The Thrill of the Chase

 

“Action is character.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Bullitt (1968)

‘Bullitt’ is a movie that, intentionally or not, is all about style over substance. Produced by Philip D’Antoni (more on him later), it was a critical and commercial hit in 1968. Seen now, the film is still fairly slick – thanks in part to Lalo Schifrin’s jazzy score – yet somewhat unremarkable as a whole. It’s best viewed as a vehicle (pun intended) for Steve McQueen’s persona, embodying machismo, a distaste for authority, and ‘cool’ above all else. Frank Bullitt was modelled after SFPD Detective Dave Toschi (who famously investigated the Zodiac killer), and McQueen plays him as a world-weary, no-nonsense cop who keeps his cool in all situations, whether he’s confronting an ambitious District Attorney or, say, pursuing a 1968 Dodge Charger R/T through the streets of San Francisco. Steve McQueen was a perfect fit for this type of character, having shown flashes of that persona in films like ‘The Great Escape’ (1963) and ‘The Cincinnati Kid’ (1965). They could have titled the movie ‘McQueen’ and nobody would have blinked.

I mention this because, in many ways, the film’s central car chase is a perfect visual encapsulation of the character of Frank Bullitt, and of the mythology of Steve McQueen. The one word I would use to describe the chase is cool. The cars are cool, the music is cool, and the stunts are cool. Heck, even Bullitt’s tweed jacket is cool. In my opinion, it is this element that is most directly responsible for distinguishing the chase in the annals of movie history. The craftsmanship, while certainly coherent, is workmanlike (apart from the superb editing) and the chase itself is not exactly pulse pounding. It is a chase that I admire more than I love, but I do appreciate it for being what it is: a frigging monument to ‘cool’.

And now to analyze the craft of the chase:

– I really like Lalo Schifrin’s intro music, which manages to simultaneously set the cool tone and increase the suspense. I also like that the score drops out as soon as the chase kicks into high gear. This was Schifrin’s suggestion, and director Peter Yates wisely agreed.

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– The chase begins with a neat opening shot of Bullitt, already aware of the two hitmen, pulling slowly out of the parking lot. We follow his 1968 Ford Mustang GT (a truly incredible machine) using a slow zoom, and then as the Mustang pulls away the camera picks up the pursuing Dodge Charger at the tail end of the shot – no cuts. As a technique, I prefer this more classical style of shooting longer takes, rather than employing a lot of needless cuts. This requires coordination, but it pays off.

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– The driver of the Dodge Charger, and choreographer of the chase, is the legendary stunt driver Bill Hickman. He also choreographed (and acted as wheelman for) chases in two other Philip D’Antoni productions: ‘The French Connection’ and ‘The Seven-Ups’.

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– Here’s a technique that is not exclusive to car chases, but that certainly adds to the effect: a great composition. I really enjoy how we are looking through the Charger’s windshield, not consciously aware of the rearview mirror until Bullitt appears in it, and as soon as we register that, we get a quick zoom on the rearview mirror for emphasis. This is a surprisingly effective way of generating excitement. If we had cut from the two hitmen scanning for Bullitt to, say, a shot from the Mustang’s perspective looking at the Charger, or perhaps an overhead shot of the two cars, it probably wouldn’t be as exciting. I also enjoy Hickman’s priceless reaction shot. In general, these driver-POV shots (present in each of the three chases we’re examining) are an excellent way to involve the viewer in the action, almost like a participant. This is especially true in ‘Drive’.

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– Jim Emerson is correct when he says that you can feel (and I would add hear) these cars holding back their raw power. And when Hickman buckles his seatbelt with them racing gloves, you know what’s coming next – 1960’s audiences would have been really amped up at this point because back then it was widely understood that only the pros wore seatbelts. It wasn’t even a law yet.

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– As Emerson points out, it really is a bit agonizing when the chase finally begins in earnest, only for Bullitt to be stuck in traffic as the Charger peels off. You get the feeling like Bullitt may lose them at several points along the way, which is essential in maintaining the suspense for this particular two-car chase. In reality, this model of Dodge Charger was so souped-up that it would have easily lost the Mustang – Hickman and other stunt drivers had to continually back off the accelerator to keep the Mustang close.

