SFGate Avertisement:
San Francisco Chronicle


Classic scene in McQueen's 'Bullitt' unreal as ever

Sunday, October 26, 2003

Georgia (default)
Times New Roman
entertainment links

Anthony Bologna had no idea he had stumbled into the greatest movie car chase of all time. He was only 15 years old and didn't even know who Steve McQueen was until long after the film crews picked up their cameras and left San Francisco.

But Bologna still remembers the little things about May 1968, when "Bullitt" filmed a few blocks away from his Russian Hill home.

There was the static of walkie-talkies, as filmmakers at the bottom of the hill ordered shooting to begin. There was the distant rumbling of V-8 engines before the Ford Mustang and Dodge Charger came into the view. And then both muscle cars hurtled toward the cameras, soaring through the air and crunching to the ground like giant stones skipping across an asphalt stream.

"I couldn't believe what I was seeing," Bologna said last week, standing at the same street corner where he watched the filming. "These two cars were literally flying down Taylor Street."

As a movie, "Bullitt" was confusing, and its centerpiece chase scene had some strange inconsistencies. The bad guys' Charger lost six hubcaps and couldn't hit the broad side of a gas station during the explosive finale. The chase route looks as if it were designed by Siegfried and Roy, with cars disappearing and reappearing at random points in the city.

But the strength of that driving sequence -- a nine minute, 42 second testosterone overload through the precipitous streets of San Francisco -- was still enough to ensure that "Bullitt" would become a classic.

"I've probably seen that movie half a dozen times, and it doesn't make sense to me," said Bud Ekins, the only survivor of four stunt drivers in the film, including McQueen. "There are holes in it. Terrible holes in that movie. But the car chase was good. . . . It started a whole new thing for car chases."

McQueen died in 1980, and many others on the set didn't make it to this month's 35th anniversary of the film's premiere. Those who are still with us remember the three-month shoot vividly, speaking in detail about how McQueen and the rest of the crew took every San Francisco teenager's dream -- barreling down a hill in a sports car and pressing the accelerator -- and changed the way Hollywood filmed action movies.

"Mr. Mayor, you've got yourself a swimming pool."

"Then you've got yourself a city."

According to the legend, McQueen and San Francisco were brought together by a patch of undeveloped ground in a Hunters Point youth park.

"Bullitt" enthusiast Dave Kunz reported the above conversation on his Web site, after questioning executive producer Robert Relyea at a recent "Bullitt" reunion. Relyea said the deal was cut with San Francisco Mayor Joseph L. Alioto, who wanted the moviemakers to pay for a public pool near the Bayview district.

The creators of "Bullitt" got more than their money's worth. The movie starred McQueen as San Francisco police Lt. Frank Bullitt, with Robert Vaughn, Robert Duvall and Jacqueline Bissett in supporting roles, and took place almost entirely in the city. Filming occurred in at least nine city districts -- with a finale on the tarmac at San Francisco International Airport.

Upon arriving in the city, producers immediately contacted several homicide detectives, who served as technical consultants on the film.

Retired Det. John McKenna said McQueen and director Peter Yates didn't always take their advice, which turned out to be a good thing for the car chase. No doubt "Bullitt" would have made less impact on movie history if McQueen listened to the cops and replaced his Mustang Fastback with a comparatively impotent police-issue sedan.

"Steve McQueen insisted that he use the souped-up car he had," said McKenna, who retired a decade ago and lives in Folsom (Sacramento County). "We said none of us would ever use our own vehicle in pursuits and stakeouts -- because of insurance purposes, for one thing. None of us had the money, in case our car gets damaged, to fix it.

"The first time I saw (the car) and learned what its intentions were, to be in pursuit, I said 'Oh, gee whiz.' But he had a feel for it. He wanted that car."

The bad guys' car was supposed to be a different Ford model (the automotive company had a deal with the studio), but it couldn't handle the pounding. Local car lots were searched and production started with two identical Mustangs and three sturdy Dodge Chargers.

"Bullitt" premiered on Oct. 17, 1968, and audiences were blown away by the chase sequence.

San Francisco moviegoers were probably a little more cynical about Frank Bullitt's high-speed pursuit. From the opening segment on the former Army Street until the chase's fiery conclusion in Brisbane, the Charger and Mustang seem to leap around the city with no logic, often rounding a corner and turning up dozens of blocks away.

The chase begins in Bernal Heights, as McQueen's Mustang starts a slow cruise and follows the Charger up Army and a couple of side streets. From there, the chase materializes in Potrero Hill for two blocks, then teleports 3 miles north to Russian Hill and into North Beach.

Next, the camera focuses on the interior of the Dodge Charger, as stunt driver Bill Hickman stops the car to attach his seat belt.

"Bullitt" cinematographer William A. Fraker said the two-second seat belt scene was the only portion of the chase that was shot later at a studio in Los Angeles.

"There's a 'click,' and then you know something big is about to happen," Fraker said. "Then you know you're in for a ride."

