Bullitt is a 1968 American 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 probably best-remembered for its car chase scene through the streets of downtown San Francisco, regarded as one of the most influential car chase sequences in movie history. The scene had Bullitt in a dark "Highland Green" 1968 Ford Mustang 390 CID Fastback, chasing two hit-men in a "Tuxedo Black" 1968 Dodge Charger R/T 440 Magnum.
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.)
In the 2007 film Zodiac directed by David Fincher, the real-life San Francisco homicide investigator David Toschi (played by Mark Ruffalo) is said to be the model for McQueen's character Bullitt, including the use of a specially designed quick-draw shoulder holster for his weapon.
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 (Felice Orlandi), 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 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. A gunman then appears at the hospital to finish Ross off, but is discovered and is chased by Bullitt through stairwells. After he escapes, Bullitt returns to discover Ross has died from his wounds. Bullitt suppresses news of the death. He asks Doctor Willard (Georg Stanford Brown) to 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. He 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 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 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. He appears behind their car, having turned the tables and is now following them. 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 CID 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. 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 when Bullitt once again tries to force the car off the road. Phil loses control, careening off the highway where the Charger crashes 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 is given 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 none is available. So his landscape architect girlfriend, Cathy (played by Jacqueline 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 almost traumatized at the sight. Bullitt escorts her out. On the way back to San Francisco, they pull to the side of a busy freeway. Cathy has trouble accepting 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. They find that all the clothing and toiletries are new and unused. They learn that the dead woman's 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 reveals the mystery man to be "Albert E. Renick." Bullitt then tells Delgetti to call immigration in Chicago and have them send Renick'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 Chalmers' request until he receives a copy of the passport photos. When they examine the print, complete with sharp image of the suspect, Chalmers realizes he has been conned while Bullitt calmly points out, "You had us guarding the wrong man." The murdered man was not Johnny Ross but instead Dorothy's husband, Albert Renick, a used car salesman from Chicago with no crime connections. The real Johnny Ross merely paid Renick to impersonate him, using Renick's passport and identity to leave the country. Ross 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. At the airport, Chalmers makes a suggestion to Bullitt that could help both their careers, but Bullitt tells him off. Ross is not found on the Rome flight and Bullitt guesses that he must have switched to a London-bound plane departing at about the same time, and just as the plane is about to take off, Bullitt phones air traffic control and gets the pilot to return to the terminal. Bullitt boards as the passengers are coming off and sees the real Johnny Ross (played by Pat Renella). Ross jumps from the rear exit. Bullitt pursues on foot across the runways as airliners take off around them. Bullitt narrowly avoids being crushed by a plane. Back inside the terminal, Ross tries to blend into the crowd but Bullitt spots him. When Delgetti arrives with an armed airport security guard, Bullitt finally corners Ross at a glass doorway leading to curbside. Ross shoots a guard but is blocked by the locked electronic eye automatic doors at both ends of the vestibule. Trapped, he turns on Bullitt, who shoots him (the first and only time Bullitt has returned fire).
Bullitt returns home to find Cathy asleep. He enters the bathroom to wash his hands and looks into the mirror, quietly contemplating his future.
Two 1968 390 CID V8 Ford Mustangs (325 bhp) were used for the chase scene, both owned by Ford Motor Company and part of a promotional loan agreement with Warner Bros. The Mustangs' engines, brakes and suspensions were highly modified for the chase by veteran car racer Max Balchowsky. Ford Motor Company had also originally loaned two Galaxie sedans that were intended to be used in the chase scenes, but the producers found the cars entirely too heavy to put through jumps over the hills of San Francisco without the suspensions of the cars being severely damaged. The Galaxie sedans were replaced with two 1968 440 CID/375 bhp Dodge Chargers that 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.
The director called for speeds of about 75–80 mph (120–130 km/h), but the cars (including the ones containing the cameras) reached speeds of over 110 mph (175 km/h) on surface streets. Driver's point-of-view angles were used to give the audience the "feel" of the ride as the cars jumped the hills. Filming the chase scene took three weeks, resulting in 9 minutes and 42 seconds of film. During this film sequence, the Charger loses six hubcaps and has different ones missing in different shots. As a result of shooting from multiple angles simultaneously, and some angles' footage used at different times to give the illusion of different streets, the speeding cars can be seen passing the same green VW bug four different times, and the same blue sedan with black top three times. The Charger also crashes into the camera in one scene and the damaged front fender is noticeable in later scenes. After the charger hits a parked car, it disappears for a split second from the screen before the scene is changed.
In the original release a man is just about to get out of a parked car when the Charger takes off the driver's door, but this part of the chase scene has been edited out of recent cuts of the film.
Though it is widely believed that Steve McQueen—who was an accomplished driver—did the bulk of the driving stunt work, actually the stunt coordinator, Carey Loftin, hired famed stuntman and motorcycle racer Bud Ekins to do most of the risky stunts in the Mustang, he is also the stunt man who lays down his bike in front of a skidding truck during the chase (Ekins also doubled for McQueen in the 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 driving. 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. This nearly-10-minute film sequence was voted the best car chase in film history in a poll of 5,500 British film enthusiasts.
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 several times, and Steve McQueen at one point made an unsuccessful attempt to buy it. Currently in non-working condition, the Mustang is rumored to have been kept in a barn in the Ohio River Valley by an anonymous owner. The Ford Motor Company has twice reproduced the dark green Mustang for sale to the public; once in 2001, and once in 2008. The 2008 model has a 4.6-liter V8 engine, . Both were made available in Dark Highland Green, a color similar to that used on the film's automobile.