Steve McQueen and Bullitt History- Part One by Tony Piazza
Earlier this year I was on live radio talking with the show’s host, Dave Congalton and his other guest, Bob Whiteford- film buff, about the motion picture “Bullitt.” As with preparation for any show, I ended up doing a lot more research and memory prodding than was used during that hour of broadcast. Therefore I thought I would draw on that research for this blog series, and take my readers through the history of “Bullitt.” My approach will take you chronologically from its beginning- the novel, through the filming, and finally to its release. Obviously this cannot be done in one posting, so I will release them throughout the coming months in parts. Today’s blog looks at the background.
“Bullitt” was adapted from a Robert L. Pikes (aka Robert L. Fish) novel, “Mute Witness.” The novel was very different from the film’s screenplay that was written by Alan Trustman and Harry Kleiner for which they won an Edgar Award (“Best Screenplay”). The original novel told the story of a cop named Clancy who was to protect an underworld boss that was ready to testify against the mob. He was to keep him alive throughout the weekend until his appearance at a hearing of the New York Crime Commission the following Tuesday. It was a nice mystery, but very different from its celluloid incarnation and lacked the film’s signature moment- the chase. The property was originally bought by Warner Brothers for Spencer Tracy, but his death shelved it until it found its way into the hands of producer Philip D’Antoni. A chase was not in the original concept, but added later, and the location changed from Los Angeles to San Francisco at the suggestion of Peter Yates, the film’s director. Yates felt that there were too many cop shows being filmed in the city of angels at the time, and he didn’t want to stand in line for shooting permits and then end up tripping over another production company also filming near the same location. He felt San Francisco (with its scenic views from seven hills) would be an ideal location and the over-the-top cooperation they were promised by San Francisco’s Mayor Alioto finally cinched the deal.
“Bullitt” was the first picture that Steve McQueen’s company Solar would produce with Warners, and assisted by Robert Relyea, executive producer and close friend of McQueen they would select Peter Yates, a British filmmaker to come to America and direct. Yates had just completed a film in England entitled “Robbery” and both McQueen and Relyea were impressed with it- and particularly its chase scene, so he was selected.
THE MYSTERY OF THE SCRIPT
Back in 1968, my father was assigned to “Bullitt” as a liaison between the City of San Francisco and the production company. He worked closely with Mr. Relyea and Mr. McQueen in the making of the film. He had a script from the film which I read 44 years ago. In my recollection- I remembered being disappointed- the details of the chase were missing from its pages. In fact I believe it only said CHASE in that portion of the story where it was supposed to occur. Recently an on-line script came to light that goes into incredible detail of the chase, and I found that puzzling. Being a writer of mysteries this discrepancy bothered me and it set me to thinking. Three possibilities came instantly to my mind: 1) my father had an early working version of the script. 2) The script on-line was the FINAL version, or the details were added later by whoever posted the script or, 3) age has taken its toll on my memory. For awhile, I was starting to think (and worry) that it was the latter, but I am now relieved to say- thanks to a recent documentary- that I may have been correct. Actor Don Gordon (Delgetti) stated in an interview that his script only had the word CHASE and no details in it. Still, I have been searching frantically for this Holy Grail amongst my parent’s belongings… I’m talking about the script of course…but to the time of this writing, no luck. I’m not giving up however, and will take another look up in the attic when I find the time. Finding a proof that I can hold in my hand will (to my mind) bring this mystery to a satisfying conclusion.
NEXT TIME, I will discuss the shooting of the film…those locations that I visited, and give some inside information on those that I did not. I also plan to relate some personal observations concerning the actors.
HOPE TO SEE YOU BACK.
Some quick facts: AFI had “Bullitt” at #36 of its list of thrillers. The film was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Registry by the Library of Congress. It received an Academy Award (Frank Keller) for best editing, and was nominated for sound.
Tony Piazza is author of the 1930s Hollywood murder mystery novel; “Anything Short of Murder,” which had its roots on the TCM fan website. His second novel, “The Curse of the Crimson Dragon” has just been released. He was an actor/extra during the 1970’s and worked with such legends as Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, and Karl Malden.