Over the decades since the first crime/caper/action movies appeared, car chase scenes have become nearly ubiquitous. Say what you will about these chase scenes and how they serve a film’s narrative, there’s no denying their visceral appeal. Coupled with the right setting, a well put-together chase scene is about as close to a cinematic money shot as you’re likely to encounter without having to wear a shame-trench coat to the late showing of a John Holmes flick.
And few cities lend themselves to cinematic car chases quite as well as San Francisco. This is a near-indisputable fact, as evidenced by the corpus of iconic motion picture odes to the city’s many telegenic qualities, which reveal themselves best, perhaps, when used as a backdrop for American muscle cars tear-assing – alluringly, dangerously, dizzyingly – through San Francisco’s hills, canyons of office buildings, and industrial wastelands. But most especially the hills.
However, “backdrop” is a reductive term. Cinematic San Francisco is less a backdrop than a character. Car chases or not, if any of the dozens of films shot in San Francisco over the decades would have been set somewhere else, the feel (to mention nothing of the look) of these films would be vastly, some might say unflatteringly, different. San Francisco is as much a cinematic icon as New York, Paris, or Los Angeles, but when it comes to automotive interaction – with one or two notable exceptions – San Francisco is king.
An aside: I like cars. Specifically, American cars of the late-1960s. More specifically, I like the sensory experience associated with Detroit’s golden age: the sounds of an engine and squealing tires; the sleek, mean lines of those wide chariots; the chrome and paint; the smell of gasoline and rubber… shit, this has gotten way off course. Maybe you’re into cars and maybe you’re not. I’m not judging.
In any event, San Francisco is a city all but designed for driving. Never mind the downtown-traffic throngs of lozenge-shaped commuter buckets, what I mean is the archetypal Streets of San Francisco : cops and/or bad guys, ripping through tight corners, flying over hills, and generally making the roads unsafe for everyone. This aspect of S.F. has been repeatedly capitalized upon by generations of filmmakers, and so I figured it would be worthwhile to revisit the most memorable of all movie/car/S.F. combos, the seminal Steve McQueen vehicle Bullitt (1968) as well as a few noteworthy also-rans.
The inestimable Bullitt is heralded to this day as featuring the very finest car chase scene ever set down on celluloid – both among films featuring San Francisco or not. And I doubt there’s anyone with a pulse that has watched the scene and not felt their heart pump faster or their testicles recede slightly. The nearly nine-minute-long scene has no sound track aside from the relentless roar of engines and the shrill squealing of tires, and it runs roughshod over disparate parts of the City taking you on a buttocks-clenching ride that all but erases any lingering memories of driver’s-ed films about courteous motoring.
The film’s chase scene is so highly regarded (google it, I dare you) that it tops pretty much every list you’ll find that ranks such scenes. Diehard fans have even created a Google Map highlighting the route traced in the film.
The first thing you’ll notice when looking over the route is that it is geographically impossible; shots are cobbled together so as to provide for maximum impact with little regard to geographical continuity. But even so, it makes for some damn exciting driving.
I couldn't have picked a better day to retrace McQueen's chase route through the city: warm, windless, and relatively free from traffic at most points. Lacking as I do a Mustang fastback, I opt for another of Steve McQueen's trademark modes of transport, a motorcycle. Generally, and for the sake of accuracy, I would have ridden a Triumph. Mine, however, is up on blocks and in need of two carburetor rebuilds. Instead, I roll out a 1978 (or at least most of it is a 1978) Honda CB550/4. It's fast, low, and barely legal. It will have to do.
With the Bullitt map in hand, I set out to retrace the key locations. Although geographically inaccurate, my route is a veritable checklist of notable San Francisco hills and intersections (which you can also find listed in great detail here).
The most memorable among the chase locations is in Bernal Heights, highlighting the neighborhood’s narrow streets and switchbacks, and the spectacular footage of McQueen’s mean ’68 Mustang Fastback flying down Taylor Street and Vallejo chasing two hit men in a beautiful Dodge Charger. Riding safely and unobtrusively down Cesar Chavez toward Potrero, I'm slightly bored. As soon as I turn up towards York and Precita, however, the landscape begins to shift dramatically, providing a series of challenging hills and turns that have me immediately wishing for a pursuer.
For the law-abiding solo motorcyclist there is, I'm sorry to report, not much in the way of speed and danger – yet. Be that as it may, the ride is pleasant which gives me time to warm up for Taylor Street.
I spend a day traversing the various locales, and though it is a scenic ride, I lack two things: a permit to go as fast as possible, and the benefit of seamless and exciting editing. I try my damnedest to fly over the intersections like Bullitt, but a) having just cleared up all my outstanding traffic warrants, I don’t want to provoke the cops again, and b) I’m kind of a pussy, and so my own attempts are slightly less exciting.
But if you’re one of those happy-go-lucky characters who’s got nothing left to lose (as opposed to Harry Callahan’s assertion that "a man’s got to know his limitations"), I’d advise you to go ahead and print out the map yourself and run the gauntlet as fast as you’re (legally) able to go. It's worth checking out the locations out of deference to the film as well as to simply see parts of the city from different vantage points.
Susan was also kind enough to give us her own list of several other films in which San Francisco and cars both feature prominently. Rounding out the top S.F. car (chase) scenes, Susan also noted:
+ Three out of the five films in the Dirty Harry franchise – the original Dirty Harry (1971) and its sequels Magnum Force (1973) and The Enforcer (1976). Of these, Magnum Force is especially noteworthy for featuring a car vs. motorcycle chase scene and being the possible progenitor of one of the main tropes of the chase scene: crashing through boxes.
+ Foul Play (1978), featuring Goldie Hawn before collagen and Chevy Chase when he was still funny (or is he funny again? I know these things work in cycles).
+ What’s Up, Doc? (1972), which is one of those screwball comedies that were so popular in the 1970s. In it, you’ll see Ryan O’Neal and Barbra Streisand take to SF’s hills in what has been called a hilarious homage to Bullitt, but I’m not buying it. The film is usually noted due to the damage inflicted on Alta Plaza Park, when the speeding cars bounded down the park’s concrete steps without a permit. The damage is still evident today.
+ The Rock (1996), which, befitting of its director Michael Bay, features what is perhaps the most over-the-top, clichéd, and unintentionally hilarious car chase scene in the history of film. More a paean to Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage’s dueling hairpieces, hack dialogue – at one point in the scene after Connery’s character outmaneuvers pursuing FBI agents, causing a massive pileup, he quips “I hope you’re insured!” – and tired convention than anything else, it nevertheless makes the list due to its sheer idiocy.
+ And finally, the 1915 Charlie Chaplin comedy A Jitney Elopement , notable as perhaps the first film to include a San Francisco car chase– around the windmill in Golden Gate Park, no less, which may impart the landmark a more subtle parsing of the word “cruising.”
So why not go on a day tour of one of San Francisco’s many notable car chase scenes? If you have a car, motorcycle, or comfortable bicycle (with gears), you’ve got no excuse. Or if you don’t have any of those, have you heard of these car share services? Seems like more and more people are using them these days. Try City Car Share or Zipcar. Watch the films, print out the maps, get in the car, and appreciate the hell out of life. Was that last line a bit too much? Maybe my enthusiasm has gotten the better of me, but is that really such a bad thing? Can we just agree that sometimes it’s okay to be unabashedly into something? Let’s just all promise to go out and try. That can’t possibly be too much to ask. I’m not saying you have to try something incredibly difficult, or even that you have to succeed – it’s the trying that’s important. Get out there. Go.