These three films have several things in common, including being produced by Philip D’Antoni, and having great car chases. D’Antoni used many of the same crew on the three films including stunt driver/actor Bill Hickman, who was crucial to the films’ action sequences.
Hickman had a long history as a stuntman in action films but gained fame as a stunt driver in possibly the three best car chases ever put on film.
Bill Hickman is a favorite of bloggers who link those three films, as I do, as phenomenal achievements in action films.
Bullitt was the story of a San Francisco police lieutenant who becomes ensnared in a complex effort to protect a federal witness from a crime syndicate hit, who has also double crossed the federal government to escape the country under an alias.
In addition to driving, Hickman plays one of the hitmen, and with his partner kill the government’s star “witness”. Later on they lead Steve McQueen on the most exciting eight minutes in cinema history in a car chase through San Francisco onto the freeway. Hickman actually drives the car being chased by McQueen.
The steely Hickman doesn’t say a word in the film which makes him all the more menacing. His partner had a couple of lines, but neither had to say much. Their cold, hard looks were perfect for their roles.
Hickman reportedly never spoke publicly about what many would consider the greatest car chase in screen history.
The French Connection
Hickman’s next big role was to double Gene Hackman as he chases a suspect in an elevated train while driving at full speed on the surface streets below.
The French Connection won a slew of Oscars including Best Picture, telling the story of two New York detectives who stumble onto a heroin smuggling operation. The film is gritty and has a grim realism to go with very weary police work. The story plays out slowly from both sides of the crime, but if you blink, you miss understanding a somewhat confusing plot.
The car chase is often seen from Hackman’s POV, or from a camera mounted on the front of the car, but director William Friedkin does a marvelous job of building suspense as Hackman races to beat the train to the next station. The editing is superb and the cinematographer films at a slower speed then the film is processed at at regular speed to provide a jerkiness and slightly faster pace, adding to the frantic nature of the chase.
Hickman driving the Hackman car, runs into other cars, and anything else in his path. Some of the collisions were planned, others not. Little by little, the car is a total mess by the time it reaches the end of the chase. The sequence is inter-cut with what’s happening there, as suspense builds in what becomes a runaway train.
D’Antoni challenged Friedkin and production crew to make something better than the chase in Bullitt. Friedkin already knew the bar was set impossibly high. In the end, the scene was shot “free”, meaning no blocking of intersections, just a red siren on the top of the car along with two cameras. They weaved through live traffic, drove up on the sidewalk, and creased a city bus driving toward them. While Hackman was driving the car for close-up shots of his face, a car ventured into their path, which Hackman sideswiped. The cameraman was thrown to the floor of the car from the impact. That shot was left in the film.
The idea for the car-train chase came while Friedkin and producer D’Antoni were walking the streets and felt the rush of the trains below. As they were walking, “The idea began to hatch itself,” Friedkin said. They went to the transit authority for permission and according to Friedkin, they had to make a cash payment to the director of the transit line along with a one-way ticket to Jamaica. Friedkin asked why the one-way ticket? The transit director said that when the film comes out he will be fired, and this will be his getaway. Friedkin said that after the film was released the transit director was indeed fired, but the reaction to the chase was phenomenal.
According to an interview with Friedkin, after viewing the finished work on the chase scene he told Hickman that what they had done was nothing special. This might have been done to challenge Hickman, but Friedkin recounts that he and Hickman got into the car and drove it again, 26 blocks at 90 miles an hour without stopping. Hickman challenged Friedkin to get in the car while he drove it. Friedkin said they could only do it once and there was no protection. A camera was mounted on the front bumper and Friedkin operated the camera over Hickman’s shoulder. There was no police blocking off intersections, it was just the three of them in real time. They had a red light on the top of the car but they were in real traffic. That shot served as the main traveling shot in the finished sequence. Friedkin admits now that it was foolish and he’d never do anything like that again.
The Seven Ups
Hickman again plays part of a crime duo and gets major screen time. Hickman and his partner are kidnappers of various members of the crime underground. Only in the end do they turn into murderers. Hickman has a few lines in the film and again is behind the wheel for a 10 minute car chase, this time directed by D’Antoni himself. Roy Scheider plays the police detective trying to figure out why certain crime figures are disappearing.
This car chase takes place on the streets of New York City, before ending on the highway outside the city. There are some similarities to Bullitt in the sequence, but it is no less thrilling. Hickman handles his large, heavy sedan through many turns and corners, and rams multiple cars in the escape. The chase has great realism and includes no music and departs from the aggressive editing style of The French Connection. The film’s drama is in the driver expertise and fine photography.
Not much is known about Bill Hickman. His combined 25 minutes of action in those three films is a great legacy.
Scott Rollins has one of the most detailed blogs about Hickman’s life and career. It’s a great read.
In the end, Bill Hickman was a professional and he planned and practiced those amazing and dangerous sequences. The result is superb action sequences and thrilling cinema. Cut.