Bullitt Is The Definitive Car Chase Movie

Steve McQueen and Jacqueline Bissett in Bullitt. (Warner Bros.)

Bullitt is the definitive car chase film with speeds up to 100 m.p.h. during an 11-minute sequence in the streets of San Francisco.

I have no excuse for not having watched this film until 2023. To be fair, I meant to watch when I had an opportunity to interview Jacqueline Bisset during the 2021 TCM Classic Movie Film Festival. It was inevitable especially with the recent Steven Spielberg announcement about a new film. Better late than never, I suppose.

SFPD detective Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) is amongst those tasked with protecting Chicago mobster “Johnny Ross” (Pat Renella). However, there’s an assassination attempt sometime after US Senator Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn) requests his presence during a Senate subcommittee hearing on organized crime. Chalmers puts the blame on Bullitt but then the detective investigates matters after Ross ends up dead. This investigation is what leads the film into its thrilling chase involving Bullitt, Mike (Paul Genge), and Phil (Bill Hickman). We later learn that Ross plays Chalmers by sending a decoy (Felice Orlandi). Ross later attempts to flee the country. It only takes up a few minutes of the film’s runtime but it’s what keeps audiences discussing the crime thriller.

Chase sequence aside, the film is very realistic in its depiction of the police and their procedures. I give a lot of credit for Steve McQueen’s commitment as both a producer and actor in the film. It’s a genre-changer of a film in so many ways. McQueen himself models his character after San Francisco Inspector Dave Toschi. There’s an easter egg in Zodiac about this because McQueen even uses Toschi’s shoulder holster in the film. It isn’t just how they depict the police but they take the film out of soundstages and onto the San Francisco streets. Having the new Arriflex camera certainly helped at the time. Are you sitting down? Good. Imagine this film with the chase sequence on a studio backlot or even with green screen technology. It just wouldn’t be the same!

Say what you will about modern-day action movies but none of them can come close to the thrills in Bullitt. For one, chases have become such a staple of the genre that it’s nearly impossible to bring something new to freshen it up. The other thing is that we’ve come a long way since these sequences weren’t just shot on film but edited with the older machines. It would be hard to find a similar film today being shot and edited in the old way. I suppose it is rare but it just seems like almost all action films are edited through digital technology.

Frank P. Keller’s editing of the chase sequence is what won the film it’s sole Oscar. The sequence runs between 10-11 minutes, ending with a fiery crash. It’s a mix of close-ups and stunt doubles. Lalo Schrifin’s jazzy score accompanies the scene before segueing to the roaring car engines as they speed through the San Francisco streets. Bullitt would later inspire a chase sequence in William Friedkin’s The French Connection three years later. Later this year, the film will mark its 55th anniversary and I’ll certainly be celebrating its legacy. Honestly, I would have reviewed it later this year but I’m doing so now because it’s airing on TCM this evening. In any event, the 2007 Blu-ray not only has a feature-length documentary on Steve McQueen but also features The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing.

Over 54 years after its release, Bullitt remains one of the best thrillers in cinematic history with much thanks to its historic chase sequence. With Warner Bros. turning 100 years old this year, I expect that a 4K UHD release is going to happen sooner than later.

DIRECTOR: Peter Yates
SCREENWRITERS: Alan R. Trustman and Harry Kleiner
CAST: Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn, Jacqueline Bisset, Don Gordon, Robert Duvall, Simon Oakland, Norman Fell

Warner Bros-Seven Arts released Bullitt in theaters on October 17, 1968. Grade: 4/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.