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– I think it’s effective to show McQueen doing his own driving throughout (even though stunt drivers were involved at points). McQueen was an accomplished driver in real life, and seeing him actually burn rubber adds a good deal of credibility. It’s also helpful that his face refuses to show any emotion throughout the chase (unlike Gene Hackman’s). Just focused, collected, and cool.

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– What hill is this, you ask? It’s most likely Taylor Street heading north. A very iconic location that gives a great effect as cars seem to disappear and reappear as they fly over the hills. I once caught air like this on a hill in San Diego using our family’s Saturn wagon, and I can tell you from experience that it is quite harrowing.

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– Here we see the value of a good film editor. We have a sequence of shots from multiple perspectives of both the Charger and Mustang bouncing down the hill. It is all the same sequence, but shot from different angles and perspectives (you can tell because of the green VW Beetle and the yellow car present in multiple takes). Film editor Frank P. Keller (who won an Academy Award for his work here) stitches the multiple angles together, along with some insert shots, to make it look like a longer chase than it is. You almost don’t notice it’s the same street/sequence the first or second time through. The seams do show on repeat viewings, but Keller should get credit for squeezing a lot of cheddar out of one simple sequence. My favorite angle is the one with the fast reverse zoom that reveals more oncoming traffic to be “dodged”.

– This chase is geographically impossible as presented. It begins in Fisherman’s Wharf, goes into midtown along Taylor and Chestnut Streets, proceeds down Russian Hill and ends in Brisbane. Of course, none of that matters to the viewer. I only bring it up because a truly great chase usually has a distinctive tone that is linked to the city/setting in which it takes place. We get a real feel for San Francisco and the bay area here as we speed through some of its most notable locations (the same applies to Brooklyn in ‘The French Connection’, and L.A. for ‘Drive’).

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– I always feel that, despite the increased speed, the chase loses a little something when they get onto the open road. You lose the close confines, a lot of cross-traffic, and the sense that the Charger may escape. The filmmakers add a few near misses now and then, and it is fun to watch/listen to these cars throttle up to speeds of 110 mph (reportedly), but the first half of the chase is easily the best.

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– I don’t know what you call this (a matching shot?) but it is visually pleasing. You get a quick, one-second shot of the Charger passing two cars at a very high speed, and then a cut to a shot of the Mustang passing the exact same cars, at about the exact same angle. It gives a nice effect, and it’s nice to see the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance.

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– The sliding motorcyclist is Bud Ekins, McQueen’s stunt double who famously jumped the wire fence on a motorcycle in ‘The Great Escape’. Good stunts like this are always effective in a chase, because there’s a real chance the dude could end up as road pizza.

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– Of all the highway shots, I think I like this best. A very tough stunt to execute, the Charger hits a truck, careens into the guardrail, and then zooms straight under the camera (a similar effect is used in ‘The Dark Knight’, as Emerson points out, and in ‘The French Connection’ when Hackman hits a pile of garbage and comes close to hitting the camera). I like to imagine 1968 audiences screaming and fainting in front of the screen, like apparently occurred when people saw ‘The Arrival of a Train’ for the first time.

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– Just like in ‘The Rock’ when Nicolas Cage’s Ferrari gets destroyed by a streetcar, I hate seeing these beautiful cars get damaged.

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– I like the effect of the shotgun blasting Bullitt’s windshield, a shot that is likely more effective for being shown from the inside of Bullitt’s car.

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– Again, Keller’s editing salvages this scene. When the Charger finally loses it and crashes into the gas station, you get an insert shot that quickly zooms in on the gas station, another insert shot of an explosion in close-up, followed by a shot of the Mustang passing the exploding gas station. In reality, the Charger with test dummies in it hit a wire that triggered the explosion too soon, nearly ruining the costly take. Keller’s inserts allowed that take to mostly be used for everything pre-explosion. Though you never actually see a clear view of the car hitting the building, there’s no mistaking what happens.

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– Here are two appealing fellows. In fact, they’ll be a-peelin’ them off the pavement! Nothing like a nice closing shot of two guys burning to death. I do like the blur effect and the creepy horn sound right before the fade out.

So what did I learn from ‘Bullitt’? In addition to the above, I appreciated the sound design of the entire chase. This was a really innovative chase for its time, in part because the music you hear is the squeals of tires and engines revving as opposed to a score. There’s a point when Bullitt is pinning it on the highway, and the sound you hear is a kind of rhythmic churning of the engine. That’s pretty cool.

