Yesterday afternoon, an email arrived in my in-box with a curious subject line: "That's MY car chase. MINE!!" The writer was, of course, referring to my article in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal here on the famed car chase from Bullitt, the 1968 film starring Steve McQueen. Over the past weekend I was in San Francisco driving the movie's chase route in a new Mustang with Loren Janes, Steve McQueen's stunt double. [Photo of Steve McQueen in Palm Springs with albums by Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Frank Sinatra and Count Basie at his feet]
Here's what Alan's email said:
"That subject line is childish, but I am now 80 years old, so I’m entitled to be childish.
"Did you ever wonder where the idea for the car chase came from? Director Norman Jewison told me on The Thomas Crown Affair in '67 to include something athletic to absorb Steve’s energies. That's why I put the polo and dune-buggy sequences into the movie.
"I originally wrote Bullitt for New York City. But when producers Philip D’Antoni and Robert Relyea and McQueen wanted to shift it to San Francisco, I was ecstatic. I told them that back in the summer of 1954, I had worked there at the law firm of Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro and was familiar with the city.
"Back in '54, Ford had based its car prices on purchase locations—something it called the Basing Point system. As a result, I was able to buy a Ford in Boston for a reasonable price and drive it to San Francisco. There, I worked at the law firm and drove around the city for three months before selling it for more than I paid. So I was very familiar with the streets.
"I learned that when you drove a light car like a Ford downhill in San Francisco, as we often did at 2 a.m., it would take off and fly through the air as you crossed some of the intersections. When we were discussing Bullitt, I suggested a Mustang, which was still quite a new car model in 1968. Steve was ecstatic. He couldn’t wait to try it.
"I wrote the car chase in detail that night, including locations, the low camera on the bumper of the following cars, and the hub cap coming off as it bashed against the wall beside one locus. Since everybody loved the car chase idea, I insisted on a director who could do a car chase.
"Peter Yates had directed a great car chase in Robbery with Stanley Baker, which producer Joe Levine hated and buried. But I screened the movie at Warner Bros., loved it and put Peter at the top of my list for director. He had put the camera on the front bumper of the following car and got terrific shots. Peter was, however, the third name on the list favored by D’Antoni, Relyea and McQueen.
But Nos. 1 and 2 on the list failed to answer the phone when they were called. D’Antoni, Relyea and McQueen refused to call again later or even leave a message. Instead, they immediately phoned No. 3 in England. Peter [pictured] answered because it was the middle of the night there, and that’s how he happened to direct Bullitt.
"An incredible, very Hollywood, but true story.
"Anyhow, many thanks for a great article in my favorite newspaper. What a great way to wake up in the morning!
"By the way, the crew gave Carey Loftin [pictured], whom they called a car jockey, most of the credit at the time, and Frank Keller won an Oscar for the editing and the film was nominated for best sound."
JazzWax clip: Here's the car chase from Robbery that Alan Trustman refers to above. Peter Yates directed the film in 1967 and in some ways the chase is the prototype of Bullitt's famed sequence written by Alan and directed by Yates a year later. The chase and stunts in the clip below are indeed tension-filled and magnificent...