Steve McQueen – The King of Cool (a critical appreciation)

Steve McQueen would have been eighty-four years old this year had he not died in 1980 at the age of fifty. He began as a television actor in the days when television was the closest most American families ever got to the Broadway stage. Although he lacked the depth and diversity of a Marlon Brando or Paul Newman, this master of wise-guy composure proved that he could hold his own in just about any cinematic situation.

The Great Escape (1963)

“The Great Escape” is the film that shot McQueen into the upper echelon of leading men. Like “The Magnificent Seven,” it is an ensemble piece, and McQueen’s Captain Hilts, while top-billed, is by no means the leading character. It is, however. the most memorable one. Long after James Garner’s theft of a Nazi airplane to fly himself and  Donald Pleasence in the direction of the Swiss border was forgotten, people still talked about McQueen’s devil-may-care attempt to outrun his German pursuers on a motorcycle.

The film itself is a naïve relic of American optimism. Today a story in which fifty of the sixty-odd escapees from a prisoner of war camp are hunted down and murdered by the Gestapo would be played as a grimly nihilistic bit of WWII history. In 1963, this fact-based episode was embraced as a cheerful sacrifice that helped slow down the Nazi war machine by diverting their energy away from the battlefield to pursue the escapees.

John Sturges directs the first two hours in his typically plodding style, completely dependant upon the charm of his cast to relieve the dullness of his storytelling. But his film springs to life in its final hour, as he follows each character’s attempt to get out of Germany. These are surely this over-rated director’s finest moments, and not just for McQueen’s motorcycle ride. Most of it is filmed very quietly, a sequence on a train suggesting what “The Wild Bunch” might have been like had Sam Peckinpah fallen under the tutelage of Alfred Hitchcock.

McQueen shares with Errol Flynn the heroic nonchalance which is worn like a robe of indestructibility in lethal circumstances. “If I die, it will not be until the end of the movie,” he winks to the audience in his moments of peril. When he is repeatedly led to the cooler to pay the penalty for attempting escape, somebody is sure to throw him a baseball and mitt so he can entertain himself through the coming months of solitary confinement. No matter what punishment awaits him, he always accepts it with a smile. It is this low-key invulnerability that made audiences love Steve McQueen.

Baby The Rain Must Fall (1965)

If one begins with “The Great Escape, “ and jumps straight to Baby the Rain Must Fall,” Henry Thomas is sure to seem an uncharacteristic role for McQueen. But in at least two of his previous films, “The War Lover” and “Love with the Proper Stranger,” he plays tightly wound criminal-types every bit as psychotic as those played by Richard Widmark and Robert Ryan.

Thomas most closely resembles Joseph Gordon, the accused murderer from Studio One’s 1957 two-part teleplay, “The Defender.” Gordon has such a bad personality that his own lawyer never doubts his guilt. Although acquitted, his innocence is never confirmed, the point of the story being that there is not enough evidence to convict him of the crime. Thomas, on the other hand, is guilty, although the fight that led to the other man’s death was probably not entirely Thomas’ fault. Both these men, whether innocent or guilty, are criminal types by virtue of being outsiders who cannot defend themselves against the way they are viewed by society.

“Baby the Rain Must Fall” is an early screenplay by Horton Foote, who became well-known in the 1980’s for Tender Mercies” and “A Trip to Bountiful,” both of which have some points of origin in this script. Like “Bountiful,” it begins with a woman on a bus. Like “Mercies,” its main character is a country singer with a booze problem. The film comes from the producing/directing team of Alan Pakula and Robert Mulligan, who previously made “Love With the Proper Stranger.” Furthermore, Mulligan directed McQueen in his first major role, Joseph Gordon in “The Defender.”

The characters McQueen plays in all the films mentioned so far are amoral in the sense that their selfishness prevents them from seeing themselves as part of a moral order. Rocky Papasano (Love with a Proper Stranger) picks up a girl, gets her pregnant, and sees himself as having no responsibility to her or her situation. It is an occurrence outside of his own schema. Buzz Rickson (The War Lover) feels no remorse if the men he commands are casualties of his own courage. And when he plans the seduction of a girlfriend of one of them, it is only to prove to the poor sucker that she is nothing special. Henry Thomas feels no particular allegiance to his wife and child, although he is capable of writing a sentimental song proclaiming his love for them. Neither does he give a damn for the woman who has effected his parole, and he has no intention of keeping the promise he made to her for helping him. He doesn’t wish any harm on anybody; he simply does not care about other people.

McQueen does an excellent job of lip-synching the songs. He overplays the emotion his character puts into singing to emphasize his difficulty expressing his feelings in any other way.

