As much as the location of San Francisco was chosen as a spoof of the classic car chase featured in “Bullitt” (which will soon get its time in the sun with this column, I promise!), the setting lends a genuine and authentic sense of tension and stakes to the action — as heightened and exaggerated as it obviously is. Filmed on-location and with the expert help of an entire team of stunt people, the climax of “What’s Up, Doc?” is most notable for making full use of the steep hills and famous locations the downright cinematic city is so well-known for.
The claustrophobic narrowness of the streets themselves adds even more obstacles for the main characters to deal with, but Bogdanovich (aided by a script from Buck Henry, David Newman, and Robert Benton) litters each specific segment of the chase with moments that constantly use the geography to its advantage. Judy forcing Howard to drive up a ramp and hide in plain sight among other Beetles loaded up on a truck is an all-timer of a gag, as is the moment when all the cars drive down the steps of Alta Plaza Park, but nothing competes with the killer punchline to this entire fruitless chase — all of the cars plunging headfirst into the water, punctuated by Streisand’s self-confident “We can make it!” as they try to jump onto a departing ferry … only to offer up a resigned “I don’t think we can make it” at the point of no return.
As much as the entire movie remains a high-water mark in slapstick comedy, it’s telling that this car chase puts similar sequences in modern action blockbusters to shame. Bogdanovich isn’t reinventing the wheel here. By understanding the basics, “What’s Up, Doc?” became an instant classic.