Tires squeal and the chase quickly shifts back and forth between seemingly random locations in Potrero Hill and Russian Hill. The last trip through Russian Hill features the most famous part of the chase -- where the cars get airborne several times on a steep section of Taylor between Vallejo and Filbert streets.

The biggest lapse in reality comes next, when the Mustang and Charger, speeding west through the Marina district with the Golden Gate Bridge in the horizon, suddenly appear 7 miles south near Daly City. The final scenes are filmed on Mansell Avenue and Guadalupe Canyon Parkway in Daly City and Brisbane, where the Charger was supposed to hit a gas station and explode.

The Mustang and the unmanned Charger were bound together, and a stuntman in the Mustang pulled a switch, which should have sent the Charger in a straight line to a fake gas station built for the scene. The Charger veered wide right but the explosion went off anyway, making the shot too expensive to repeat. (Keen-eyed viewers can see the Charger passing the gas station after the explosion.)

"They seemed a little bit disappointed in that part of it," said McKenna, who witnessed that scene live. "I think the car didn't go up the ramp quite right. To me it looked spectacular."

Indeed it does look spectacular, thanks to creative film splicing by "Bullitt" film editor Frank Keller, who won an Academy Award for his work in the movie.

"There were no special effects, it was all just stunt driving," said Kunz, who has since built a replica of McQueen's "Bullitt" car. "It's almost like foreplay when they start that little cat-and-mouse thing in the beginning. There's this buildup, and you can feel the tension."

Before 1968, most car chases were filmed at slower speeds, then sped up at the studio to give the illusion of danger. Fraker said the "Bullitt" car chase was conceived during an Italian meal with Yates at a small Hollywood restaurant called Martoni's.

"We had dinner there one night and came up with the idea of not speeding up the camera," Fraker said. "We would shoot in the cars at 24 frames, actual sound speed, and speed up the cars."

While people remember McQueen's car -- a Highland Green 1968 Mustang Fastback powered by a 390/4V big block engine -- the real star of the film was the Aeroflex 2C, a portable movie camera that had been used by the military during World War II.

Fraker said another great invention was the suction cup vehicle mount, which allowed "Bullitt" filmmakers to attach the Aeroflex to a bar across the back seat and give moviegoers the driver's perspective.

"It took people off the streets and brought them into the cars," he said.

Fraker said the chase was mapped out carefully, never using more than eight square blocks at one time. Police and filmmakers agreed that filming one continuous chase through San Francisco would be too dangerous.

"The chief, Tom Cahill, was very serious about that. He set out some rules, " McKenna said. "He made them lay out a plan of pursuit. . . . He made them break the scenes off. They couldn't just willy-nilly pursue by going block after block after block in the same neighborhood."

The car chase took about three weeks to shoot, and was nearly as frantic behind the scenes as it appears on film.

Car builder Max Balchowski reinforced the three Chargers and two Mustangs to survive the jumps, then worked triage on the cars when McQueen and his boys weren't launching them off ramps onto the unforgiving blacktop.

"When I jumped a car down the hill, it hit so hard that the flywheel actually dug in the ground and it bent it," stuntman Ekins said. "That was fixed overnight. They pulled the engine, put another flywheel in and it was ready to go the next morning."

A camera vehicle, created by car builder Pat Hustis, sped alongside for parts of the chase. Fraker said the fastest speeds came along Marina Boulevard,

where the camera car's engine noise hit a frighteningly high pitch. He later learned that the car had topped out at 124 miles per hour.

"I was in the front, 6 inches above the ground," Fraker said. "With the centrifugal force of that speed, it was close to impossible to pan to the left and get Steve McQueen. I had a hernia after that."

McQueen eventually developed a reputation for friction with Hollywood establishment types and became reclusive in his later years, but the "Bullitt" shoot was clearly a three-month love affair between the actor and San Francisco. Twenty-three years after the actor's death, it's still hard to find anyone who will speak an unkind word about him.

"Steve was really a wonderful guy," said Ann Brebner, who was in charge of local casting for the movie. "He was very relaxed and very nice to talk to when he was around."

The actor spent off hours in an apartment on Jones Street, not a posh hotel, and had dinner with several cops during his stay -- he was more likely to spend his spare time around working-class types than movie stars and studio executives.

Fraker remembers the entire cast and crew of "Bullitt" having a good time. Haight Ashbury was lively, the Fillmore Auditorium was in its greatest era and wonderful restaurants had emerged on Union Street and in North Beach. The cinematographer said he almost bought a home in San Francisco after "Bullitt" wrapped up.

"San Francisco was blossoming all over," Fraker said. "It was a very, very exciting time to be in San Francisco, and we were foreigners, and it just blew us apart. We said, 'This is our town for 10 weeks, and we're going to use it.' . . . The whole picture was shot in San Francisco. Steve wouldn't have had it any other way."

