Bullitt is a 1968 police thriller film starring Steve McQueen. It was directed by Peter Yates and distributed by Warner Bros. The story was adapted for the screen by Alan Trustman and Harry Kleiner, based on the novel titled Mute Witness (1963) by Robert L. Fish (aka Robert L. Pike). Lalo Schifrin wrote the original music score, a memorable mix of jazz, brass and percussion.
The movie won the Academy Award for Best Film Editing (Frank P. Keller) and was nominated for Best Sound. Writers Trustman and Kleiner won a 1969 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Motion Picture Screenplay.
Bullitt is most-remembered for its central car chase scene through the streets of downtown San Francisco, one of the earliest and most influential car chase sequences in movie history. The scene had Bullitt in a dark "Highland Green" 1968 Ford Mustang G.T.390 Fastback, chasing two hit-men in a "Tuxedo Black" 1968 Dodge Charger R/T 440 Magnum.
The movie is also considered highly influential in many other ways within its genre. The use of a rebellious and borderline-insubordinate police officer as a protagonist operating despite interference from higher-ups was followed in many later movies, notably Dirty Harry and The French Connection, both released in 1971. The idea of making the officer fairly young and cool, and equipped with a sports car, was subsequently used by Starsky and Hutch and Miami Vice.
The movie as a whole, including the car chase, makes extensive use of the San Francisco Bay Area. However, San Francisco's most famous landmark, the Golden Gate Bridge, was not a part of the chase scene because the city's film commission refused to allow the filmmakers to close the bridge and film there. (The bridge is only briefly visible in the background during the part of the chase scene along Marina Boulevard.)
An ambitious California politician, Senator Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn), is holding a Senate subcommittee hearing in San Francisco on Organized Crime in America and has a key witness who he hopes will further his political aspirations as he brings down a powerful Mafia syndicate. The witness scheduled to testify, Johnny Ross, worked with his brother, Chicago mobster Pete Ross (Vic Tayback). The story takes place the weekend before the hearing, from Friday night (during the opening credits) to Sunday night.
Ross stole $2,000,000 from his Mafia cronies and two attempts were made on his life before he left for San Francisco. Chalmers has the San Francisco Police Department place Johnny Ross (Felice Orlandi) in protective custody for the weekend and requests that the detective unit headed by Lieutenant Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) be assigned to guard him.
Bullitt and his men, Sergeant Delgetti (Don Gordon) and Inspector Carl Stanton (Carl Reindel), give Ross around-the-clock protection at the Hotel Daniels, a cheap flophouse near the Embarcadero Freeway during separate shifts. Before Ross enters the hotel, he makes several phone calls. Saturday night, while Stanton is guarding him, the desk clerk calls and says Chalmers and a friend are there and want to come to the room. Stanton calls Bullitt at home, and is told not to let them in; Bullitt surmises that Chalmers would not show up at one in the morning. In the meantime, Ross walks over to the door and unlocks it. A pair of hit-men, Mike and Phil (played by stunt driver Bill Hickman), then burst into the room and Mike shoots Inspector Stanton in the leg with a shotgun blast. He then turns and shoots Ross, hitting him in the chest and face.
Stanton and Ross are both rushed to the hospital. Bullitt wants to get to the bottom of the case and catch who shot them, as well as the Mafia boss who ordered the hit. Chalmers is angered and blames Bullitt, threatening to ruin his career if Ross dies. Furthermore, Chalmers does not care about Bullitt's injured partner or the identities of the hitmen; he is only interested in the hearings that will launch his national political career. Chalmers attempts to shift the blame away from himself and make a patsy out of Bullitt and the San Francisco Police Department.
Stanton survives his wounds, and Ross comes out of surgery with a "fifty-fifty" chance at survival. The gunman, Mike, then appears at the hospital to finish Ross off, but is discovered and is chased by Bullitt through stairwells and the physical therapy rooms. After Mike escapes, Bullitt returns to discover Ross has died from his wounds. Bullitt suppresses news of the death, has Doctor Willard (Georg Stanford Brown) misplace the chart and has the body placed in the morgue under a John Doe identity. Chalmers arrives at the hospital Sunday morning and is angered that Ross has disappeared, and is further incensed when he and his police minder Captain Baker (Norman Fell) phone Bullitt only to be blown off. Chalmers increases pressure on Bullitt Sunday morning by serving his boss, Captain Bennett (Simon Oakland), with a writ of habeas corpus to produce the witness as Bennett arrives at church with his family. Bullitt reconstructs Ross's movements with the cabbie (an early role for Robert Duvall) who brought him into the city, and investigates the phone calls made by Ross. He finds that one was to a hotel in San Mateo, to a woman registered under the name Dorothy Simmons. With the hearing the next day, Bullitt suspects that this dead mobster may not be who he seems. The scene is set for the exciting high-speed car chase through San Francisco.
