22 Nov 2012

"Biting the Bullitt" - Sharon Endacotte column

Sharon Endacotte describes being involved in being involved in a real life version of the famous Bullitt chase scene, although the cars and location do differ ever so slightly from the film version

Bullitt may not be the greatest movie ever made, but the chase, where Bullitt is pursued in his Ford Mustang through the streets of San Francisco by generally unpleasant types in a Dodge Charger set the bar for this kind of filming way back in 1968.

There are many reasons why I think this sequence stands out, including the genuinely visceral quality of the driving (of the two Chargers and two Mustangs used, only one Mustang survived the shoot) and Lalo "Mission Impossible" Schifrin's decision not to score the action and let the (actually dubbed) engines provide the soundtrack, but most of all, it's probably because the setup is believable.

We're all too used to seeing chases in which a good guy (in something unlikely, like a Nissan Bluebird... well, maybe not a Bluebird, but you know what I'm getting at) escapes from the villain (in a Ferrari F430 or similar) by perhaps suddenly discovering that in fact, they haven't run out of oomph because in the heat of the moment they've forgotten how many gears they've got... one more change and whoosh! They're gone in a squeal of rubber and a cloud of tyresmoke, leaving the bad guy to wonder where the his quarry has gone (and just how he's managed it in a Nissan Bluebird). That may be a slightly exaggerated example, I think we've all seen chases like that - but Bullitt is not one of them. The Charger and the Mustang are classic muscle cars with more or less similar capabilities; if there was no script, it could have gone either way.

But anyway, I'm not here to wax lyrical about a couple of blokes tearing through San Francisco in 1968. No... forty years later, I found myself trapped in a surreal Bullitt situation coming out of a supermarket car park on the edge of Plymouth.

I would just like to point out before I go any further that I was a passenger on this little adventure and NOT behind the wheel.

So... this car park then. There are several lanes of traffic coming out of the car park, two of which filter into the lane we wanted, and as the layout was changed several months back, occasionally there is a little confusion as to who goes where. We couldn't pull across to the leftmost lane, because there was already somebody in it, so we took the other one... only to be almost sideswiped by a 40-something chap in a Ford Galaxy. We, by the way, were in a Citroen Xsara Picasso, also driven by a 40-something chap.

I think you can see where this is going.

Two sensible family cars, each driven by a middle-aged bloke with a testosterone-fuelled red mist descending - and the one in the Citroen suddenly turning into Steve McQueen.

Galaxy tried to push Picasso into the other lane - which was never going to happen with a Fiesta in the way - forcing Picasso to straddle two lanes. Galaxy man then added insult to injury by yelling something about reading the road markings, which was a bit rich coming from someone who clearly couldn't. Onto the main road, Galaxy forced himself through and hurled further insults as he overtook.

I was hoping that would be the last of it, but no, the road rage was kicking in now and Picasso couldn't let it lie. Instead, he wove through several lanes of traffic and undertook Galaxy, who immediately did much the same thing. The big difference between real life and the cinema is that when they do these things on film, roads are closed and traffic is strictly controlled.  When it's a Saturday evening and everyone's in a hurry to get home and watch Doctor Who it's a different matter. By this point, I was starting to feel rather unwell.

The cat and mouse game continued for a while, with Galaxy undertaking at one point only to be greeted by "the finger" through my window. I was not the person making this none-too-conciliatory gesture, however; the driver had extended his arm across my body to insult the other silly sod. I only hope the other driver recognised that he and "Steve McQueen" weren't the only people involved at this point and the sight of my pale and terrified face at the window of the Picasso may have helped calm him a little. Regardless, Picasso wasn't going to take being undertaken, so again he put his foot down and this time decided to bring the whole sorry saga to a close by taking the first available turning off the main road and disappearing among the residential streets. Calmed or not, Galaxy did not follow.

But I don't think I've ever been so worried in a car before.

Don't get me wrong, I don't believe Picasso intended any harm, and he is normally a safe, sensible driver. I don't doubt Galaxy is much the same under normal circumstances. What worried me most, apart from the fear that one or other of them might run into another car, was that if it had gone on much longer it would have descended into kerbside pugilism. But honestly, two cars of a similar type (though admittedly the Galaxy is much bigger), being driven by cheesed off, middle-aged blokes... if we hadn't turned off when we did, it could have gone on all day.

It probably wouldn't have made very good cinema, though.