British filmmaker Peter Yates signs his first Hollywood film with Bullitt in 1968. The title role is played by Steve McQueen, who plays a police lieutenant in charge of protecting Johnny Ross, a gangster called to testify in a trial. Despite the precautions taken by Bullitt and his men, the gangster was seriously injured, then ended up on his hospital bed. The lieutenant then realizes that the victim was not the real Ross …
You can’t think of Bullitt without thinking about his chase scene through the streets of San Francisco. A mind-boggling sequence of almost ten minutes that became instantly cult and enabled Frank P. Keller to win the Oscar for best editing. It is difficult to determine who is behind this scene. McQueen claims to have wanted this scene from the start of the project, while Robert Vaughn, the interpreter of the ambitious politician, specifies that the script indicated only the words ” car chase “. For his part, Yates claims that the first version of the script did not include this scene.
However, the way it was filmed owes in part to McQueen’s involvement. He does not only play the main role but also produces the film. It is also he who chooses to entrust the realization to Peter Yates, after seeing Three billion at once. The actor wants the sequence to appear authentic and for the cars to travel at real speed. Inspired by the Ben-Hur chariot race, he wants the cars to be filmed in close-up and from several angles. Yates agrees: “Me, what I wanted and Steve too, was to show the talent of the drivers” (extract of Steve McQueen by Michael Munn, Nouveau Monde Editions).
Bullitt: what happened to the car in the film?
An accomplished driver, McQueen wants to drive the entire car, but the studio and the insurance refuse. They’re not alone: Neile Adams, then the actor’s partner, is so worried that she begs Yates to stop her husband from turning the stunts. The director arranges for him to arrive late the day the most dangerous scenes are filmed. In the end, the actor turns certain sequences but the most perilous stunts are entrusted to Bud Ekins, stuntman of The Great Escape and friend of McQueen. If he is not credited in the credits, it is nevertheless he who notably performs the scene of the hill jump. As for the car being chased, it is driven by Bill Hickman, a former motorcyclist and also close to McQueen.
The final scene, where one of the cars crashes on the exploding petrol station, is taken in one take. However, the vehicle misses the pump but the error is caught during assembly. In total, three weeks of filming, two Ford Mustangs and two Dodge Chargers (launched at speeds approaching 200 km / h) were necessary to box this famous chase, which inspired that of French Connection three years later.