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San Francisco was a busy place in the late 1960s.  Urban renewal was taking place in places like the Fillmore (which actually began a decade earlier). Hippies were descending on the Haight-Ashbury.  High-rises were sprouting up downtown.  The first Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) stations were constructed under Market Street. 

In 1968, San Francisco was the scene for what would become a ground-breaking motion picture.  Starring Steve McQueen as an iconoclastic police lieutenant, Jacqueline Bisset as his leading lady, and Robert Vaughn as an ambitious politician, Bullitt features what is widely considered the most influential car chase in the history of cinema.  The movie was named to the National Film Registry in 2007 for being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant."

Plot (warning: spoiler)
Lieutenant Frank Bullitt (McQueen) and his partner, Sergeant Delgetti (played by McQueen's good friend, Don Gordon) are left in the stewardship of Johnny Ross (Felice Orlandi), the brother of Chicago mobster Pete Ross.  The former is scheduled to testify at a Senate hearing on Monday, and was left in Bullitt's care on Saturday by the politician Walter Chalmers (Vaughn).

They take up temporary residence at the Hotel Daniels, located on the Embarcadero (stated incorrectly in the movie as "Embarcadero Road"), and right next to the now-demolished Embarcadero Freeway.  Later that night, two armed robbers break in and shoot Ross and Detective Carl Stanton (Carl Reindell).  Ross dies from his wounds at San Francisco General Hospital.  Stanton is critically injured and is on life support at SFGH.  The plot never reveals whether Stanton survives or not.

In an effort to conceal Ross's death from the pushy Chalmers, Bullitt tells the doctor to misplace the medical record and to admit Ross's body anonymously in the morgue.  Chalmers places pressure on both Bullitt and his boss, Captain Baker (Norman Fell), even serving the captain with a writ of habeus corpus on the steps of the Grace Cathedral.

While investigating Ross's background on Sunday, Bullitt meets with an informant, Eddie (Justin Tarr) at Enrico's in North Beach and receives four-hour-old information that Johnny Ross was actually in Chicago on Friday night.  This is the first clue that the man in Bullitt's custody at the Hotel Daniels may not have been who he thought he was, though the lieutenant doesn't arrive at that realization until later.

Lieutenant Bullitt takes the cab from Enrico's back to his car, a dark-green 1968 Ford Mustang, parked near Highway 101 and Army Street (Cesar Chavez Street today).  The gunmen from the Hotel Daniels, in a Dodge Charger, spot Bullitt and he spots them.  The lieutenant pulls out of the parking lot and passes underneath the freeway, with the Charger in pursuit.  This marks the beginning of the famous car chase.

The chase takes the two cars through Bernal Heights, the Mission (York Street), Potrero Hill (20th Street and Kansas Street, near McKinley Square), then jumps to the Russian Hill/North Beach area.  The chase rolls on through the north part of the city, featuring Filbert and Mason Streets, and Columbus Avenue (Bimbo's 365).  The chase then goes back to Potrero Hill, then back to Russian Hill (keep in mind that they are roughly four miles apart), zigzagging through Russian Hill and North Beach (Chestnut, Larkin, Lombard, Jones, Union and Green Streets are seen here). The two cars end up in the Marina District, then near Fort Mason, and are headed towards the Golden Gate Bridge, before the scene is cut and resumes on the far south edge of the city, at McLaren Park.

The director, Peter Yates, wanted the chase to take place on the Golden Gate Bridge but the City of San Francisco refused, as doing so would have caused traffic problems.

From McLaren Park (University and Mansell Streets), the chase runs south through Daly City and east along the Guadalupe Canyon Parkway into Brisbane, where the Charger containing the two hitmen is forced off the road and crashes into a gas station.  The two men were "burned beyond recognition."

Back at the Hall of Justice following the chase, Lieutenant Bullitt tells his superiors, including Captain Baker, that "I've got one lead, I wanna move on it."  The "lead" is a woman at the Thunderbolt Hotel in San Mateo named Dorothy Simmons.  "Ross called her person-to-person from a phone booth in Union Square," says Delgetti, "approximately nine hours before he was killed."

Bullitt heads to the Thunderbird and discovers that Dorothy Simmons (Brandy Carroll; uncredited role) is dead in her room, from strangulation.  Back at headquarters, two boxes of luggage retrieved from the airport are examined (there are tags on them depicting O'Hare Airport in Chicago), one from a man, the other, a woman (presumably Dorothy Simmons).  Bullitt and Delgetti find travelers checks in both of the boxes, belonging to an Albert and Dorothy Renick.  Fingerprints are obtained from the body of Johnny Ross, sent by the medical examiner, and Albert Renick's passport application is wired via the Telecopier from Chicago.  The head-shot on the application suggests it's Ross, but the name is Albert Renick.  It is at this point that Bullitt confirms, with Chalmers looking over his shoulder, that the man shot at the Hotel Daniels was not Johnny Ross.  "You sent us to guard the wrong man, Mister Chalmers," says the laconic lieutenant. 

This sets up the climactic scene at San Francisco International Airport, where Bullitt chases down the real Johnny Ross (Pat Renella), who is looking to escape to Rome with the $2 million he stole in Chicago.  This on-foot chase scene takes place both inside the terminal and on the runway, and ends at one of the main entrance/exit doors as Ross, frantic and drenched in sweat, pulls out a gun, shoots a security guard, then turns on Bullitt, who fires one shot into Ross's chest, amid screams from nearby horrified travelers.  Ross is dead immediately.  Bullitt takes off his jacket and covers the dead man's face. Chalmers rides off in a police car, reading a Wall Street Journal.  The movie ends with a quiet scene inside Bullitt's apartment; Cathy is fast asleep in bed and the lieutenant, in his bathroom, in front of a mirror, his gun and bullets stacked neatly on a railing.

Steve Bowles
August 30, 2010


Mark Hopkins Hotel

Grace Cathedral

Nob Hill/Huntington Park

Embarcadero/Hotel Daniels

San Francisco General Hospital

Enrico's Sidewalk Cafe

Walter Chalmers' house

Lt. Bullitt's apartment/Clay and Taylor Streets

The Chase:

Bimbo's 365/Columbus Ave.

Marina Blvd./Safeway

Screen captures from the Bullitt DVD are copyright Warner Bros., are included here for review puposes, and are for personal viewing only. Photos of present-day are © Steve Bowles. All rights reserved.