The Quintessential Car Chase Movie
Few would argue that Bullitt remains the quintessential car chase movie of all time. The film was based on the novel “Mute Witness” written in 1963, and under the direction of Peter Yates formed a tight white knuckle ride, both in and out of the car. Of course having Steve McQueen as the lead was always going to ensure the film would be a commercial success, he being well supported by other great actors such as Robert Vaughn, Robert Duvall and Don Gordon (as Bullitt's long-suffering but intensely loyal partner).
The other actors are themselves a superb supporting cast: old-timers like Simon Oakland and Norman Fell. But, as well, there are memorable newcomers: George Sanford Brown as an overworked doctor and Jacqueline Bisset as Bullitt's trophy architect-girlfriend.
The soundtrack by Lalo Schifrin set the pace for the film during the opening credits, with a classic lounge-bar feel of jazz, brass and percussion that helped make the hair on your neck bristle at just the right moment. For the classic car enthusiast, the car chase near the middle of the film remains the stand-out, McQueen driving a 1968 GT Mustang 390 Fastback, with the hit-men in a 1968 Dodge Charger R/T 440 Magnum.
Ford GT Mustang 390 Fastback vs. Dodge Charger R/T 440 Magnum
There were in fact two Ford Mustangs and Dodge Chargers used for the chase scene, the Chargers having significantly more power too (325 bhp vs. 375 bhp). The two Mustang’s were owned by Ford, however the Chargers were purchased outright for the making of the film.
The Mustang came in for the majority of modification work, with veteran car racer Max Balchowsky overseeing changes to the brakes, suspension and engine. By comparison, the Chargers remained little changed, except of course for some heavy duty suspension components to allow them to cope with the stunt work.
McQueen was of course considered an accomplished driver, and many people today wrongly believe that he did most of the driving himself. But it was in fact a motorcycle racer, one Bud Ekins, that performed the risky stunts (co-incidentally, it was Ekins who doubled for McQueen in the motorcycle scene from “The Great Escape”).
There is apparently one way you can tell who is at the wheel when you are watching the movie – simply look out for the position of the interior rearview mirror. When the mirror is up (visible) McQueen is behind the wheel, and when it is down (not visible) Ekin is in the car (. The black Dodge Charger was driven by Bill Hickman, who also played one of the hit-men and helped with the choreography of the chase scene.
Peter Yates (the director) called for speeds of about 75 to 80 mph (120 to 130 km/h), but the cars (including the ones containing the cameras) reached speeds of over 110 mph (175 km/h) on surface streets. Filming of the chase scene took three weeks, resulting in 9 minutes and 42 seconds of film. During the chase scene, the Charger loses six hubcaps and has different ones missing at different times. Yates also wanted to film the chase across the Golden Gate, however they were denied permission.
Bulitt Movie Synopsis
Set around the streets of San Francisco, the plot revolves around Frank Bullitt (McQueen) providing witness protection to Johnny Ross who, after stealing $2,000,000 from his Mafia cronies including his brother Pete Ross, has decided to become a witness for the coming Senate subcommittee. Senator Walter Chalmers (played by Vaughn) enlists the help of Bullitt to make sure his new star witness survives long enough to make his testimony. There have already been two attempts to kill Ross, so the task is certainly not an easy one.
Around the clock protection is provided to Ross, with police officers Sergeant Delgetti and Inspector Stanton doing the overnight shift. And that is exactly when the mafia hit-men make their move on Ross, but strangely it is Ross himself that unlocks the door allowing them easy access.
Stanton and Ross are both rushed to the hospital, Stanton able to tell Bullitt that it was Ross himself that unhooked the chain. Enter Senator Walter Chalmers, who arrives at the hospital to obtain a deposition from Ross. Clearly displeased at the apparent ease at which the hit-men could make their move on Ross, an impromptu meeting at the hospital has Chalmers and Bullitt locking horns as to who was responsible. Bullitt smells a rat, knowing that the hit-men had identified themselves as Chalmers himself, and that someone must have told them where Ross was hiding out.
