Saturday, 15 January 2011

Bullitt: The Car Chase That Blazed A Trail

A single 10 minute scene in the midst of a fairly dull 1968 cop thriller forced Hollywood to re-assess its entire outlook on the car chase. Bullitt coasts largely on the other-worldly cool of leading man Steve McQueen (has any other star proved more unflappable?) and the on-location photography in hippie-era San Francisco. While the film was an undeniable influence
on the likes of Dirty Harry, on the whole it remains fairly mundane - bar *that* scene. With the recent tragic death of the film's director Peter Yates, it's only right to look back on the granddaddy of all movie car chases, arguably the first to be constructed as a serious dramatic set piece. My all-time favourite remains the Paris fender bender in Ronin, but Bullitt's is arguably the most important and the most influential, showcasing a commitment to reality that forced every subsequent thriller into a flurry of recycling.

#1 The Logistics

Far removed from the gadget-laden Aston Martin chase in Goldfinger or the buffoonery of The Pink Panther, in Bullitt, director Yates displayed a ruthless commitment to ground-level realism. Making the decision to film the chase on actual San Francisco streets brought a whole host of dangers, the cars exceeding the expected speed limits (and at one point colliding with a camera). Shot over three weeks, the route was also carefully planned, starting in the Mission District and ending on Guadalupe Canyon Parkway, traversing different locations which showcased the extreme topography of the city, raising the tension. Yates also hired stunt co-coordinator Carey Loftin (the unseen truck driver in Duel), stuntman Bud Elkins (for McQueen's more dangerous moments) and stunt driver Bill Hickman as the villain McQueen pursues, all of which lends the chase that vital sense of lived-in realism. By taking the chase into the real world like never before, Bullitt set the standard by which all others are measured.

#2 Steve McQueen

Those who've watched the fascinating (if amusingly portentous) 'Commitment to Reality' featurette on the old Bullitt DVD will be well-aware of Steve McQueen's desire for immersiveness way beyond the confines of his character. Not merely content with throwing himself under a jumbo jet during the film's climax, he also performed the majority of his own driving work, taking to the racetrack with Bill Hickman weeks beforehand to better prepare himself for the dangers that lay ahead. The result is a not merely a car chase but a car chase centered around a real character, feelings exacerbated by the authentic presence of McQueen behind the wheel. Authenticity would become all in every chase to follow, be it Gene Hackman almost colliding with a pram in The French Connection to the clever trick-work in Ronin where all the actors were subjected to terrifying high-speeds (although the actual drivers were carefully concealed). No-one ever maintained their cool like McQueen, though.

#3 The Cars

The guttural roar of Bullitt's 1968 Ford Mustang GT is enough to send car-fanatics and action-movie enthusiasts into a flurry on its own. When coupled with the brute-force of the Dodge Charger however, it becomes a symphony of speed, the sound of the engines transforming the entire scene into a celebration of speed and American muscle. Both cars are put through their paces on 'Frisco's unforgiving hills and valleys, groaning with screeching tyres and thumping suspension, sound effects reminding the audience that the vehicles on-screen are being treated as cars, not empty fashion vessels. The sense of verite realism spills across into the sound design as well as the visuals, further adding to the thrilling excitement of the chase.

#4 The Tension

Bullitt was a breakthrough at the time for the careful, steady way it built up tension prior the chase starting, indicating this was a film that didn't treat action as an ostentatious gimmick but as a powerful dramatic device. As McQueen spots his assailants in the traffic opposite, a witty little cat and mouse game ensues whereby he draws the baddies in before turning the tables on them and appearing in their rear-view mirror. The use of close-ups, aerial views, reverse shots and low angles all achieve an irresistible, nail biting rhythm, accompanied by Lalo Schifrin's ice-cool jazzy score ('Shifting Gears' on the soundtrack), which lends a broiling sense of anticipation. Interestingly, the score in Ronin is used in reverse, coming in as that chase builds to its climax. That the chase necessitated such careful planning ensures it retains a rigorous sense of control once Hickman buckles up his seat belt (terrific attention to detail rarely glimpsed in such scenes) and roars off up the hill.

#5 The Climax

Frank P. Keller's Oscar-winning editing is vital throughout the scene but takes on an especially dynamic rhythm in the latter stages. All car chases risk failing with an anti-climax but Keller builds tension so effectively beforehand that the payoff is nothing less than spectacular. Dribbles of a demolition derby threaten through, be it a scraped chasse here or a missing hubcap there (not to mention an unfortunate motorcyclist nearly coming a cropper), but it really shifts into high gear (arf arf) in the last couple of minutes. Bullitt at first attempts to bash the fearsome Charger off the road, only to hold back when the second hit man (Paul Genge) blasts a few terrifying shots through his windscreen, before finally going in for the kill: ramming his enemies off the road into a petrol station for a spectacularly explosive coup de grace.


  1. In a bit of an unexpected turn, the film's sole "not-guilty" suspect is batteries, one of the chief culprits if you asked the oil or auto industries. At the time GM's EV1 came to market, it came with a lead acid battery with a range of 60 miles. The film suggests that since the average driving distance of Americans in a day is 30 miles or less and so for 90% of Americans, electric cars would work as a daily commute car or second car. The second generation EV1 (and those released by Honda, Toyota, and others) from 1998 to the end of the program, featured nickel-metal or even lithium (Nissan) batteries with a ranges of about 100 or more miles.Car Trailers

  2. Classic action movies are thrilling and very simple, and those are the main reasons why most of them are so entertaining to watch. Most of the car chase movies nowadays are confusing. Sometimes the camera moves faster than cars, LOL. I hope filmmakers understand that there are instances when simple is better.

    Tyra Shortino