Bullitt (1968) Directed by Peter Yates. Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn, Jacqueline Bisset (114 min).
Lt. Frank Bullitt, stoic and incorruptible, is tasked by an ambitious politician with protecting a mob witness stashed in San Francisco’s shadows. A grungy, neo-realist procedural, Bullitt ignites during an unforgettable 115 mph duel between a Dodge Charger and McQueen’s Mustang, sailing over Fog City’s hills. “Yates' taut, realistic direction encapsulates the prevailing cinematic brand of late 1960s cool” (BBC).
Bullitt’s literary source was Mute Witness, a crime novel written in 1963 by Robert L. Fish, under the name Robert L. Pike. It was about the end of an aging cop’s career in NYC, and had once been optioned with the hope that Spencer Tracy would play the lead. McQueen became involved with the project even though he was reluctant to play an authority figure like a police officer. Of course, the age of the leading man had to be reduced by decades, and the locale was shifted to San Francisco since McQueen liked shooting on location. The hero was renamed Frank L. Bullitt: now the film was a go.
Robert Relyea, the head of McQueen’s production company, Solar said, “With all due respect, Pike’s novel will never be mistaken for a literary masterpiece, and our screenplay left holes in the story big enough for tanks to drive through. The fact that Bullitt had a weak script points out how, in filmmaking as in other art forms, it’s possible for a silk purse to evolve out of a sow’s ear” (Eliot 199). Nobody, including the writers, knew exactly what happened in The Big Sleep, either.
Steven McQueen came from a troubled home. He was involved in petty crime and gang fights as a youth and spent time in a reformatory before joining the merchant marine, and then the United States Marine Corps. After leaving the service, he ended up in Greenwich Village, the bohemian atmosphere suited him. A girl he was dating suggested he try acting, and he realized the GI Bill would pay for acting school. There were lots of pretty, sexually liberated young actresses around, and he ended up at the Neighborhood Playhouse, which taught “The Method.” New York was the hub of live television productions and he began acting on stage and on tv. In the late 50s, tv shifted to LA, because 1/3 of the shows on the small screen were Westerns. His big break came in Wanted: Dead or Alive ,where he played a bounty hunter with a sawed off Winchester rifle nicknamed “Maire’s Laig” in his trick holster.
He quickly felt confined by the routine of a weekly drama, and aspired to a movie career. But, most of his early films garnered him neither good reviews or good box office, and he was soon ready to retire and devote himself to his cars and motorcycles, which he loved far more than his career. He created his own production company, Solar, both as a tax shelter and a company that would allow him creative control over the films he did want to make. Solar would pay him a salary of $300,000 a year, plus a percentage of profits. The company would make him one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood, even in years when his films didn’t do well.
Once McQueen had decided to make Bullitt, he wanted a new director, someone who could stage the film’s central car chase with panache. He decided on Peter Yates, a British director of a film called Robbery, practically unseen in the US, but a bit hit in Britain (and unavailable on Netflix). Yates had done a bit of racing himself, and it had an exciting car chase filmed in the streets of London. Solar Productions’ distribution deal was with Warner Brothers, but when they took the budget to the studio (which was in crisis, due to the removal of the last of the Warner Brothers, Jack, from the company) they would green light it only if the entire film was made on the studio back lot, with no location filming. It didn’t matter that McQueen’s last four films had been huge hits, and he was at the top of his game. There was a blow-up, and Warners said McQueen’s company would have to put up all the money, they would distribute the film, and the Solar contract for a 7 picture deal was kaput. This was fine with McQueen, he didn’t want the studio supervising him. They pared the budget down to a manageable $5 million.
McQueen was business-like and determined through the shoot, no Method acting tantrums, no motorcycle racing or partying, it was his money at stake. There are three big chase scenes in the movie, in the hospital, the car pursuit, and a final one at the airport. McQueen hired Carey Loftin, an old friend, but also considered to be the best action coordinator working. During one of the first shots in the car chase, McQueen crashed and nearly broke his neck, so a stunt driver, Bud Ekins, who had doubled for him in The Great Escape, would do most of the driving.
Filming the chase took from dawn to dark for three weeks. Each sequence was carefully rehearsed at slow speeds and then filmed at speeds of up to 115 mph. There were only two police cars blocking traffic, and the crew was amazed, and relieved, that no stunt performers or bystanders were hurt during the filming. Robert Relyea said, “The chase between Bullitt and his adversaries wasn’t in the original script. It evolved out of McQueen’s love for racing and the potential we all saw in San Francisco’s rollercoaster streets to provide an unusual twist. Our goal was to run the camera at normal speed, with the cars flying through the city at 115 miles per hour. We had two 1968 Ford Mustang GT fastbacks and two 1968 Dodge Chargers…one of each pair had to be used as a ‘jumper’ and the other as a ‘runner’…the camera car had to be fast enough to stay with the Mustang and Charger. So Pat Houstis (one of the crew) picked up a convertible Corvette, stripped it and attached a special rig so it could function as the camera car” (Eliot 207).
For the airport scene, McQueen did do his own stunts, his face is clearly visible during the most hazardous one. When the crew applauded him, McQueen, clearly elated said, “Boy, I love this business!” In a later interview, a reported asked if they used a dummy for the scene, and McQueen cracked “They did” (Eliiot 208).
McQueen usually welcomed his wife and children on the set, he found them comforting, and a buffer against fame. This time, though, he barred Neile from the set except for weekends, since he had begun an affair with his leading lady, Jacqueline Bisset.