The Body In The Morgue, One "John Doe"
Of course a hit man is soon dispatched to the hospital to finish Ross off, although this attempt is intercepted by Bullitt, the first chase (of the foot variety) occuring throughout the hospital grounds. But the hit-man needn’t have bothered, Ross succumbing to his injuries. Smelling a rat in high places, Bullitt suppresses news of the death, getting Doctor Willard to misplace the chart, and having the body placed in the morgue under a “John Doe” identity.
Chalmers is of course not in on the ruse, and the next morning serves Bullitt’s boss, Captain Bennett, with a writ of habeas corpus to produce the witness. It is already pretty evident that Chalmers is not a likable fellow, and his choosing to serve Bennett with the writ as his family arrives at church is certainly not good form. Bullitt’s next step is to reconstruct Ross's movements before the slaying, starting out with the cabbie (played by Robert Duvall) who brought him into the city.
Then Bullitt investigates the phone calls made by Ross, discovering that one call was made to a hotel in San Mateo; to a woman registered under the name Dorothy Simmons. With the hearing the next day, Bullitt suspects that the dead mobster laying in the morgue under the name “John Doe” may not be who he seems. The scene is now set for the legendary high-speed car chase through San Francisco.
The Pursued Becomes The Pursuer
Knowing Bullitt is getting too close to the truth, the hit-men turn their attention to Bullitt himself, and try to create an ambush. Skillfully he manages to evade them, and by back-tracking turns the chase on end, with the pursued becoming the pursuer. At first the hit-men pretend not to notice that the tables have been turned, driving slowly around the city in an edgy scene. An opportunity to escape presents itself...the driver takes a moment to fasten his seatbelt, the music stops, and the chase is on, with smoke billowing out of their tires as they power through an intersection.
Bullitt gives chase through the hilly streets of San Francisco and the outlying highways. The chase comes to an end when the bad guys career from the highway and crash into a gas station, both being killed in the fiery explosion.
Bullitt then turns his attention to Dorothy Simmons, the woman Johnny Ross called in San Mateo.
Without no cars available in the police pool, Bullitt enlists the help of his girlfriend Cathy (played by Bisset) to drive him (in her Porsche 356
) to the suburban motel for the meeting. There Bullitt discovers Simmons has been executed, however a check of her luggage reveals her true identity is in fact Dorothy Renick, who had been booked on a flight from San Francisco to Rome with her husband, the monogrammed shirts leading them to one Albert E Renick.
Chalmers attention is now focused on Bullitt, he wanting to discredit him to save a little political embarrassment. With the two again at loggerheads, Bullitt waits patiently for a fingerprint check to reveal the true identity of Albert E. Renick while Charmers demands Bullitt sign an official statement acknowledging that Ross died while in his custody.
The Swindle Is Revealed (You Sent Us To Guard The Wong Man Chalmers)
Bullitt ignores Chalmer's request until he receives a copy of the passport photos, the entire group waiting patiently while the fax machine slowly prints. When it completes they examine the print, whereupon both Bullitt and Chalmers realize that they have been conned. The man who was murdered was not Johnny Ross, but Dorothy's husband, Albert Renick, a used car salesman from Chicago with no Mafia connections. The real Johnny Ross paid Renick to impersonate him, while letting Ross use his passport and identity to leave the country. Ross also set Renick up to get the heat off him, then killed his wife to shut her up.
Bullitt has to stop Ross before he can make his getaway on the flight to Rome, knowing that Ross has assumed the identity of Albert Renick. In a nail-biting climax, Bullitt enters the plane sitting on the tarmac to locate Ross. Ross makes good his escape via the rear door of the plane, and the third chase takes place on the busy airport runways as aircraft take off around them. Inside the terminal, Bullitt finally corners Ross at a glass doorway; Ross kills a security guard in order to escape, but this blocks the door. Realizing he is trapped, he turns on Bullitt, who shoots him.
The movie ends with Bullitt returning home to find Cathy asleep. He enters the bathroom to wash his hands and looks into the mirror, quietly contemplating his future as a detective.