I happened to see this at the absolute perfect spot: A drive-in theater down by the San Francisco Airport. It had four screens with a refreshment stand in the middle. It is no longer in operation, but I was amazed to find that its outline can still be seen on Google maps. If you find the airport, look between that and the Coyote Point Recreation Area. It’s right on the Bay, a brown square of earth with the concentric arcs for parking where one of the screens used to be. It was amazing! I had lived in the Haight-Ashbury for about five years, and so I knew all the locations that were used in the movie, and one of them was SFO, at night! As the planes flew overhead, we watched Steve McQueen running all over the place dodging 707s and 727s, less than a mile from where we were parked!
And, of course, sitting in a car while first experiencing the most famous car chase ever filmed, and one of the very first, was a treat. We were leaning side to side in our seats, and I found myself reaching for the brake several times.
It seems that the chase was the main reason Bullitt was made, and it is surely the highlight, but the film has many other reasons to recommend it. There is a lot of location shooting. The performances by all concerned, especially McQueen, are outstanding. Frank P. Keller won the Oscar for Best Editing, again largely because of the chase, which is a masterwork of deception (even though they pass the same green Volkswagen bug three times, filmed from different angles). As any San Franciscan was aware, the route is total bullshit, and was probably determined by where the city fathers would allow them to shoot. You can’t put the route together in any rational way. One moment they are on Marina Street, the next up on Telegraph Hill, and then abruptly in Brisbane.
But who cared? You have to remember, we had not seen a car chase like this before. They used a new lightweight Arriflex camera that was easier to handle inside a car, and were able to put us both inside and outside of the cars as they flew over the hills and barreled down the straights. The director, Peter Yates, had made a movie titled Robbery the year before, in England, and McQueen saw it and liked it. So Yates was able to work with a bigger budget this time, and he had a star who drove race cars for fun, so he did not always need a stunt man. (He did not do his own driving for the more dangerous stunts, though not for lack of wanting to.) The driver of the Dodge Charger was Bill Hickman, who actually was a stunt driver, and would later do two more of the most famous chases ever, in The French Connection and The Seven-Ups.
There were two Mustangs and two Dodges, both with off-the-shelf engines but beefed up suspensions, and I can’t resist adding this. The Charger was so much faster than the Mustang that the drivers had to hold back a lot so they didn’t lose the pony! They reached speeds of 110 mph.
Like I said, there is more to the movie than the chase. The writing is great, and Jacqueline Bissett in a thankless role as Bullitt’s girlfriend is effective. Robert Vaughn is suitably slimy as the rich, entitled, cool D.A. who has Bullitt guarding the wrong star witness. Gotcha, asshole! The look is gritty and real, and San Francisco looks just dandy. I love that place. Robert Duvall has a small part as a taxi driver, four years before The Godfather.