The Cincinnati Kid (1965)

Considering it is a Norman Jewison picture, “The Cincinnati Kid “ isn’t too bad. Jewison was a television director who had made a few movies with the likes of Doris Day and Dick Van Dyke when he replaced Sam Peckinpah on “The Cinininnati Kid.” With Peckinpah at the helm, it could have been a fierce little black and white picture of a piece with “The Hustler.” Instead, it is a glossy, gutless piece of fluff that pads its first hour with sexy shots of Tuesday Weld and Ann-Margaret before settling down to the poker table with the elegantly mangy Edward G. Robinson. There is also a corny little framing bit with McQueen pitching pennies with an ambitious street urchin.

McQueen is good as the stud poker player who wants to be The Man, but the weaknesses of the script and flabbiness of direction prevent him from giving a performance to compete with Paul Newman’s Fast Eddie. He is pretty much confined to his chair, exchanging poker faces with Robinson, and once in a while having an argument with Karl Malden, who alternates as the dealer with Joan Blondell. The business with the two women is trite and under-written, nothing like the grippingly tragic subplot with Piper Laurie as the pathetic Sarah Packard in “The Hustler.” Rip Torn starts out good as the villain Slade, but runs out of steam pretty quickly.

The New Orleans atmosphere, while a bit overdone (once again, black and white would have been less garish and more authentic, in the vein of “Walk on the Wild Side.”) The presence of Cab Calloway at the poker table is a nice addition, but when he folds out of the game, there is nothing to fill the emptiness he leaves behind.

Nevada Smith (1966)

This prequel to “The Carpetbaggers” is a revenge drama that should have been directed in the style of a Budd Boetticher or Anthony Mann. Instead, Henry Hathaway, famous for the kind of good natured and lightweight westerns in which John Wayne rides into town and all the inhabitants come smiling out of their abodes to give him a warm welcome, who goes for a Fordian grandeur that favors landscape over the internal furies.

But slowly, almost imperceptibly, McQueen finds a way to play this character who is at the same time naïve and wily, a youth who, after finding the desecrated, murdered bodies of his parents, sets himself on the road of just revenge. It is hard to buy McQueen as the youthful incarnation of the character Alan Ladd plays in “The Carpetbaggers.” However, on its own terms, his Nevada Smith is a unique variation on the avenger archetype, the difference being that McQueen never reveals the spiritual mechanism of conscience that threatens to abort his revenge before it is fully realized.

At first, McQueen seems too slight a figure to hold the center of the Western’s pictorial energy. But it is precisely this sense of lostness that eventually gives his character the supple tenacity to endure. Imagine a reversal of “The Searchers,” with John Wayne killed by Indians and Natalie Wood spending her life on the vengeance trail, and you will get an inkling of McQueen’s accomplishment. That he succeeds without reliance upon precedent makes his accomplishment the more impressive.

Unlike Don Siegal’s under-rated “Flaming Star,” in which Elvis Presley delivered an outstanding performance as the half-breed torn between his hatred of both the whites and the Indians responsible for his parents’ deaths, “Nevada Smith” barely touches upon the racial implications of Nevada’s plight. Not in the least believable as a character of mixed blood, McQueen does not attempt to convey the racial anguish embodied by Presley. Instead, he plays Nevada Smith as an orphan completely bereaved of heritage.

The Sand Pebbles (1966)

Despite having its share of David Lean moments, “The Sand Pebbles” is closer to a Playhouse 90 television drama than the blockbuster road-show engagement attempted by director Robert Wise. This story of a gunboat patrolling the Yangtze river in the mid 1920’s is episodic and disjointed, both in its dramatic structure and Joe MacDonald’s inconsistent cinematography.

McQueen plays headstrong Engineer Jake Holman with an intimacy that scores higher in a television studio than on the wide-screen. Richard Crenna, who had just come off his own television program, “Slatterly’s People,” after seven years as Luke on “The Real McCoys,” is smaller than life as Holman’s adversary, Captain Collins. To say their confrontations lack the epic intensity of Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard in “Mutiny on the Bounty” is an understatement.

McQueen’s smaller scenes with the crew down in the engine room are more to his stature. His kind of brooding non-action world well in direct, non-convoluted conflicts such as filling a small Chinese man with the determination to win a boxing match with the ship’s big, but blubbery, bully. When the film escalates to grand matters of American imperialism, intra-cultural marriage taboos, and the existential price of setting the caged bird free, it falls head over heels over itself from sheer clumsiness.

The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

Few movies mark the degeneration of mainstream film-making in the seventies with such ignorant aplomb as “The Thomas Crown Affair.” Director Norman Jewison’s appropriation of devices introduced through Hollywood’s back door, from the wordiness of its pseudo-psychedelic theme song to the pointless over-use of the split-screen, reeks of a middle aged man wheezing down the track in his futile race to keep pace with youth The bank robbery that opens the picture is shot with a lack of regard for both content and continuity. Instead of placing the camera in a sensible relation to the action, Jewison favors such points of view as that of a rat scuttling along the floor in search of cheese.

