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Bullitt, released fifty years ago, still vibrates with intensity and fire that few films fifty years old manage to pull off. It has been a very clear influence on the action film, and the famous car chase, which we we’ll get to later. Bullitt is filled to the brim with gorgeous technical work that feels authentic and real. What the chase sequence in this film manages to do is birth the action film into what we know of it today: a movie with a grand set piece that brings the whole film together into this exceptional moment of emotion, action, and intensity. Bottom line: it’s all about The Chase Scene.
I explored the character of Bullitt, played by Steve McQueen, in my review of Bullitt here, but today it is all about the chase. The art of the chase, and how director Peter Yates, Frank P. Keller, William A. Fraker, and Lalo Schifrin created one of the most iconic scenes in all of cinema, a scene which many still consider being the best of its time fifty years later.
First, we should explore the characters. No, not Steve McQueen’s character. This is the chase scene, and this is FilmEra’s final FFF of Horsepower month, so the characters in question are the cars.
What better cars to have roaring up, over, and down the San Francisco hills than the Ford Mustang and the Dodge Charger. Specifically the 1968 Ford Mustang 390 GT 2+2 Fastback and the 1968 Dodge Charger 440 Magnum.
- 5-speed manual
- 0-60mph: 5.5sec
- 3-speed automatic
- 0-60mph: 5.2sec
The Mustang was actually a slower car than the Charger, yet Bullitt manages to keep up all the while. These two cars are loud and beautiful machines and they tear through the streets of San Francisco with fury and adrenaline that translates off the screen with simplicity and clarity.
The point of view is something that was, and arguably still is, quite revolutionary. What is so enjoyable about the viewing of the chase scene is the full immersion during the heart of the chase. This begins with the frame and where we sit as the viewer. The placement of the camera, right on the shoulder of Bullitt or the antagonists, puts you right in the car, with the action.
Where the chase begins is right on Bullitt’s shoulder. The pacing of this moment, although small, is beautiful and only adds to the charging and juice of the scene. It is slowly building up to this chase. Yates masterfully paced and built this segment for full audience immersion and rising action.
The exact location and placement of the camera puts the viewer on the gas pedal. Few films manage to reach this peak kind of engrossing filmmaking. The scene in so many ways displays masterful and thoughtful filmmaking on all the levels.
The sound in a film is absolutely essential. If anything about the audio elements of a film is off it can derail the entire experience. What is glorious about Bullitt‘s chase scene is the role the audio has for the viewer. There is no music, only the sound of the cars, the engine, and the scrapping, screeching, and overall mess they make on the streets.
In this audio clip, we can hear the exact transition from the ‘build up’ to the beginnings of the chase.
The build-up is brilliant and revolutionary. Intense music plays all before, and right when you think the music will build to a whole next level, it drops and leaves us with the full power of the cars to fill our ears.
The power this auditory sense gives up allows for no distractions from the chase. Everything about this segment is focused on the man, the cars, and the mission.
It is hard to fully go into the power and mastery behind the editing without just opening up the entire sequence. It isn’t a specific moment or shot that does it. It is the whole epic scene. How simple and clear everything is. Granted, this was all practical and real, no CGI to mess it up or fill the screen with waste.
One element of the chase is the cat and mouse and how this is displayed with what we see. Bullitt chases these unnamed assailants with an unflinching drive. How this is expressed is through mimicking. What one car does, the other does, but with a slight difference. We see this when they are driving down Taylor Street, and the Mustang manages to take the hills and the following corner just slightly better than the Charger. But hey, that’s our hero driving that Mustang, so of course he’s going to handle it better!
Bullitt is a high-octane, action-packed ride. It managed to define the set piece of an action film, drawing the audience to the film. It re-imagined one of the most iconic parts of film, the car chase, and redefined what it would be for generations to come. From movies like Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation and Fallout or Baby Driver, Bullitt‘s power, influence, and legacy is an inspiration to cinema’s greatest directors.
All I can say is we’re lucky to be along for the ride.