The late Steve McQueen is still an icon of big screen cool more than thirty years after his death, and the car chase in Bullitt is still a thrilling piece of cinema over forty years after its release.
Sure, car chases may now be more elaborate, death defying and expensive, but the chase in Bullitt still holds up, and can take a lot of modern filmmakers to school. (Take that Fast and Furious!)
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to speak with the late William Fraker, who was the cinematographer of Bullitt, Rosemary’s Baby, WarGames, Tombstone, and many other films.
Of course, I had to hear about the Bullitt car chase, which he was more than happy to tell me about.
“With Bullitt, I met (director) Peter Yates and we talked about a picture he had done called Robbery, where the opening sequence has a car chase,” Fraker said. “I thought he did a terrific job and when I asked how fast they were goin’ he said they couldn’t go over 60-65 miles an hour. That night we made the decision that on Bullitt we weren’t gonna speed up the camera. We’re gonna shoot 24 frames, honest, and we’re gonna speed the cars up. We were the first to mount cameras on the cars so they wouldn’t shake.
“The fastest we went was 124 miles per hour,” Fraker continued. “I was sitting about six or eight inches off the ground in the car, goin’ about 124 mph, and the centrifugal force of the car wouldn’t allow me to move right or left! Steve McQueen is coming along side, I’ve got to get his close up, and I fought and fought, thinking, I gotta get the shot!
“In one scene, Steve and the stunt driver are comin’ down a hill and they have to turn right. We mounted the main camera in the sidewalk. We parked another car right in front of the foreground, in about a third of the frame, to protect the camera. The stunt driver comes down the corner and he turned a little too sharp, and he had to straighten out so the car wouldn’t flip. But when he straightened out, he hit the car that was parked there and wiped out the camera too!
“Our idea was to take the audience on that trip, which really worked beautifully. The first time I saw it with an audience, they applauded at the end of the chase. It was absolutely sensational.”