Bullitt (1968): Thriller, Starring Steve McQueen at his Coolest, and a Sexy Car in Thrilling Chase Scene

In Bullitt, one of his most famous and iconic roles, Steve McQueen stars as tough-guy police detective Frank Bullitt, who is assigned for 48 hours to watch a witness before his trial.

Grade: A- (**** out of *****)

Bullitt poster.jpg

Theatrical release poster by Michel Landi

However, when the witness and another officer are shot, Bullitt decides to investigate the case on his own, much to the dismay of an ambitious Senator (Robert Vaughn) who wants to shut the investigation down, hindering Bullitts plan to bring the killers to justice.

Directed by Peter Yates (it’s his best work), Bullitt put Steve McQueen at the forefront of American movie stars, a position he held for almost a decade.

The young and beautiful Jacqueline Bisset, then 26, plays McQueen’s love interest, Cathy.  The couple have three scenes together, and the lack of chemistry between them (intentional or not) works well to emphasize that Bullitt is not exactly a romantic hero.

Robert Duvall, in a small part of a cab driver, is seen through a rear-view mirror. 

But it’s pretty much McQueen’s sole and solo show, and a brilliant vehicle, updating the thriller genre of yesteryear up to the present.

Bullitt contains one of the most exciting car chases in film history, a sequence that revolutionized Hollywood’s standards. The chase, occurring 70 minutes into the feature, lasts about 8 minutes, and it begins in the streets of San Francisco before moving onto the highways.

Chasing the hoodlums, McQueen drives up and down the hills of San Francisco, while an impressive hand-held camera records the perilous pursuit and traffic in thrilling minutia detail. We watch his sexy vehicle narrowly misses intersecting cars and trucks, and overcoming other barriers like pedestrians, buildings, and so on.

Chase Scene

Over the years, students have challenged me about what I had written about the chase scene some decades ago, including its duration, location, editing, and “realism.”

We timed it together in a class at Columbia: The chase scene begins at 65:00 minutes into the tale and lasts nearly 8 minutes.  Physically, it begins in the Fisherman’s Wharf area of San Francisco, at Columbus and Chestnut (it is not where Bullitt first notices the hitmen who follow him), then Hyde and Laguna streets, with images of Coit Tower and locations around and on Filbert and University streets. The scene ends outside the city at the Guadalupe Canyon Parkway in San Bruno Mountain near Brisbane. The sequence consists of brief snippets, cutting back and forth between Bullitt and the two villains, with close-ups of all three of them inserted into the act. Along the way, a motorcyclist falls off his bike and other passengers come to his help.

At the 6:00 minute mark, the two cars are parallel to each other, after being one after the other. The two cars bang up several time and the villain shoots at Bullitt and his car, which cleverly swings lanes. The big, exciting climax occurs, when the chased car, with the two villains in it, veers off the road and goes up in flames. A brief image afterwards shows the two bodies burnt inside the car

A reporter once drove that road and concluded that it was impossible to take place in real time as it is depicted in the movie.

Director Yates and his team made a smart choice not to play any music on the sound track, only the natural sounds of the cars driving, stopping, backing off, bouncing back, and screeching.

Oscar Alert

Bullitt was nominated for two technical Oscar, deservedly winning the Best Editing Oscar for Frank P. Keller.

The other nomination was for Best Sound, orchestrated By Warner Bros-Seven Studio Sound Department; the winner, though, was the musical “Oliver!”

Commercial Appeal

The fifth top-grossing film of the year, Bullitt was released during the height of the James Bond series, and no doubt was meant to lure the same kinds of viewers.  Made on a budget of $5 million, the movie ended up grossing over $42 million, a ratio of 1:8 input/output.

The film reaffirmed McQueen’s star bankability, which would last for another half a decade, through and including “The Towering Inferno,” in 1974.

McQueen’s Career

Steve McQueen first began acting in 1952 when he enrolled at Sanford Meisners Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City. After making an impression in a number of small off-Broadway productions, McQueen was accepted into the Actors Studio and in 1956, he made his film debut with a bit part in Somebody Up There Likes Me alongside Paul Newman. Two years later, McQueen scored his first starring film role in the sci-fi cult film The Blob, but it was his role in the television series Wanted: Dead or Alive that brought him to stardom.

McQueen soon became one of Hollywoods most bankable leading men and starred in a long string of box-office successes, which included, in addition to the titles in the Collection, The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and The Thomas Crown Affair. In 1968, McQueen was nominated for an Oscar for his outstanding portrayal of a cynical sailor in The Sand Pebbles.

During the next decade, McQueen starred in numerous films, achieving varying degrees of commercial success. But after 1978, McQueen appeared in only two more films before taking ill with an aggressive form of lung cancer. He died of a heart attack at the age of 50 shortly after undergoing lung surgery.


Directed by Peter Yates
Produced by Philip D’Antoni
Screenplay by Alan R. Trustman and Harry Kleiner, based on Mute Witness by Robert L. Fish

Music by Lalo Schifrin
Cinematography William A. Fraker
Edited by Frank P. Keller

Production company: Solar Productions
Distributed by Warner Bros.-Seven Arts

Release date: October 17, 1968
Running time: 113 minutes

Budget $5 million
Box office $42.3 million

Steve McQueen as Lt. Frank Bullitt
Don Gordon as Detective “Dell” Delgetti
Robert Vaughn as US Senator Walter Chalmers
Simon Oakland as Captain Sam Bennett
Felice Orlandi as Albert “Johnny Ross” Renick
Pat Renella as Johnny Ross
Jacqueline Bisset as Cathy
Carl Reindel as Carl Stanton
Paul Genge as Mike, The Hitman
Bill Hickman as Phil, The Hitman’s Partner
Robert Duvall as Weissberg (cab driver)
Norman Fell as Captain Baker
Georg Stanford Brown as Dr. Willard
Justin Tarr as Eddy the Informant
Al Checco as Desk Clerk
Victor Tayback as Pete Ross
Robert Lipton as Chalmers’ 1st Aide
Ed Peck as Westcott (reporter at hospital)
John Aprea as Killer