Riding in a Dodge Charger, the hit-men try to tail Bullitt in his Ford Mustang and thus discover the fate of Ross, but Bullitt evades them, and as they search he appears behind their car, having turned the tables and now following them. At first the hit-men pretend not to notice, driving slowly around the city in a tense scene. While waiting in traffic at an intersection an opportunity to escape presents itself. The music eerily stops; Phil (Hickman), the Charger driver, takes a moment to secure his seatbelt, and with a roar from the Charger's 440 ci engine, he careens through the intersection, around a corner and away from Bullitt. Smoke billowing from its rear tires, the Charger hurtles uphill and Bullitt likewise powers around the corner, giving chase through the hilly streets of San Francisco and the outlying highways. At one point Bullitt spins out after avoiding a motorcyclist coming from the opposite direction and the hit-men are apparently in the clear, but moments later he reappears behind them. Mike pulls out a Winchester Model 1897 shotgun and fires a few rounds at Bullitt. Bullitt tries to force the Charger off the road, the vehicles banging door against door, but to no avail. The chase comes to a climactic end after Mike once again shoots at Bullitt's car with the shotgun. Bullitt once again tries to force the car off the road and this time Phil loses control of the car, careening off the highway where they crash into a gas station, the station exploding and both men burning to death.
Back at the police station, Bullitt is angrily interrogated by Captains Baker and Bennett but still has until Monday morning to follow his remaining lead. He begins to check out Dorothy Simmons, the woman Johnny Ross called in San Mateo. He needs a car, but one is not available at the station, so his architect girlfriend, Cathy (played by Bisset), drives him to the suburban motel, where he discovers the woman has been murdered via strangulation. After seeing a marked patrol car arrive at the motel with its siren blaring, Cathy gets out of the car and follows the officers into the crime scene, where she sees the murder victim. She is upset, almost traumatized, at the sight of the strangled woman's still open eyes. Bullitt sees her and they leave. The two pull over to the side of a busy freeway and talk about Frank's cool attitude about the homicide investigation. She has trouble accepting his job, the true nature of police work, and Bullitt's apparent numbness to the horrors he sees on the job. "You're living in a sewer, Frank!" she says.
Bullitt and Delgetti check the luggage of the victim, which has arrived at the police evidence office. The two rifle through the luggage and find that all the clothing and toiletries are new and unused. Connecting the various bits of information, they learn that her true identity was Dorothy Renick (played by Brandy Carroll), and that she was scheduled on a flight from San Francisco International Airport to Rome, Italy, with her husband, whose only identity is his monogrammed shirts, bearing "AR". Further investigation quickly reveals the mystery name to be "Albert E. Renick". Bullitt then tells Delgetti to call immigration in Chicago and have them send over Renicks's passport application on what looks like one of the first facsimile machines, complete with an acoustic coupler modem, while he requests a fingerprint check. At this point, Chalmers arrives at the police station and demands Bullitt sign an official statement acknowledging that Ross died while in his custody. Bullitt ignores Chalmer's request until he receives a copy of the passport photos, the entire group waiting patiently while the fax machine slowly and very loudly prints. When it completes they examine the print, complete with sharp image of the suspect, whereupon Chalmers realizes that they have been conned while Bullitt calmly points this out to him. The man who was murdered was not Johnny Ross, but Dorothy's husband, Albert Renick, a used car salesman from Chicago with no Mafia connections. The real Johnny Ross paid Renick to impersonate him, while letting Ross use his passport and identity to leave the country. Ross also set up Renick to get the heat off him, then killed his wife to shut her up.