This chase is classic and exciting, but technically feels a bit too rehearsed. It’s not spontaneous enough. Part of that is because the filmmakers were actually responsible (unlike, say, William Friedkin) and went through the process of requesting permits, which required streets to be blocked off and controlled. You can tell some of the passing cars are pulling their punches a bit, and there’s a lot less swerving and dodging than you would actually see in San Francisco traffic. However, that doesn’t take away from the sheer joy of watching these muscle cars do their thing.

The French Connection (1971)

When producer Philip D’Antoni hired William Friedkin to direct ‘The French Connection’, he explicitly gave the young director a mandate to top the chase in ‘Bullitt’. Early in production, Friedkin knew it was looming, but he didn’t know any specifics yet, such as who would be chased and how, where it would take place, and where it would fit into the film’s narrative. So Friedkin and D’Antoni took a walk in Brooklyn and just brainstormed ideas, trying to absorb the urban vibe of the city along the way. They eventually hit upon the idea for an elevated train chase, which is a wonderful hook in itself. Yet the great inspiration of the filmmakers was to employ the chase primarily as a metaphor for Detective Popeye Doyle’s single-minded, obsessive, almost amoral, pursuit of his target. From Bay 50th St. and Stillwell to 18th Ave. in Brooklyn, Doyle pursues the train at all costs, threatening drivers and pedestrians all along the way. The chase serves a useful narrative purpose as well, because it jump-starts a case that Doyle has been taken off of. Combine all this with electric, life-threatening filmmaking, and you get the granddaddy of all car chases. This one put ‘em all away in my book.

Here are some of the techniques on display:

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– Another great opening shot that foreshadows the coming chase. It seems obvious now, but the idea to incorporate a subway train is a great way to visually establish a New York atmosphere, while also making for a very interesting and novel chase, because the train is theoretically free of obstacles, providing it with an asymmetric advantage. This structure also provides a constant subconscious orientation for the viewer. You never really need to figure out which direction Doyle is headed – so long as he sticks to those tracks.

– After the warmup foot chase between Doyle and the French assassin Nicoli (played by former stuntman Marcel Bozzuffi), the chase begins in earnest. Thanks to Doyle’s gun-toting on the subway platform, the transit officer is onto Nicoli – very useful to have parallel (and escalating) action happening on the train as Hackman pursues. This ensures that there is never a break in this frenzied, kinetic chase.

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– Here’s a great matching set of shots that don’t appear in succession, but which come pretty close together. The overhead shot of the train, at an angle, is matched by an overhead shot of Doyle’s 1971 Pontiac LeMans already barreling down the street at about the same angle (a favorite shot of mine – I love the cut into it from Nicoli on the train).

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– A word on the driving. This car looks like it’s going fast because it’s going fricking fast. In real traffic. Without permits, blocking, or advance warning to pedestrians. When faced with the prospect of having to obtain permission from the hundreds of storefront owners along the route, Friedkin just said “F— it!!” and put a fake police gumball siren on the top of the car. Friedkin had earlier challenged Bill Hickman, over drinks in a local bar, about his driving being more sizzle than steak. Hickman drunkenly replied, “You want me to show you something? Put the car on Stillwell (Ave.) tomorrow morning, then I want you to get in it with me, if you’ve got the balls! I’ll show you some f—in’ driving!” With the help of NYPD Officer Randy Jurgensen, who was nearby in case they got into real trouble, Friedkin gave Bill Hickman the green light to floor it all the way down the street. They reached speeds of up to 90 mph! Friedkin was in the backseat operating the camera and constantly yelling at Hickman to “…give it to me! This is f—in’ great!” Friedkin has since admitted that it was absolutely reckless and dangerous to film in this way, that it was a miracle nobody was killed, and that he wouldn’t do something that callow now. Though reckless, I am positive that this filming method is responsible for nearly all of the kinetic energy of this chase. They got lightning in a bottle with this one.

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– Jim Emerson points out this technique (pivot shots?) in his video essay, and it’s dang effective. The axis of motion moves predominantly from left to right throughout the chase, and never switches to the opposite axis without pivoting through a forward facing shot.

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– Another set of forward-facing matching shots in succession, helping the viewer transition from the train to the car below.

