I previously used the chase in The French Connection quite extensively in my post about the flaws of Star Wars Episode 2, and I had a fan of Bullitt ask me which I preferred.
Here’s my answer:
I agree that the chase in Bullitt is technically superior, and I personally think it’s much more enjoyable to watch, and I have the utmost respect for Steve McQueen (and not just because he did most of his own driving in that film), but I wonder if in terms of characterization whether The French Connection comes out on top. If I’m remembering correctly, the chase in Bullitt is fantastic, but it’s not crucial to our understanding of Toschi. We already knew he was a badass and the greatest cop on the force, the chase cements that. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m in no way attempting to criticize Bullitt or the chase, but the stakes are greater in The French Connection. In that film we are confronted with the truth that maybe Doyle is a little unhinged, potentially taking this crusade a little too far, and then he almost runs over a mother and her baby. And then, to top it all off, he shoots the perp in the back!
But I think at this point I’m comparing nuggets of gold, they’re both masterful.
I’m also amazed at how little reference they had available to make these chases. There had been chases in films before, notably in North by Northwest (1959) and some gangster films of the 40s and 50s (such as The Lineup from 1958), but most of the cinematography was panning shots or locked inside the POV of the car. (In the case of Hitchcock the reasoning was that he wanted you locked in the car with the character. He wanted you to feel viscerally involved with the chase, unable to escape, no reprieves to an external shot. See also the chase in his final film, The Family Plot, which crystallizes this approach. I suspect however that Hitchcock’s extreme distaste for shooting anywhere but on a controlled set may have contributed to this methodology.) Both Bullit and The French Connection, though the former especially since it came three years before, needed to invent a new language of film to describe these chases using cinematography, sound design and editing. There’s a great documentary about the evolution of the car chase on the Bullitt DVD/Blu-ray if you’re interested. Jim Emerson also has a video on a similar subject, though it unfortunately lacks much in the way of his usually astute commentary (you may remember him from that fantastic video about the visual grammar in the Dark Knight chase scene, this guy knows what he’s talking about). I’ve included the video below.