by Lonnie Knabel ~
I could say this 1968 police thriller stars Steve McQueen as San Francisco Police detective Frank Bullit, but in the 50 years since this film came out, an even bigger star has emerged, the 1968 Highland Green 390 V8 Ford Mustang GT Fastback. Two of these cars were used in the filming, and one of them has recently emerged in its original unrestored version at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January 2018. The car was thought to be lost but was owned by the Kiernan family since since 1974 when it was purchased for $6,000 from an ad in Road & Track magazine. The Kiernan family even refused McQueen’s offer to buy “his” car. The other Mustang is a rusting hulk in Mexico.
The famous car chase scene involving the Mustang is considered the best in film history and is even today the quintessentialcar chase scene by which all others are judged. Steve McQueen was indeed the driver in a lot of those 110 mph scenes shot on the streets of San Francisco. With cameras mounted in the back seat, you really sense the impact when the cars jump and land on those San Francisco streets. The producers were given unprecedented access to San Francisco as the mayor, Joseph Alioto, wanted to promote his city to the filmmaking industry. The producers were given an entire wing of a hospital for filming. Multiple streets were closed down for three weeks to film the car chase, and they were allowed to take over San Francisco International Airport for several nights. McQueen’s famous burnout in the Mustang wasn’t in the original script, but when McQueen missed a turn, that is how he compensated, and it made the film.
The director, Peter Yates, had been hired by McQueen’s Solar Productions Company based on a great car chase sequence from the filmmakers British film Robbery. Yates personally directed the chase sequence, which is usually relegated to second team directors, because McQueen would be doing a lot of the driving. The other stars were the two 1968 Dodge Chargers that the bad guys drove, both of which were junked. The actor driving that car was the actual stuntman, and he would appear in two other films by producer Philip D’Antoni that had memorable car chase scenes, The French Connection and The Seven-Ups. The Charger was actually more powerful than the Mustang and had to slow down to appear just ahead of the Mustang.
The film’s only Academy Award went to Frank Keller for Best Film editing, and it was the editing of that chase sequence that was primarily responsible. In fact, he salvaged a major scene. The Dodge Charger with two dummies inside, representing the two killers, was supposed to explode as it hit a gas station, and the explosion happened, on film, at the wrong time. Through creative editing, Keller made it work. The chase sequence also has a fantastic film score as it opens. It’s right on target and very memorable. But composer Lalo Schifrin suggested there be no music during the chase itself because the sound effects were so great. He was right.
The film was the fifth highest grossing film for 1968. It was a great thriller, and McQueen was perfect. Interestingly, not a single set was built. It was all location shooting. The film really holds up even though it’s 50 years old. But I loved some things that were particular to that era. The nursing stations in the hospital are made up of a collection of wooden desks. AVIS Rent-A-Car at the airport gives out S & H Green stamps. All the phones are rotary dial. The flight attendants on Pan Am all have pillbox hats. Many of the extra cars lining the streets of San Francisco are from the 50s. Vital police information is transmitted by putting the telephone receiver in a slot on top of a clunky machine that makes loud spinning noises. The transatlantic 707s have small TVs attached to the ceiling. That’s fun stuff, but it doesn’t diminish the timeless appeal of this classic. This thriller is as good as any current police yarn, even with all today’s special effects. So, in the famous words from another movie classic, “Fasten your seat belt. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
For your viewing pleasure, click here to watch the car chase.
About the author – Lonnie Knabel is a resident of Sun City Carolina Lakes. In addition to being a classic movie aficionado, Lonnie is a regular contributing author to Living @ SCCL magazine and a professional graphic artist. Please visit his website here.