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– This two shot transition is my favorite thing in the entire chase for some reason. After Nicoli threatens the train conductor with a gun to the head, we get this awesome (and complex) shot, looking down at the LeMans through the train tracks. Then we get a shot of the LeMans just freaking cruising to get to the station, complete with roaring engine sounds. These two shots give me chills. In addition to being exciting and complex, the two shot sequence has brought us from the train to the ground again.

– The pacing of this chase never lets up. Friedkin said he and his editor cut the entire sequence to Santana’s cover of ‘Black Magic Woman’, and that a subconscious rhythm was therefore present throughout. I’m not sure about that, but it seems plausible to me. The song certainly sounds appropriately ‘70s. A good example of the genius pacing: once it becomes clear that the train isn’t stopping, we stick with the train for a bit, but then cut right into Hackman already behind the wheel again. It would have drained momentum to show him running back to the car, even though we did see him running up the stairs to try and catch the train. From this point on, the chase becomes a lot more desperate and out of control.

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– Gene Hackman did a lot of driving too, and that’s him behind the wheel when the white car hits the LeMans. This was not a planned occurrence – the white car was driven by a stunt driver who was supposed to just barely miss Hackman, but he slammed into the car instead. Again, the crash lends electricity to the chase because it’s real. In a continuity shout-out, in the shot just before the crash, you can see the white car approaching. In a continuity, uh, non-shout-out, apparently now it’s overcast for 10 seconds in Brooklyn. Still, I love the shot just after the crash, with the LeMans skidding to a stop right in front of the camera, and the train visibly moving in the top-right of the frame. Turns out, it really is effective to just show the audience what you want them to see.

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– These low shots from the front bumper careening down the street are the signature shots of the chase, filmed with Hickman behind the wheel. The speed feels very authentic, but there was some slight visual trickery involved. The cinematographer, Owen Roizman, employed long lenses to make the oncoming cars appear closer than they were (it couldn’t have been too much, though). He also undercranked the film to 18 fps to enhance the sense of speed.

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– Another cool shot of the car and the train together, preceded by a forward-looking shot from under the train, and followed by another small crash. This accident actually involved a civilian though, and was also not planned.

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– At this point, you can feel Doyle’s desperation. We get a quick insert of his foot flooring the gas pedal. Then, as the speed picks up, it appears that traffic has jammed up and there is no more lane for Doyle to use. We get an insert of Doyle yelling “Come on!!!”, followed by a shot that now reveals a narrow lane opening. This shot is held as the LeMans drives right into cross traffic (Roizman’s long lenses are doing their work here, making a crash seem inevitable). It seems odd, but I actually like the insert of Doyle briefly applying the brake, because the sequence has been cut so that you feel the need to brake as well. I remember having that feeling during my very first viewing of this chase.

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– Here’s an exciting near-miss (entirely planned) involving a pedestrian (of course pushing a baby carriage) using six shots. They’re quick shots, but each one serves an essential purpose, especially the fast zoom on the screaming mother.

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– The final shot of the actual chase is the train crashing into the back of another train that has just left the station. Though I’m sure Friedkin probably wanted to just crash the two trains without a permit, this was actually accomplished by filming the shot in reverse while undercranking it, then rewinding it. It seems a bit cheesy, but it works.

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– Officer Randy Jurgensen, as well as several other NYPD officers, vigorously protested Doyle’s shooting of Nicoli at the end of the sequence, calling it cold-blooded murder. Friedkin overruled them, and when audiences cheered during test screenings, Friedkin found Jurgensen and bragged that not only was it staying in the film, but it was going on the freaking poster. And so it did. Friedkin remains convinced that Eddie Egan, the real-life basis for the character of Popeye Doyle, would not have hesitated to shoot him either. Bozzuffi, a trained stuntman, did his own fall in one take.

This chase is the gold standard for me, mainly because it has such high energy. It is technically accomplished, coherent, and genuinely exciting. Rather than the chase in ‘Bullitt’, which pretty much eclipsed everything else in the movie, this chase is also better woven into the fabric of the film as a whole. I was about to write that the shots in this sequence, as in ‘Bullitt’, are held longer, but I actually don’t think that’s quite true. Compared to today’s shaky-cam style, yes, but I think there are actually a lot of quick cuts, and not as many long takes as you might expect. However, the cuts are never needless or chaotic – they always serve a purpose. On the strength of this sequence alone, I think William Friedkin earned his Oscar for Best Director (along with his editor, Jerry Greenberg, who won the Oscar for Best Editing).

