The man. Steve McQueen. The car. A 1968 Ford Mustang Fastback GT 390. The city. San Francisco. The trinity of maverick man, powerful machine and stunning setting combine in Bullitt to create a cinematic classic, noteworthy for its significant contribution to the canon of Americana iconography. Forty years after its release, the legacy of Bullitt lives on.
The Peter Yates-directed detective thriller is undoubtedly best remembered for its seminal rubber-burning, tire-screeching, hubcap-losing car chase through the streets, hills and valleys of San Francisco. By then, Steve McQueen was already a full-fledged movie star. By the early 1970s, the “King of Cool” was the highest paid actor in Hollywood.
Moviegoers worldwide were also no strangers to the Ford Mustang, wildly popular since its first appearance in the marketplace in 1964, and one of the great American classic cars. When Bullitt was released, the Mustang was already considered the most successful car ever introduced. As a testament to its longevity, the Mustang is the only model of the 1960s pony cars still being produced without any interruption. And in 2001 and 2008 Ford actually released limited edition Bullitt Mustangs, available in the film's original Highland Green and Black.
Yet, with no disrespect to the onscreen chemistry that is the marriage of McQueen and Mustang, the city of San Francisco may have as much to do with the film's success as they do. The hilly streets, bay views and architecture that frame much of the car chase are really what give it its loved cachet. Imagine the chase without San Francisco's topography. It just doesn't work. It lacks the same white-knuckle drama.
Bullitt's car chase is central to understanding the film's cult status. Numerous websites and articles dissect the chase down to its smallest production notes and geographical parts. The anatomy of the chase started way before when McQueen, a car aficionado and race car driver in his own right, actually handpicked the director in large part for the realistic London car chase scene in Yates' 1967 film, Robbery.
Although Yates' direction called for speeds of about 75-80 mph (120-130 km/h), the cars reached speeds of over 110 mph (175 km/h) on surface streets. Filming the chase scene took three weeks, resulting in nearly 10 seconds of film. This explains how the other car involved in the chase, a 1968 Dodge Charger, is able to lose an absurd six hubcaps and the same automobiles can be seen at various times in the background.
As anybody familiar with San Francisco's geographical layout can quickly tell you, dramatic license was very obviously taken with the actual route. Yet, due to Academy Award-winning editing by Frank P. Keller, strangers to San Francisco are most likely blissfully unaware of the cinematic sleight of hand techniques used to create the car chase.
The Mustang-Charger automotive tête-à-tête jumps impossibly from the Bernal Heights and Potrero Hill neighborhoods in the city's southeast to the Russian Hill, North Beach and Marina districts in its north, where a characteristically foggy Golden Gate Bridge is briefly seen in the distance. From there the action again moves south, near Daly City at San Francisco's very southwest corner before arriving at the movie sequence's fiery conclusion.
Other notable San Francisco landmarks captured in Bullitt include the currently under reconstruction San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, Mark Hopkins Intercontinental Hotel, Grace Cathedral and the Masonic Auditorium. In addition, two San Francisco nightlife stalwarts, North Beach's Bimbo's 365 Club and Enrico's, known to this day for their live music, also make cameo appearances.
While many of these locations can still be visited today, for those so inclined, reliving the real thrill of Bullitt – its car chase – is up to you. And if you do, like the bad guys in the Charger, buckle up, and try to avoid any explosive encounters with gas stations. – Alvaro Eduardo Rojas