The Cartography of Bullitt

Amidst violence, a utopian pastoral urbanism emerges from the absurd geography of the version of San Francisco in Bullitt (1968). The famous 11 minute car chase cut by director Peter Yates and editor Frank P. Keller to maximize tension, composition and propulsion also presents a dense urban zone just a heartbeat away from rolling countryside. This collage of urban and rural results from a sequence guided by the stop and start necessities of a city of hills and absolute momentum and from a movie experience that compares with the more conceptual and less offensive tenants of the Futurist Manifesto: “a celebration of speed, machinery, violence, youth and industry”.

In the film, Steve McQueen and his Mustang are trailed by hitmen¬†in a Charger, casually¬†at first. They begin in Bernal Heights, along Cesar Chavez, south of the Mission, and make a magic left turn up into Potrero Hill, where McQueen turns the tables. McQueen chases them down into North Beach — Coit Tower distinctly centered in the frame, trolley cars sliding across the middle ground. We’ve miraculously erased SoMa, the Tenderloin and Nob Hill altogether.

The thugs buckle up and accelerate through a mishmash of Potrero and Russian Hills where both the Mustang and the Charger catch air. This section is highlighted by the exhilarating sequence pointed straight down Taylor — looking North towards the Marina with Alcatraz and Tiburon appearing and disappearing — the cars speeding up and weaving through oncoming traffic contrasting with them violently bottoming out at the flat intersections. Lombard almost realistically takes them to the Marina, where things go demented again.

Instead of ascending to the Golden Gate Bridge or peeling through the more densely forested areas of the Presidio to Sea Cliff and the Pacific, the chase takes us into bucolic McClaren Park of all places, which exits far south in Daly City, races through Guadalupe Canyon Parkway and ends in Brisbane, with both muscle cars skidding out of control and climaxing in fire.

However, our positional awareness is never threatened. We trust the editor completely. This is San Francisco; better than San Francisco, in fact. A beautiful, garden city setting for a morality play, for life and death struggles where crime doesn’t pay.

Super fan Ray Smith broke down the chase shot for shot and matched those shots to their actual locations. Other fans have mapped those locations on Google which Wired wrote about in 2009.

If you take the first map’s sequence as a starting point, and rotate each successive shot to match the direction of the cars in the previous shot, you get a wacked out ‘Frisco, looped in on itself, with the long Marina and Guadalupe Canyon Parkway sequences dominating the new geography, forcing a horseshoe and squeezing the Bay into an inlet. The rules would need to be better defined, the time frame taken into account, the landmarks maintained. Brisbane might become a finger into the Bay as it wraps around back towards McCovey Cove, but the bridges, the Pacific, and Oakland need to be resolved too. Here’s version 1: