Bullitt doesn’t have much to say about San Francisco in particular, but San Franciscans certainly have plenty to say about Bullitt. It follows in the vein of Vertigo, in that the film exposes the city’s self-obsession above all. Perhaps it’s our desire to reconnect with film history, but it’s more likely a peninsular instance of you’ve-got-it-all-wrong.

Ask anyone about 1968’s Bullitt, and they won’t remember a single thing about its story. Does it even matter? While the plot is convoluted and full of holes, the draw of this film is so simple you could tweet about it. Two words: car chase. And we’re not talking something of The Fast and the Furious variety–this is classic Steve McQueen, the king of cool.

McQueen said that Bullit strove to focus on reality, not theatricality. The famous car chase was the first sequence to feature real high speeds (up to 110 mph) rather than footage of cars sped up in post production. It dictated the rules for the chases to follow. Forty-one years later and it’s still a badass classic.

Yet San Franciscans are quick to prove that the chase is quite theatrical. In a feature from 2003, Peter Hartlaub of the Chronicle focuses on the inconsistencies of the edited chase sequence:

The chase begins in Bernal Heights, as McQueen’s Mustang starts a slow
cruise and follows the Charger up Army and a couple of side streets. From
there, the chase materializes in Potrero Hill for two blocks, then teleports 3
miles north to Russian Hill and into North Beach.

Don’t believe him? You can even watch a side-by-side comparison of the chase to (what else?) a Google map. Grouse, grouse, grouse. That’s not the San Francisco we live in!

But does anyone else care? Or, more importantly, does anyone else even notice? To someone unfamiliar to the city’s geography, Russian Hill could just as easily be Portrero Hill, and it’s not unlikely that the Golden Gate Bridge is right outside the open roads of Daly City. (Don’t laugh.) There’s a lot of jumping around, but unless you’re a streets buff, you’re more hooked on the fast cars and squealing tires. As a whole, the sequence in the city is seamless to the untrained, naive eye. That could explain the 1969 Oscar for best film editing.

Call it a holier-than-thou attitude if you really wish, but San Franciscans have no problem letting you know when you’re wrong. While others busy themselves posting copies of the chase onto YouTube for the umpteenth time, we’re sipping our Blue Bottle lattes and laughing at the same green VW bug that Bullitt‘s cars keep flying by. It may be a classic, but thanks to Google, we know better by now.

The film immortalized the streets and the hills of San Francisco. With all those hubcabs lost to the trials of the high energy chase, it’s amazing no one left behind a clutch. But dammit if those aren’t our hills, and we’d like them where they belong, thankyouverymuch. Each neighborhood has its own distinct flavor, and when a film mashes them all together, we get a bit protective. That’s not to say that we don’t get tight in the pants whenever we see the chase, but we will get just a little anal about the jump from Kansas Street to Filbert Street. Whether it’s because we love our city or just because we want to be right, either way we will let everyone else know the blatant misconceptions that Bullitt creates surrounding the nature of San Francisco’s city planning. So there.

Bullitt is available on Netflix (instant too), on Amazon, in Blu-ray and on iTunes. 

Starring San Francisco is Appeal culture reporter, Christine
Borden’s, take on the city’s cinematic past to illuminate today. Have a
locally-set film you’d like to see featured? Tell her at christine@sfappeal.com.

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  • Greg Dewar

    Bullitt is one of my favorite SF films from that era…I used to live 1/2 a block from Bullitt’s house in Nob Hill when I house-sat for someone…if anything the fact he was able to find a parking space so easily in Nob Hill right in front of the VJ market is proof positive that the magic of Hollywood glosses up life in our fair city.

  • Christine Borden

    Oh, I know! I totally laughed at that moment.