The Bullitt car chase is one of the best in the history of cinema.
Steve McQueen played the quintessential American male, defending the weak in the Magnificent Seven (1960), jumping over barb wire barricades on a motorcycle with a hundred Nazis on your tailpipe in The Great Escape (1963) and playing a twenty-eight year-old teenager fighting an alien with unearthly corporeality in The Blob (1958). Okay, maybe not that last one so much. But one of his greatest roles was as Frank Bullitt in Bullitt (1968), based on the Robert L. Pike novel Mute Witness.
McQueen plays a San Francisco cop assigned to protect a witness, but shit happens when a hitman arrives. We see Bullitt’s dark green 1968 Ford Mustang 390 GT 2+2 Fastback at minute forty-seven of a nearly two-hour film, but the car chase doesn’t start till an hour and five minutes in when Bullitt exits Robert Duvall’s cab, gets into his own Mustang and spots a tail, a 1968 Dodge Charger 440 R/T and other times just a Dodge Charger if you’re looking hard enough. Finally, the bad guys have a cool car too.
This is where we all benefit from somebody’s crazy idea to film a car chase on the streets of San Francisco, and for that we are thankful. After Bullitt spots his tail, he lets them follow him for a bit, but they they lose him only to find Bullitt tailing them. If the camera coverage on the bad guys and Bullitt was a multicamera set up as it would be today, it wouldn’t’ve been a car with cameras on it as much as a bunch of cameras with a car in there somewhere.
But get this. Against the norm they kept the rearview mirrors in both cars, and they used them, including one beautiful shot from the dark interior of the Dodge, the bad guy’s car, from which we see a cityscape as well as the rearview mirror. And rising from a hill inside the rearview mirror is Bullitt in his Mustang.
At about an hour and eight minutes into it, the hitman’s driver puts on his seatbelt. The next few minutes are filled with cars flying over hills, undercarriages raking the road, tires smoking and hubcaps flying. The barrage of coverage inside both cars creates a claustrophobic feel, and they don’t let us, the audience, completely out of the car until the city street chase leads us to longer stretches of road.
But we are not done yet. What follows is a guardrail grinding, engine knocking, crash up derby that turns these two pristine beauties into high school fixer uppers, until with a nudge from Bullit’s Mustang, the Charger veers off toward a gas station and a fiery ball of death.
In the controlled environment of filmmaking we rarely see the documentarian nature of independent or guerrilla—but only rarely studio—filmmaking where seeing the streets of San Francisco in the late 60s is like being in a huge car museum. And rarely does a car chase live up to the one in Bullitt.