On the Enduring Appeal of Bullitt and the Power of its Chase Scene

As a fan of cars, most of the movies I had ever seen from the late ’60s and early ‘70s, were automotive in nature. I think that’s why the first time I saw “Jaws” I was so bowled over by how good it was. I know it’s not a shock to you that one of the most highly regarded movies ever is great, but it was to me because car movies had taught me that movies from that era sucked.

That’s not to say I don’t enjoy Vanishing Point or Gone in 60 Seconds, but my enjoyment of them is so focused on the cars and the chases (and not the narrative arc or the characterization) that they’re best described as car porn. I’m there for one reason, and one reason only.

Until recently, I felt the same way about Bullitt. But after driving the 2019 Bullitt Mustang, I decided that I should probably rewatch the movie. And I actually enjoyed it. Not just as car porn, but as a movie. And I don’t think the fact that its chase scene is among the most highly regarded in film history is a coincidence. I think it’s as a result of the movie’s quality.

Sure, some of the success of the film comes down to its star—don’t we all quietly want to be as cool as Steve?—and more than a little comes down to the car—the Mustang was a sensation the likes of which we haven’t seen since—but there’s more to it than that.

“Le Mans,” by contrast, features one of the greatest race cars of all time and stars a no less cool Steve McQueen, but there’s no real narrative arc to speak of. The plot can be expressed (I don’t mean summarized, I mean fully expressed) in seven words: “Racing is life. Everything else is waiting.” That’s not to say I don’t love “Le Mans,” but I also wouldn’t subject my loved ones to it.

The plot of Bullitt, meanwhile, includes a gang, a dirty politician, a gold rush town, and a hero riding a mustang. If these elements sound familiar to you, it’s because they all belong in a western.

Although we remember him for his car movies, Steve McQueen started his career in westerns. “The St. Louis Bank Robbery,” “The Magnificent Seven,” and the “Cincinnati Kid” (among others) all starred McQueen and were all part of the ‘60s’ obsession with cowboys. And McQueen knew that he wanted Bullitt to be a western.

“Steve was very clear,” Robert Releya, McQueen’s former production assistant told Motor Trend in 2005. ”He always said that this movie was a western in which he would strap on a car like a gun belt.” And if you follow the history of film you’ll see why car chases and westerns are such a good fit. The mold for movie chases was cast in film’s earliest days with westerns. AMC’s film site ranks the greatest early film chases as coming from “Stagecoach,” “The Great Train Robbery,” and “The Birth of a Nation” (which is a hideous film, but whose influence has nonetheless trickled down through the ages), all of which took place in the wild west.

As a western, then, it has clear genre conventions to follow. Even though some of the plot’s finer points are a little bit muddy (was Chalmers crooked or just inept? What becomes of the mob, the case?) the hero’s mission is clear. There is a bad guy on the run. He must be brought in dead or alive.

Both of Bullitt’s chases follow this simple pattern. In the car chase he’s hunting down the two hitmen, while in the airport foot chase at the end of the movie, he’s hunting down the informant. In both cases, the baddies shoot first. And in both cases Bullitt doesn’t hesitate to shoot back. It’s a simple morality, but it works dramatically because (as Tarantino argues) movies require a simple structure and a clear resolution to elicit catharsis in the audience. So for all of Bullitt’s muddled storytelling and its intricate web of deception, Bullitt’s role in it easy to follow.

And that may be Frank Bullitt’s greatest advantage as a protagonist. From the earliest days of genre, the heroes–be they Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe, or Clint Eastwood’s man with no name–all commanded a calm mastery of their environments. They all lived in complicated times and offer simple solutions.

It should be remembered, after all, that no matter how much we lionize the ‘60s, it was a time of enormously upheaval and uncertainty to rival our own times. The Detroit Riots had happened only a year before this movie came out, the president had been assassinated a few short years earlier, and faith in the police was very low following the protests at the DNC in Chicago in ’68. In fact, Frank Bullitt was based on the real life San Francisco detective who is now best known for his role in the Zodiac killer’s case. To be sure, the movie was set in a dark and confusing time.

That uncertainty is reflected in the plot. Viewers aren’t sure who to trust. Chalmers, the smooth talking district attorney might be crooked, the guy Bullitt was sent to protect might not be who we think he is, the actual informant may only be in it because he was too bad even for the mob. Everything is muddled, except Bullitt. Frank Bullitt is a master of his world.

As Frank Bullitt untangles the movie’s complicated plot the cathartic release is doubly powerful for a viewing public who sees its real world reflected in the movie. The stakes for Bullitt couldn’t be higher. And those stakes extend to the chase scene in Bullitt.

Beyond being set in a fantastically cool location, beyond being one of the most realistic and unenhanced chase scenes up to this point, beyond including one of the coolest actors of all time, and beyond featuring one of the coolest cars of all time, the Bullitt chase scene has clear, life and death stakes, and when the chase ends, the film has the gumption to show us the consequences of that chase. Better yet, as is the case with all great film scenes, the chase works on its own as a contained story. Bullitt is being followed, Bullitt turns it around, Bullitt chases, Bullitt gets his man.

The chase works on its own and is imbued with meaning by the rest of the film, making it not only gripping, but narratively satisfying, too. It’s one of the few movie chases that rises above its station as plot device without consuming the rest of the movie (like Vanishing Point or Two Lane Black Top or Gone in 60 Seconds or Le Mans or even Smokey and the Bandit). It was made by people who cared deeply about the chase, but reined in by producers who actually wanted to make a real movie. The Bullitt Mustang may mostly be remembered for its chase scene, but it’s no run away horse.

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