Robert Vaughn had been friends with Steve McQueen since their time together in The Magnificent Seven. Occasionally, McQueen would pick up Vaughn in one of his many cars and cruise the Sunset Strip. They didn’t have much In common. McQueen wasn’t interested in politics (Vaughn was a friend of the Kennedy family) and Vaughn wasn’t particularly interested in racing, or in smoking pot, another of McQueen’s preferred pastimes. McQueen wanted his friend, just finished with an extremely successful run in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. to be in his first independent film. He sent him the script, but Vaughn thought it was too confusing, and suggested a script doctor. The script was revised, and revised again, each time accompanied by an ever increasing salary offer. When Vaughn’s salary offer reached six figures, even though the script did not seem much clearer than the first, confusing draft, Vaughn, said OK.
Vaughn’s character was quite a bit different from the suave secret agent he had been playing on tv, but he had played many similar roles in his earlier days. Bullitt producer Robert Relyea said, “When Vaughn is doing that character he does better than anyone else, as soon as you see him, you want to slap his face. And that was exactly the quality we wanted” (Vaughn 202). McQueen and Vaughn didn’t see eye to eye on some issues. Vaughn wanted his character to wear a Phi Beta Kappa key, to show that his character was both smart and vain. But, McQueen had just worn one in The Thomas Crown Affair, and he thought audience members would be distracted by it. Eventually, he gave in, allowing Vaughn to convince him it was right for the film.
Vaughn and McQueen
Bullitt is often singled out as having the greatest car chase sequence of all times. Although the mechanics of the chase are thrilling, the real magnetism is the way character and driving combine. The San Francisco setting and Bullitt’s automotive ability are established early on (he can parallel park!). Hitmen track our hero, and the mood is unhurried. The real streets of San Francisco, are a backdrop. “Suddenly, however, in one of cinema’s great moments, Bulitt’s Mustang appears in the rearview mirror of the hitmen’s Charger and the roles are now reversed” (Borden 192). Lightweight cameras allow for an incredible sensation of speed, “As the cars surge around the brows, descents, dip and corners of San Francisco, all of what we now think of as the standard elements of the car chase make an appearance, dramatic jumps, fast turns, fierce acceleration, near misses, false turns, jolting bumps, squealing tires and roaring engines. The effect, as with all good car chases, is compelling and thrilling, and we are sucked into a captivating dynamic” (Borden 192).
What makes this chase so iconic? The city setting, of course, but also the fact that the chase involves psychology, not just action. Steve McQueen’s “deadpan cool—combining dispassionate resolve with a no-bullshit attitude and expert skills—is unique in film to this point. Car chases often operate outside the character driven drama of a film, the action is the be all and end all. But this car chase also serves to reveal the complex personality of Frank Bullitt, a working man in contrast with Robert Vaughn’s slippery politician. Bullitt is immersed in the dirty world of crime, yet with puzzlingly sophisticated tastes, and the audience sides with Bullitt’s world view, involving action rather than words, intervention rather than manipulation, personal style rather than formulaic codes, and searching for immediate truth rather than distant victory” (Borden 195).
When Bullitt was released, the reviews were glowing. McQueen and Yates had redefined the action movie and McQueen’s performance was universally praised. This car chase really caught the public’s attention, I remember well seeing it in the theater and being dazzled by it, and the imagery was used extensively in the film’s publicity. The businessmen who now ran Warner Brothers shut up about the $200,000 overrun on the location budget in San Francisco. Final cost was around $5.5 million, and some estimates put the first year’s gross at $80 million in its first year of release alone, an astronomical figure for the 1960s. It was the biggest film of McQueen’s career, cementing his superstar status. Perversely, he turned down many opportunities over the years to make another film starring Frank Bullitt. Clint Eastwood’s career truly became golden as he played, and replayed Dirty Harry Callahan. McQueen’s career would now begin a slow decline which might have been circumvented had he played his most iconic character again, by popular demand. It boosted the careers of character actors Vic Tayback, Norman Fell, Georg Stanford Brown, and look for Robert Duvall in one of his earliest roles. Jacqueline Bisset was a first rank leading lady for more than a decade. Without Bullitt, there would be no French Connection, no Dirty Harry, here is ground zero for the modern action movie. After Bullitt, sales of dark green Mustangs skyrocketed, and even today, Bullitt’s car is an avatar of cool.
Steve McQueen's tweed jacket from Bullitt was auctioned in 2013 and reportedly sold for $720,000.
McQueen’s reputation of a devotee of both car and motorcycle driving (“I’m not sure, he once said, “whether I’m an actor who races, or a racer who acts”) encouraged publicity that he did his own driving. His love for cars was real, he owned over 100 when he died of lung cancer at the age of 50. He was not necessarily a great actor, and as an unhappy person who self-medicated with alcohol, drugs and sex, he apparently was not a particularly nice person, either. In nearly all of his roles, he played variations on his own rebellious personality, was a man of few words and wore his preferred haircut, whether he was in the Old West, WW II or modern day San Francisco. But, in the right role, like this one, he personified the American image of independence, integrity, rebelliousness and quintessential cool.
When this film came out, I thought it was the best movie, ever. I cut out this photo from a newspaper ad and hung it on a Christmas tree. Years later, my daughter, hearing this family lore, printed it out from the internet to hang on our family fir!
Sources include: Drive: Journeys Through Film, Cities, and Landscapes by Iain Borden, Steve McQueen by Marc Eliot, A Fortunate Life by Robert Vaughn.