Famous movie car chases: Bullitt vs French Connection

MUSTANG VS. DODGE CHARGER

The 1968 Steve McQueen movie ‘Bullitt’ is famous for its car chase up and down the streets of San Francisco and then out on the Guadalupe Parkway.

That scene pitted Detective Frank Bullitt’s V8 Ford Mustang GT Fastback against the hitmens’ V8 Dodge Charger. McQueen and famous stunt driver Bud Ekins shared the driving scenes. Ekins also shared the stunt riding with McQueen in the famous motorcycle scenes in ‘The Great Escape.’

The Dodge Charger in ‘Bullitt’ was driven by another famed stunt driver Bill Hickman, who also acted as the backup hitman in the Peter Yates movie. The nearly 10-minute scene took three weeks to film and is said to be the most exciting car chase in movie history.


PONTIAC LEMANS VS. THE EL-TRAIN

I have another contender — Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle driving a commandeered 1971 Pontiac LeMans in pursuit of an elevated train on which a hitman is trying to escape in ‘The French Connection.’

Hickman also did the driving in this film. “Hickman drove ninety miles an hour for twenty-six blocks, without stopping,” director William Friedkin said later.

The low-angle POV shots of the five-minute-long car chase under the Brooklyn subway tracks were filmed by a camera mounted on the front bumper.

A particularly harrowing moment is when a woman pushing a baby stroller walks into the path of the speeding Pontiac (at 2:12 in the clip).


BILL HICKMAN AND JAMES DEAN

Stunt driver Bill Hickman, who drove the Dodge Charger in ‘Bullitt’ and the Pontiac LeMans in ‘The French Connection,’ had a tragic connection with the highway death of James Dean.

BEFORE THE DEADLY CRASH
Bill Hickman, at right, with James Dean and his Porsche on the day of the fatal crash.

On September 30, 1955, James Dean with his mechanic Rolf Wütherich sitting next to him, was driving his Porsche Spyder to Salinas, California for a weekend of car racing.

Hickman, Dean’s good friend, was following them in a Ford station wagon and car trailer.

At 5:45 p.m., at the junction of Route 466 and Route 41, a Ford Tudor driven at high speed by 23-year-old college student Donald Turnupseed made a left turn into the path of Dean’s speeding Porsche. The two cars collided almost head-on. It was Hickman who pulled the actor’s body from the wreckage, and James Dean died in his arms.

BILL HICKMAN WAS THERE
James Dean’s mangled Porsche after the collision.

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James Dean warned of death crash by Obi-Wan Kenobi

The collision heard around the world

British actor Alec Guinness was in a Hollywood restaurant with James Dean on September 23rd, 1955. Moments earlier, outside the restaurant, Dean had shown Guinness his new Porsche Spyder sports car.

Guinness, who went on to play the legendary Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, took hold of Dean’s arm and said, “Please do not get into that car, because if you do” —[he looked at his watch]— “it’s now Friday, 10 o’clock at night and by 10 o’clock at night next Friday, you’ll be dead if you get into that car.”

At 10 o’clock on that next Friday, James Dean was in a morgue in Paso Robles, California.

Do not get into that car.
Alec Guinness and the doomed legend

Friday, September 30, 1955, 5:45 p.m.

The brief spectacular life of legendary actor James Dean ended on a northern California road when a local boy, Donald Turnupseed, made an illegal left turn in front of Dean’s Porsche Spyder convertible. 

Dean’s German mechanic, Rolf Wütherich, was in the passenger seat.

Dean’s last words were, “That guy’s gotta see us.”

The collision mangled the sports car and killed James Dean on impact. He was 24.

Do not get into that car.

THE FATE OF THE OTHER TWO 

Wütherich, survived the crash and died in a drunk driving accident in 1981.

Turnupseed was only slightly injured when his Ford collided head-on with the Porsche. His offense of an illegal left turn was cancelled out by the fact that the Porsche was speeding. Dean had been stopped two hours earlier by a California Highway Patrolman and ticketed for speeding. Turnupseed died of lung cancer in 1995.


TV dramas

GOTTA START SOMEWHERE

James Dean’s career began in live TV dramas, like this one from the Campbells Soundstage in 1953. The show was broadcast live in front of an audience.

The performances on such live TV shows were often amateurish but this is how many future great actors got their start.


AND ON TO GREATER ROLES

Just three years later, James Dean’s acting had matured to what would have been superstar status in this classic scene from the 1956 movie Giant with Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor.


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Sal Mineo, the second victim of the Rebel’s curse

Sal Mineo Rebels curse

MADMAN IN THE SHADOWS

The violent deaths of the three stars of the iconic rebellious teen movie of the 1950s, Rebel Without a Cause.

On the night of February 12, 1976, Sal Mineo was stabbed to death as he walked to his West Hollywood apartment after a play rehearsal. A man jumped out of the shadows and plunged a knife into the actor’s heart. Sal Mineo was 37.

Sal Mineo Rebels curse

The murder was said to be as bungled robbery attempt by a mugger who didn’t even know the actor and who fled the scene. Three years later, a loser by the name of Lionel Williams was sentenced to 57 years in prison for killing Sal Mineo and for committing 10 robberies in the same area.

JAMES DEAN

On September 30, 1955, James Dean was killed when a 23-year-old college student named Donald Turnupseed made an illegal left turn in front of Dean’s speeding Porsche on a country road in southern California. James Dean was 24.

CRASH SITE

James Dean and his mechanic Rolf Wütherich were heading for a sports car race meet in Salinas. Wütherich was seriously injured in the crash but survived. Turnupseed was only slightly injured. He refused to speak publicly about the accident and ended up running a successful family business in Tulare. He died in 1995 of lung cancer at the age of 63.


Only one of James Dean’s movies, East of Eden, had been released at the time of his death — Rebel Without a Cause and Giant opened shortly afterwards.

NATALIE WOOD

On November 29, 1981, Natalie Wood mysteriously drowned in the water off Santa Catalina Island at the age of 43. She had been partying on a boat with husband Robert Wagner and fellow actor Christopher Walken.

THE BOAT

Her body was found next morning a mile from the boat, with a small inflatable dinghy beached nearby. Wagner said that she was not with him when he went to bed that night. The autopsy report revealed that she had bruises on her body and arms, as well as an abrasion on her left cheek but no indication as to how or when they occurred.

Natalie Wood’s death has been the subject of many documentaries and books and still remains unresolved.

THREE SCREEN LEGENDS WILL NEVER DIE


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