Bullitt has to stop Ross before he can make his getaway on the flight to Rome as Albert Renick. Having arrived at the airport with Delgetti, Chalmers encounters Bullitt and makes him an offer that will help both their careers, but Bullitt tells Chalmers he wants no part of it. He arrives at the airport just as the plane (a Boeing 707) is about to take off and phones air traffic control, who contacts the plane and gets the pilot to return to the terminal. Bullitt enters the plane as the passengers are coming off and sees the real Johnny Ross (played by Pat Renella). Ross jumps from the back door of the plane. Bullitt pursues Ross on foot across the runways as airliners take off around them. On two occasions Ross takes a few shots at Bullitt who does not return fire. Ross runs back to the terminal with Bullitt in pursuit. Bullitt narrowly avoids being crushed by a plane. Inside the terminal, Ross tries to blend into the crowd but Bullitt spots him. When Delgetti arrives near the scene with an armed airport security guard, Bullitt finally corners Ross at a glass doorway leading to curbside taxi pickup; Ross kills another security guard (not the one with Delgetti) in order to escape, but is blocked by the locked electronic eye automatic doors at both ends of the vestibule. Realizing he is trapped, he turns on Bullitt, who shoots him (the first and only time Bullitt returned fire in the whole movie).
The movie ends with Bullitt returning home to find Cathy asleep. He enters the bathroom to wash his hands and looks into the mirror, quietly contemplating his future as a detective — perhaps over the fact that he killed a man, no matter how justified he was.
Two 1968 390 GT V8 Ford Mustangs (325 bhp) and two 1968 V8 Dodge Chargers (375 bhp) were used for the chase scene. Both Mustangs were owned by Ford Motor Company and were part of a promotional loan agreement with Warner Bros. The Mustang's engines, brakes and suspensions were highly modified for the chase by veteran car racer Max Balchowsky. The Dodge Chargers were bought outright from Glendale Dodge in Glendale, California. The engines in both Chargers were left largely unmodified, but the suspensions were upgraded to cope with the demands of the stunt work.
Though it is widely believed that Steve McQueen — an accomplished driver — did the bulk of the driving stunt work, the stunt coordinator, Carey Loftin, had famed stuntman and motorcycle racer Bud Ekins do most of the risky stunts in the Mustang (Ekins also doubled for McQueen in one sequence of The Great Escape, in which McQueen's character jumps over a barbed wire fence on a motorcycle). The Mustang’s interior rear view mirror goes up and down depending on who is driving. When the mirror is up (visible) McQueen is behind the wheel, and when it is down (not visible) Ekins is in the car. The black Dodge Charger was driven by Bill Hickman, who also played one of the hit-men and helped with the choreography of the chase scene.
The director called for speeds of about 75 to 80 mph (120 to 130 km/h), but the cars (including the ones containing the cameras) reached speeds of over 110 mph (175 km/h) on surface streets. Filming of the chase scene took three weeks, resulting in 9 minutes and 42 seconds of film. During the chase scene, the Charger loses six hubcaps and has different ones missing at different times. The Charger also crashes into the camera in one scene and the damaged front fender is noticeable in later scenes. The production company was denied permission to film on the Golden Gate Bridge.
During the chase sequence, the speeding cars appear to pass the same green VW bug four different times. This is a result of the same section of street being shot from multiple angles simultaneously, with some angles being used to give the impression of the chase proceeding down a different street.
Driver's point-of-view angles were used during the hilly streets sequence to give audience members the "feel" of rising up and down when the cars jumped the hills.
Of the two Mustangs, one was scrapped after filming due to liability concerns and the surviving backup car was sold to an employee of Warner Brothers' editing department. The car changed hands a few times along with McQueen's unsuccessful attempt to buy the car. Currently the car, in a non-working condition, is owned by an anonymous owner who is rumored to have kept the car in a barn in Ohio River Valley.
A 2003 advertisement—created by the firm of Campbell-Ewald, directed by Michael Bay, featuring the song "Magic Carpet Ride" by Steppenwolf—makes ironic reference to the movie Bullitt. The advertisement was titled "An American Revolution, Car Carrier," and featured six not yet introduced new cars and trucks boarding a car carrier traversing the United States—notably a 103 hp Chevrolet Aveo descending the Twin Peaks of San Francisco and making an airborne leap remininscent of the Ford Mustang chase scene—before boarding the car carrier.
In an episode of Futurama, a car chase taking place in San Francisco pays homage by placing green VWs into each and every cut shot, more than in the original. The number of hubcaps flying off the vehicles in pursuit is also unrealistically high.
In honor of the Mustang in the film, the Ford Motor Company produced a limited edition 2001 Ford Mustang "Mustang Bullitt GT," which took styling cues from the '68 movie car and even mimicked its exhaust note. Another "Mustang Bullitt" was produced in 2008.