Drive (2011)

Nicolas Winding Refn’s neo-noir ‘Drive’ opens with a modern chase done well. Though there are worthy examples of modern car chases, it seems these days there are far more subpar efforts that equate action with sensationalism, or that simply display poor craftsmanship. Regarding the typical chase scene nowadays, Roger Ebert said, “The key thing you want to feel, during a chase scene, is involvement in the purpose of the chase. You have to care. Too often we’re simply witnessing technology.” ‘Drive’ is about a solo wheelman (Ryan Gosling) who works as a Hollywood stunt driver by day, but moonlights as a getaway driver-for-hire to low-level crooks. Working in the McQueen mold, he is so heavily mythologized that the film doesn’t even bother to give him a name – only a code: he’ll get you anywhere you need to go within a five minute window, and he doesn’t carry a gun. He drives. In order to set the stage for the film, Winding Refn and his cinematographer, Newton Thomas Sigel, chose to open with a chase that subverts the typical template in two ways: (1) Gosling and his two passengers are trying to avoid detection by remaining at low speeds until it becomes necessary to open up, and; (2) The chase is filmed entirely from the perspective of the car or someone inside the car. The result is a stylish and unique sequence that frames the film nicely. This is proof positive that you can make a thrilling chase without breakneck speed (though ‘Drive’ later provides a nice example of that as well).

Here’s the craft on display in this sequence:

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– The sole purpose of this chase is to introduce us to Gosling’s character and showcase his cool professionalism and skill. It begins by employing tension, with Gosling simply waiting for his passengers as an alarm sounds and a police dispatcher is heard sending units to respond. We linger on Gosling’s face using multiple angles, including one showing him in the rearview mirror of his Chevy Impala, and again in a shot that employs a slow push-in. He’s not anxious, but he is laser-focused. These takes pay off in the shot where he finally turns to look ahead through the windshield once the lagging crook runs to the car.

– Once the chase slowly begins, the (absolutely cash money) background music rises to a higher volume. This demonstrates, I think, an appropriate use of background music for a chase. Even though the previous two chases rightly substituted the sounds of cars in pursuit for a score, I think that choice might have been wrong here. Stealth and quiet are the key elements, and the track adds to the overall vibe of the pursuit. When the chase does accelerate, the music drops out.

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– One effective technique employed throughout is the use of shifting focus. At the outset of this shot, the police cruiser is in focus, but as it moves away from Gosling, the focus shifts to Gosling’s face in the rearview mirror, his gaze following the cruiser as he turns in the opposite direction.

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– The audio of the police scanner enhances the suspense of this chase. It communicates tactical information that telegraphs the actions of patrolling police cars, it provides orientation for the viewer, and it also provides a credible explanation for Gosling’s successful evasions. And in the above shot, the audio of the scanner is well-synched with the helicopter spotlight as it locates Gosling’s car, kicking the chase into a higher gear.

– It seems plausible to me that Gosling could evade a police helicopter in this way. In a line right before this clip, the Driver mentions that there are “100,000 streets in this city”, so when he pulls under the bridge, we’re not thinking about the odds of successfully evading the police. We’re confident that Gosling has memorized every one of those 100,000 streets and he knows exactly what he’s doing.

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– After the helicopter leaves, and it seems like Gosling is in the clear, we get this nifty sequence that again employs shifting focus. At first the approaching car is out of focus, so we don’t necessarily notice it, but soon we see it’s a police car as it comes into view. The police scanner lets us know that the Impala has been ID’ed, so we wait in suspense for Gosling to finally gun it. Then we get a cool shot from the rear window of the car as the cruiser turns around in pursuit. Pretty slick effect.

In sum, this chase presents a nice throwback to the cool vibe of ‘Bullitt’, while also creating a distinctive feel of its own. I enjoyed the nighttime setting, the compositions, and especially the innovative subversion of car chase conventions. I also appreciated the naturalistic lighting employed throughout – passing streetlights provide fleeting illumination, but for the most part Gosling and the two crooks are very dimly lit, as they would be in real life. We get a good sense of setting, with the chase beginning in a non-descript industrial area, and ending right at the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles (in the film, this chase is bookended by several stunning nighttime shots of the L.A. skyline). The sequence is very technically accomplished and stylish, and it firmly establishes itself among the greats in modern cinema chases.

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