale.

The Scene

It all starts out innocently enough. Steve McQueen is Lieutenant Frank Bullitt, faithful member of the San Francisco Police Department, on duty protecting Johnny Ross, a member of the Chicago mob who’s set to squeal on his associates in a coming trial.

Things go terribly wrong for Ross when he’s shot at by a couple of hitmen who apparently feel differently about his decision to work with the justice system, but they go even worse for the hitmen once Bullitt realizes later on that the baddies are trailing him after the Ross shooting. Nobody’s victim, and certainly nobody’s fool, Bullitt turns the tables and starts following the hitmen instead, sending the group on a merry chase through the City by the Bay—and its notoriously hilly streets.

The pursuit eventually winds up on a road more suited to high speeds: the Guadalupe Canyon Parkway in Brisbane, CA, just South of San Francisco proper, though geographically impossible to reach in real-time by the route depicted in the film, even at 110 miles per hour.

Artistic interpretations aside, the chase goes on, beautifully captured in a number of shaky-cam and point-of-view shots, leaving no doubt about the speed and skill taking place behind the wheel.

Making things all the more dangerous for Bullitt are the bullets sent back his way by the now-desperate hitmen, eager to end the chase at any cost. They eventually do reach that ending, though not likely in the way they would have preferred, when—SPOILER ALERT—Bullitt sideswipes them and sends the car swerving uncontrollably into a gas station, where the entire thing goes up in flames, sending a fireball sky-high and a still-speeding Bullitt skidding off the highway, stopping just short of a massive ditch.

The Cars

Bullitt won the 1969 Academy Award for Best Editing, with the fast and furious cuts of the car chase scene alone enough to merit that accolade, but those working on the film also added a fair amount of manipulation to the scene in order to make the sequence seem even more thrilling.

In play were a 1968 Ford Mustang GT Fastback piloted by McQueen’s character, and the pursuit vehicle, a 1968 Dodge Charger R/T. While the Fastback was reportedly sporting a 390 cu. in. V8 engine, the double-clutching that can be heard throughout the chase made some fans do a double-take, as the four-speed gearbox on the GT wouldn’t have required that maneuver.

The disparate observations chalk up to a bit of movie magic, with producers electing to use the growling sounds of the Ford GT40—a supercar built by the company to race in Europe—in order to make McQueen’s Mustang more menacing.

Eagle-eyed fans have also pointed out that the Charger shapeshifts throughout the pursuit, with the hitmen sometimes seen piloting an R/T—an acronym that stands for “Road/Track,” which typically signifies an upgraded suspension, better tires and brakes, and a more powerful engine—and sometimes driving the base model. Indeed, throughout the chase, the car is sometimes sporting the much narrower wheels and tires of the base model, which were allegedly fitted to the more powerful 440-cu. in. R/T in order to make McQueen’s Mustang appear faster. The thinner wheels also help promote sideways slides and could be used to kick up more smoke as the tires struggled to maintain traction.

(And assiduous watchers have also pointed out the fact that the Charger discharges a total of six wheel covers along the way, although at no point in the chase scene do we see anyone stop to collect the discarded equipment.)

Still, the cars were sturdy enough—and the drivers behind the wheel professional enough—that the studio only needed to borrow two versions of each in order to successfully film the scene, which took three weeks overall. The Mustangs underwent pretty significant modifications, mostly to fortify the engine and suspension in order to ensure it could withstand the hilly jumps and high speeds needed to complete the shots, though the Chargers were essentially stock. Yet perhaps the coolest car involved in the scene was one that never made it on film. The camera car tasked with chasing the chase was built specifically for the movie, stripped of nearly everything aside from its Corvette chassis, special-made suspension, and custom engine.

The Drivers

A legendary racecar driver in his own right, McQueen took on some of his own driving duties in the chase scene, even putting in a few laps at a practice track the day before filming began in order to get familiar with the car.

The king of cool was set on not having a stunt driver, but he lost out on the argument after missing a turn in the San Francisco streets, leaving tires screeching, smoke billowing, and director Peter Yates calling in some pros to take over the rest of the duties. (Upon finding out about his racing ambitions, McQueen’s wife also apparently had something to do with putting the kibosh on his plans.) Still, Yates must not have been too upset with the goofed turn, as the shot made it into the final movie and has since become an iconic image from the film.

Brought on board to help pilot the Mustang was McQueen’s longtime stuntman, Bud Ekins. (An easy way to tell when which man is driving is the placement of the rearview mirror in the car: when it’s up, it’s McQueen; when it’s reflecting down and away from the camera, it’s Ekins.) Both McQueen and Ekins were also notoriously good on a motorcycle, with the near-miss with a biker on the highway possibly a subtle nod to the duo’s hobby.

Fleeing McQueen is Hollywood stunt driver extraordinaire Bill Hickman, who was responsible for piloting the smooth moves in a number of classic chase scenes, including the riveting race against an el train in The French Connection.

In Bullitt, he puts in double duty, showcasing exactly how not to live your life (by being a hitman) and exactly how to live your life (by buckling your seatbelt). Still, he likely didn’t have a PSA in mind. At the time, before the clasps were standard practice, buckling up was a sign that things were about to get serious: The belts helped prevent drivers from sliding across those popular bench seats in the late ‘60s, keeping them steadfastly in place to manipulate the clutch and steering wheel. Still, even consummate professionals like Hickman aren’t prone to mistakes. After jumping down a hill and sliding around a corner, he gets a little too close to the camera mount, clipping the equipment and bringing an abrupt end to the shot.

The Score

Even though the scene is an all-time classic and the granddaddy of all chase scenes, the fair amount of movie magic involved would normally downgrade its score to a 7 out of 10. But the seatbelt shout-out and general awesomeness that is Steve McQueen can’t be denied, so overall, we at DMV.ORG give this chase scene an official score of 9 out of 10, with a bonus Fonzi Thumbs Up Award issued for copious amounts of coolness.

Check out more of our Friday at the Movies features:

Recent Articles