Tonight: Steve McQueen, with Robert Vaughn and Jacqueline Bisset in the crime classic Bullitt.
The film was adapted from a Robert L. Pike novel entitled Mute Witness.
Screen rights were initially acquired by a group intending to cast Spencer Tracy as Lt. Frank Bullitt, a Boston policeman with a penchant for ice cream. When Tracy died in 1967, however, rights passed to McQueen and his producer.
They changed the setting to San Francisco and added plans for a car chase to end all car chases.
The film cost $5.5 million to make; it was shot all over San Francisco from February through May of 1968. Other scenes were shot in Chicago and Venice (California, not Italy).
The 38-year-old McQueen based his character on San Francisco homicide inspector Dave Toschi, known for his connection with the Zodiac murders.
The car chase in the film is now regarded as one of the screen’s best, ever. And that is saying something. The incredible sequence lasts 10 minutes. It required three weeks to shoot.
McQueen and the stunt drivers were instructed to drive at speeds of 75 to 80 mph, but they reached speeds of 110 mph in most takes. Word got out about how dangerous this was, and the city of San Francisco denied permission to film on the Golden Gate Bridge.
McQueen’s car is a 1968 Ford Mustang. Watch how the interior rear-view mirror is either up, or down, depending on who is driving—McQueen, or his driving double, Bud Ekins. When the mirror is up, and the driver is visible, it means that McQueen, himself, is driving.
McQueen selected Peter Yates to direct the film, because he’d seen Robbery in 1967, where Yates had shot a great car chase through the streets of London.
This is the first major film to use the word “bullshit.”
Bullitt opened to big business at the Radio City Music Hall on October 17, 1968. McQueen was the number three box office star in both 1969 and 1970. And Bullitt was the third highest grossing film of 1969, edged out by The Love Bug and Funny Girl.
The domestic film rental for Bullitt was $18.9 million at a time in America when the average ticket price was $1.42. So this was a major box office hit.
Roger Ebert’s review in the Chicago Sun Times declared: “McQueen is great in Bullitt, and the movie is great. … About the best action movie of recent years. … Stars like McQueen, Bogart, Wayne or Newman aren’t primarily actors, but presences. They have a myth, a personal legend they’ve built up in our minds during many movies.”
Variety declared, “Conflict between police sleuthing and political expediency is the essence of Bullitt, an extremely well-made crime melodrama. McQueen delivers a very strong performance. Good scripting and excellent direction by Peter Yates maintain deliberately mounting suspense.”
Ad lines included: “There are good cops and bad cops—and then there’s Bullitt.”
And: “When some rare Chicago blood starts spilling in San Francisco, they give Bullitt the mop.”
There were Oscar nominations for Best Editing and Sound.
The British Academy (BAFTA) nominated the film for Best Sound, Editing, Cinematography, Directing and Supporting Actor, Robert Vaughn.
Vaughn accepted his role in the picture reluctantly, and later considered this the best role in his long career.
So now, from 1968—Bullitt!