McQueen's legend in the city was elevated by his turns behind the wheel in "Bullitt." Throughout his career, McQueen insisted on performing his own stunts.

"I remember talking to him one time. He started a sentence and then said, 'Excuse me, I've got to go,' " Brebner recalled. "And he drove that car, drove the hell out of it, and came back and picked up in the middle of that sentence. It was absolutely amazing."

Still, at the time, the chase was one of the most difficult and complicated action scenes ever attempted, and the actor shared some of the tougher work with stunt coordinator Cary Loftin. Also helping was Ekins, an old friend who filled in for McQueen during the equally memorable motorcycle-over-barbed-wire jump in "The Great Escape."

The Dodge Charger, which executed some of the most difficult maneuvers on the shoot, was piloted entirely by Hickman, a seasoned driver who later worked on "The French Connection."

Eventually the cars and the sets and McQueen moved back to Los Angeles, but the moviemakers left San Franciscans with indelibly vivid memories.

Anthony Bologna still recalls when he wandered onto the surprisingly open movie set, questioning the first person he came across.

"I said, 'What's going on here?' " Bologna recalls. "He said, 'We're filming a movie called 'Bullitt,' starring Steve McQueen.' "

It wasn't until the young Bologna was watching the movie on the big screen that he realized he had been talking that day to the actor.

Brebner recalls scores of memorable conversations with the star.

"I had at that time just bought a white Mustang, and it was like driving a slug," Brebner said. "I was parked on the set and they needed four or five cars moved. He got into it and drove it and said, 'That's a terrible car.' He told me what was wrong with it, but I don't remember now.

"We were driving around the airport and right at that time there was a Mustang GTO on display. He said, 'That's what you should buy.' And I did."

McKenna got a one-line speaking role in the movie ("Make sure you book this") and gets the occasional reminder of his work in the mail.

"They paid for me to become a member of that actor's guild," McKenna recalls. "Every once in a while I know it's still playing because I get a little check for 6 bucks."

Kunz has seen even more evidence of the movie's enduring popularity, with positive reaction from passers-by in Los Angeles when he drives his replica Mustang around town. It has been used in numerous car shows and commercial shoots, appearing alongside an updated Bullitt Mustang limited edition car that Ford released last year.

Kunz said memories of the movie don't appear to be fading away. For some, they're getting stronger.

"If you ask five different guys what their favorite car chases are, they'll give you five different lists," Kunz said. "But I'm guessing 'Bullitt' would be on almost every list. Even after all these years."


The chase in "Bullitt" is long and thrilling, but more than a little confusing. In just under 10 minutes of no-dialogue driving, Steve McQueen's Ford Mustang and the bad guys' Dodge Charger jump around to 10 different locations, spanning five San Francisco districts and plus two other cities.

1. Bernal Heights The chase starts off at slow speeds, with the Charger creeping behind the Mustang. McQueen makes a U-turn on Army Street and heads uphill on York Street.

2. Potrero Hill The cars materialize several blocks away on Kansas Street, and McQueen's Mustang appears in the Charger's rear-view mirror.

3. Russian Hill/North Beach The Charger and Mustang teleport to Filbert Street, heading east with Coit Tower on the horizon. Both cars take a left on Columbus Avenue and take another left past Bimbo's 365 night club.

4. Potrero Hill As the chase suddenly speeds up, both cars make their second trip through Potrero Hill, heading up 20th Street.

5. Russian Hill The Mustang and Charger make their first appearance on Lombard Street, squealing their tires as they dog-leg at high speeds onto Larkin.

6. Russian Hill The cars stay in the same neighborhood, but appear a few blocks away from the last sequence, now heading west on Chestnut.

7. Russian Hill The most exciting part of the chase is also the most frustrating. The Mustang and Charger get airborne on Taylor Street, appearing to pass the same green Volkswagen Bug several times each.

8. Russian Hill/Marina The cars are back on Larkin Street, where the Charger took out a camera (the scene was left in the movie). Soon both cars are on Marina Boulevard, hitting speeds well above 100 miles per hour.

9. Bayview District When we last saw our hero, he was about to get on Golden Gate Bridge. Suddenly McQueen is on the southernmost end of the city, heading toward Daly City. 10. Daly City/Brisbane The chase ends on Guadalupe Canyon Parkway. Stuntman Bud Ekins, who jumped the motorcycle in "The Great Escape," wrecks another bike in the scene. Then McQueen's Mustang bumps the shotgun-toting killers' Charger, leading to an explosive finale.

E-mail Peter Hartlaub at phartlaub@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page O - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle


Be the first to share your thoughts on this story.

Serramonte Ford Top Autos

Serramonte Ford


2007 Dakota



2007 Durango



2007 Focus



2005 Focus


2006 Focus


2006 Taurus


2007 Taurus



2006 F-250


2004 Silverado 1500



2004 Silverado 1500



2005 Montana SV6



2004 Wrangler



2006 Mustang



2006 Mustang



2004 Intrepid