Detective Frank Bullitt has just received what sounds like a routine assignment: keep a star witness out of sight and out of danger for 48 hours, then deliver him to the courtroom on Monday A.M. But before the night is out, the witness will lie dying of shotgun wounds. And Bullitt, a no-glitter, all-guts cop, won't rest until he nabs the gunmen... and the elusive underworld kingpin who hired them.
Steve McQueen plays the title role in Bullitt, a gritty detective thriller featuring the Academy Award-winning editing of Frank P. Keller and the tautly realistic direction of Peter Yates (Breaking Away, Robbery). From opening shot to closing shootout, Bullitt is packed with authentic touches-- on-location San Francisco filming, crisp dialogue and uncompromising, to-the-letter police, hospital and morgue procedures.
But the most memorably authentic touch of all is Bullitt's celebrated car chase. McQueen, an expert automobile and motorcycle racer, does his own stunt driving as he propels his high-performance Mustang GT around and over San Francisco's fabled hills at speeds up to 115 miles an hour. The chase, filled with screeches, sensations and stomach-churning leaps, is one of the most memorable pursuit sequences in movie history.
Bullitt's tough-minded realism is never off target. McQueen-- cool, calm and convincing as only he can be-- is a master at this style, and Frank Bullitt is his masterpiece.
Release: October 17, 1968
Genre: Crime Drama
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Based On: Mute Witness by Robert L. Fish (aka Robert L. Pike)
Writer: Alan Trustman & Harry Kleiner
Director: Peter Yates
Music By: Lalo Schifrin
Produced By: Philip D'Antoni
Distributed By: Warner Brothers/Seven Arts
Run Time: 114 minutes
Now widely acknowledged as the first of the great modern car chase movies, Steve McQueen’s 1968 signature cop movie Bullitt was nominated for Best Sound but it won the Oscar for Best Film Editing and the screenwriters for the film won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America among several other awards. A slightly convoluted film, Bullitt is very reminiscent of other cop TV shows and movies from the time period but it’s the car chase that makes Bullitt worthwhile. It’s not as fancy as the ones in today’s movies so it’s not sleek and pretty (well, the cars are) but it’s much more real. Ironically, that particular car chase scene serves as inspiration to a good majority of directors who make chase scenes in their films.
We’ve definitely come a long way since the hospitals, police work, and airports back when this film was made! One thing we haven’t improved and that’s the cars, well the look of them anyway. Steve McQueen has an awesome cop car in the form of a 1968 Ford Mustang GT 390 CID Fastback and the villains drive the even prettier 440 Magnum Dodge Charger. McQueen actually did almost all of his own stunt driving in the film and those are the actual speeds (sometimes 115 mph) in the chase, not camera work. They worked on a racetrack at first but the entire chase scene with those beautiful cars flying (they are literally airborne several times) by on the San Francisco streets are all filmed on location. Of the car chase sequence LIFE magazine said, "Thanks to nothing more complicated than good, basic moviemaking (intelligent camera placement and editing); this becomes an action sequence that must be compared with the best in film history."
All the hospital scenes are real with real doctors and nurses in a real hospital. They did go back sometimes and film with actors but the director wanted this picture not to be theatrical but more based in reality. Mr. McQueen said, "The operation that takes place in the film was with an actor of course but with real doctors. The feelings, the sensitivities that were in that hospital, this is the kind of reality that's important in motion pictures. If you try to act it, it doesn't quite come across as if you're really doing it. We had the reality we wanted." This firm basis in reality is one of the main reasons that this film has endured.
Frank Bullitt's girlfriend Cathy brings a bit of softness to the film (and McQueen’s character) that is predominately about gritty police work, which is something she doesn't really approve of. She's also the only female character (not including nurses and crowd extras of course) in the film. Cathy is played by Jacqueline Bisset (a Bond girl in Casino Royale) and this was her breakout film. The first movie I saw with her in was Murder on the Orient Express where she played a Countess but I liked her a whole lot more in this role. It was rumored that McQueen and Bisset had an affair during the filming of the movie and whether it’s true or not, I thought they had great chemistry.
Peter Yates was hired to direct this film because McQueen had seen his car chase scene in the film Robbery. This was his first American film and though McQueen was said to be hard on directors, they got along fairly well. McQueen and Don Gordon (who were friends and worked together in several other films) did their homework for this film by riding with San Francisco police to get a feel for police work. Gordon, who often played police officers on TV, was actually mistaken for a real cop at the time!
This was the first film I’ve ever seen with Steve McQueen in it but I did know who he was before I watched it because he is such a big name star even 30 years after his death. Especially with all of the tributes to him in film and music. He truly was a good-looking guy and he was often proclaimed as the “King of Cool.” He’s also a really good actor and the best thing in this film (mainly his friction with Chalmers the politician played by Robert Vaughn) besides the car chase scene. Though Bullitt made him a ton of money, McQueen originally didn’t want the role in the film because this was the time when people, a good majority his younger fans, started calling cops “pigs“ (not to mention his own troubled youth had made him slightly prejudiced too). It was because of the realistic portrayal that he decided to take the role of Frank Bullitt. In an interview promoting Bullitt McQueen said, "We're trying to show what a cop could be like. Everybody dislikes cops till they need one." There have been rumors of a remake of Steve McQueen’s enduring film but as of yet, there’s no one to even attempt to step into his shoes.
Bullitt: I want to know about Ross. What is the deal you had with him?
Chalmers: Deal? Lieutenant, don’t try to evade the responsibility. In your "parlance", you blew it. You knew the significance of his testimony, yet you failed to take adequate measures to protect him. So to you it was a job, no more. Were it more, and you'd the dedication I was lead to believe…
Bullitt: You believe what you want. You work your side of the street, and I'll work mine.
Bullitt: Look Chalmers, let's understand each other... I don't like you.
Chalmers: Oh come on now, don't be naive now lieutenant. We both know how careers are made. Integrity is something you sell the public.
Bullitt: You sell whatever you want, but don't sell it here tonight.
Chalmers: Frank, we must all compromise.
Bullitt: Bullshit. Get the hell out of here now.
Find Bullitt Online
TCM.com (neat featurette on stuntmen, talks about Bullitt too)
Bullitt Locations in San Francisco
Steve McQueen Online
A very thorough Fan Site
Best Classic Car Chase (slow first 3 min)
The Making of Bullitt
Murder on the Orient Express (1974)