McQueen worked hard to attain his leading man status. Once he got there, he ended to coast on his charisma. Even if he wanted to give a credible performance, it is unlikely that Jewison would have allowed it. For one thing, the screenplay is such an under-written thing that there isn’t a scene in it that requires anything from McQueen but that he maintain a cool demeanor while looking slick in the ugly fashions of the time. The much vaunted screen kiss shared with Faye Dunaway adds up to a minute or so of exploratory nibbling. There is really nothing about this picture that is any good.

February 18: Bullitt (1968)

With five years of British secret agent television episodes under his belt, Peter Yates was better equipped than Judy Garland Show producer and lightweight comedy director Norman Jewison to transform McQueen into a prototype for the modern American action figure. The first thing Yates did was get the actor out of the penguin suit and into a turtleneck and sports jacket. Then he cooled it with the passionate romantic interest, nixing the long kisses for an I-It relationship with a distant sex-release object. Finally, he broke all ties with the faux-modern nonsense No split screen, no psychedelic theme music, no shots through the raindrops of a windshield. “Bullitt” was shot with minimal light that reflected harshly off metal and glass surfaces, emphasizing the businesslike chill that was fast enveloping the city of San Francisco.

Foremost among the things making “Bullitt” the first modern police drama is the protagonist’s refusal to engage with his adversary on any level. When threatened by the smug lawyer played by Robert Vaughan, he wont even acknowledge the threat, let alone answer it. Detective fiction is flush with verbal jousts of one up-manship. Not here. Bullitt is too occupied with solving his case to play games with lesser creatures. Another thing we see for the first time in “Bullitt” is a loosening of plot mechanics. The story unfolds from the protagonist’s point of view. In order to follow it, one must form deep bonds of identification and travel through the curious eyes of the detective. There is no thumbing a ride on a storyline.

Frank Bullitt is the prototype for modern movie cops from Popeye Doyle and Henry Callahan to John McClane. The movie made it possible for subsequent filmmakers to develop the crime movie into a text for modern mythmaking, from Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” to Michael Mann’s “Heat.” Its well-known car chase is notable for many things, including the use of sound, but is surpassed by the climactic airport sequence While antecedents to the techniques used in the car chase go back at least as far as the Ben-Hur’ s chariot race, the protracted minutes stalking, watching, and chasing the suspected criminal through the airport yields more suspense than the simple highway chase.

Much has been made of McQueen’s physical presence, his deftness in handling physical challenges, and just how cool he looks when doing just about anything, from driving a car to aiming a rifle. “Bullitt” offers the best opportunity to enjoy and appreciate this side of McQueen’s appeal. When he moves, you watch him. It’s the one thing he did better than all his contemporaries.

February 25: Junior Bonner (1972)

The most memorable character of Steve McQueen’s career is surely Junior Bonner, a cowboy who was once a rodeo celebrity and is now a little less than that. Filmed on location in Prescott, Arizona, Sam Peckinpah’s gentle ode to the men ho ride the rodeo is a relic of a vanished America. Watching it today may be as close as some people will ever come to understanding the spirit of individualism that haunted 20th Century America.

The film focuses on Junior’s relationship with his father Ace (Robert Preston), a 60-year old cowboy who is always a couple thousand short of a ticket on the dream wagon, his brother Curly (Joe Don Baker), who would turn the open landscape into one vast trailer park circus for his own profit, and his mother Elvira (Ida Lupino), a tough woman who is still charmed, but no longer taken in, by the long-shot aspirations of her estranged husband. McQueen is remarkable in his ability to act with these three very different kinds of performers (Preston comes from the musical, Baker from the modern crime picture, and Lupino from the classic crime picture) as if he has known them all his life. He is also pretty good at wiping the gravy off his plate with a biscuit.

“Junior Bonner” begins with a credit sequence echoing that of “The Thomas Crown Affair,” but whereas Jewison used the split-screen in pointless imitation of something he thought was hip, Peckinpah uses it to introduce his protagonist with simultaneous images that bring his past, present, and possible future into the same frame. The rhythm of his opening shots is a leisurely seduction that places the viewer squarely in the center of a family’s irreconcilable differences. The backgrounds of the film are so real, and the drama so casually observed, that the lightly incidental surfaces of “Junior Bonner” cover the despair at the heart of the film. Elvira’s loneliness, Ace’s deluded optimism, and Junior’s inevitable decline play like a sweet elegy fading in the inevitable destruction of the land and the culture brought on by Curly’s acts of self-preservation.

March 4: The Getaway (1972)

Although “The Getaway” shares many of Peckinpah’s recurrent themes and character relationships, its execution is closer in style to Don Siegal’s films such as “Charlie Varrick” than anything Peckinpah had previously directed. As his career progressed (or as some may claim, declined), he returned to this type of urban western, but never with the professional precision demonstrated here. “The Getaway” was one his most successful pictures, but also one of his coldest. There is no lustiness, either for flesh or for blood, in the characters, whose principal functions are to drive the vehicles that trump them in personality. Steven McQueen is ideal for such a mechanical operation. His Doc McCoy is a brain in a blundering world. The only thing that keeps him from floating away in a bubble of aloofness is the hostility he feels for his wife after discovering she prostituted herself to get him paroled from prison. Even then, he could rather slap her around a bit and call it even. When it comes to killing, he does his share but only when it is absolutely necessary and never with relish. If an action figure in a video game had a brain, it would be Doc McCoy. His wife Carol is a well-groomed pest that he, and the movie, would be better off without. Ali McGraw never was much of an actress, but she is terrible here. Toward the end of the picture, when she and McQueen recuperate in the shell of a destroyed car after being expelled from the garbage truck in which they made one of their many getaways, it is difficult not to compare them unfavorably to Warren Oates and Isela Vega, the ill-fated couple of “Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia,” who caroused through Mexico stained with death and passion.

One of Peckinpah’s gifts as a director was his skill in getting the audience to care about his disreputable characters. In “The Getaway,” it is hard to care about anybody, which places it among the director’s lesser achievements. Nevertheless, he was still in the full flower of his craft, and there are sequences here that blow away the efforts of his contemporaries. The opening eight minutes communicate the grinding despair of prison life more chillingly than the whole of “Cool Hand Luke.” There is a chase scene aboard a train that uses some imaginatively new methods to increase the suspense. And the final scene with Slim Pickens comes as an apologetic gift to those who came to see a Peckinpah movie and got nothing but a top-notch chase thriller.

March 11: Papillon (1973)

“Papillon” was promoted as ‘the greatest escape.’ As such, it is an apt way to close out this tribute to an actor who plays characters who are often running from something. Of the ten movies in this series, three include actual prison breaks. It is hard to believe there are only ten years separating “The Great Escape” and “Papillon,” not only for McQueen’s development as an actor, but for the changes in the way films were both constructed and experienced.

Storytelling was paramount in 1963, with Sturges laying out the exposition in the first half an hour, introducing each character and their history of escape attempts. Their roles and objectives were so clearly defined that a viewer never forgot that Charles Bronson is the guy who digs the tunnel as a way of confronting his fear of them, or that McQueen can take the punishment isolation as long as he has a ball to throw against a wall. It is expected that all the events in the first part of the film will build to the escape itself. And so they do. It is not so simple in “Papillon,” which plays to an audience willing to accept whatever images are tossed at them, regardless of whether or not they fit into a coherent form. It is well into an hour before the script mentions that McQueen is in prison because he was framed for murdering a pimp, and it is not until this point that he gains the sympathy of the audience.

Without bothering to contrive explanations for the hero’s manner of escaping certain death at the end of every chapter, this cliffhanger lacks even the logical consistency of a Batman serial. But it is perpetually engaging, despite the ineffable absurdity of its circumstances. The reason for this is McQueen’s physically assured performance. There is a half hour sequence depicting his two years of solitary confinement, during which he survives on putrid gruel. At one point, a coconut is smuggled in to him. When he bites into it, we feel the liquid pleasure oozing into every cell of his body. Much later, on the road to escape, he finds himself haggling for a boat in a leper colony. When offered a puff from the cigar that the leper has been smoking, he makes us feel the impossible bravery needed to overcome the fear standing between him and the boat. After he accepts the cigar, the leper asks him how he knew the dry leprosy from which he was suggesting was not the contagious kind. “I didn’t,” McQueen replies. Calling this a physical performance is more than suggesting that the actor is in control of his own physicality, but takes into account that he physically manipulates the viewer as well. We taste the coconut; we inhale the cigar.

In order to do so, we are willing to overlook the shortcomings of the script and direction. When a man is pulled out of his cell and speedily put beneath the guillotine and beheaded, neither his nature nor his crime are of concern to us. All that is important is the visceral response to the degree of punishment that occurs in this prison.

Like McQueen, director Franklin Schaffner cut his teeth on television drama in the 1950’s. Among his credits are 19 Playhouse 90’s, 21 Ford Theater Hours, and 112 Studio One’s. During the latter part of his television career, Schaffner’s directed two theatrical films from Broadway plays: Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man” and “The Stripper,” from William Inge’s “A Loss of Roses.” After leaving television, he forsook theatrical drama to become a big-budget director with “Planet of the Apes” and “Patton,” both of which owe their success to the type of acting that was developed on stage and television, as opposed to Hollywood films. It was this type of directing that lifted McQueen out of the movie star posing of “The Thomas Crown Affair” and back into the field of credible performance.



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