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Cindy Bruchman

Films. Culture. Photography. Books. Let's talk.

Winter Project: The Final Five of Steve McQueen

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Thanks to everyone for joining me while I explored the filmography of actor Steve McQueen. The 60s and 70s movie icon had a slew of great films to his credit. Since both parents had died at age fifty, with a sardonic sense of humor, he was sure he wouldn’t pass the half-century mark. His prediction came true. He died at 50 from Mesothelioma on November 7, 1980. Breathing the asbestos filaments located in several workplaces and in his racing helmets and suits, the industrial disease raced throughout his body in the final months of his life. He never thought he’d live long. That helped explain his drive and insatiable hunger for life. He negotiated and made millions per film including a percentage of the gross proceeds. He had full control of the directors, actors, and say of his films. Most know he was stubborn and egotistical, but his generosity and kindness extended in equal measure to his two children who loved him unconditionally and to friends with whom he had established long relationships.

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The Cincinnati Kid (1965) After Papillon, this would be runner up as my favorite Steve McQueen film.  Edward G. Robinson is Laney “The Man” who teaches “The Kid”(McQueen) a few lessons about life. In the game of 5 Card Stud, what are the odds two men are dealt a Straight Flush vs. a Full House? Read about THE LAST HAND here. Add Ann Margaret as the sexy temptress and Tuesday Weld as the good girl and stir in Karl Malden as Shooter, the puppet and chump into the mix. The music, the tension, and Steve convincing as “The Kid”, made it a thoroughly enjoyable film.  4.5/5

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The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). Faye Dunaway and Steve McQueen are sizzling hot (It’s rated PG) in this billionaire bank caper. The split screen 60s technique, the dune buggy ride on the beach, the fashions, and that famous chess game scene full of sexual innuendos–it’s the stuff that made an Austin Powers parody possible.  It was the first time McQueen broke away from his poor anti-hero to represent the high-class anti-hero. Alone on his own plateau, this film helped cement McQueen as an icon of alpha male coolness. 4/5

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The Getaway (1972). This Sam Peckinpah film flows with interesting cinematography like close-ups, the loud machines grinding in the prison interior, the chase scenes, and the interior shot of a car with BBQ ribs, food fight. While Ali McGraw‘s performance left me cold, Sally Struthers and Slim Pickens were the best characters of the movie. 4/5

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The Towering Inferno (1974). It was the highest-grossing disaster movies of the seventies. They came to see the cast: Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Fred Astaire, Richard Chamberlain, Robert Vaughn, O.J. Simpson, Rober Wagner, Jennifer Jones, and Susan Blakely. The star power, the escape plans, the collapse of the skyscraper was engaging enough, but it can’t compete with The Poseidon Adventure (1972), the winner of the best disaster film of the decade. It took Steve fourteen years to beat out his blonde eyed rival, Paul Newman, for top-bill, but McQueen solved the problem of leading man by having his name listed first while Paul’s would be set slightly higher.  3/5

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Papillon (1973). Franklin J. Schaffner was known as an innovative television director/producer in the early years of T.V. by employing film techniques within the new medium of television. He was known in the film industry for popular films like Planet of the Apes (1968), and for Patton (1970). Schaffner’s best contribution and my top prison film is the one and only classic, Papillon (1973). Listen to the Oscar-nominated score by Jerry Goldsmith. Lovely.  

Almost all great films begin with great novels. Papillon (1969) was written as an autobiographical account by Henri Charrière. In 1931, he was sentenced in Paris for a crime he did not commit and exiled to a penal colony in French Guiana. Over the course of many years, Papillon, named for the butterfly tattooed on his chest, attempted to escape. Eventually, he was sent to the inescapable Devil’s Island surrounded by hungry piranhas, sharks, and crocodiles.  Henri Charrière’s story is an audacious human account demonstrating what conviction and willpower can do. His book became an instant success.

Steve McQueen gives his best performance of his career as Henri. His relationship with the inmate, Dega, played by Dustin Hoffman, is dynamic and heartfelt. It’s the cinematography that wows me. The use of black and white or the lack of sound show the solitary confinement of Papillon’s situation perfectly. When Papillon hallucinates, his dreams are horrific and the camera angles portray a true nightmare.

I find it amazing this film was not nominated for anything at the Oscars in 1974 except for Best Score which did not win. What were the contenders that year? The StingSerpico, and The Exorcist.  Yes, all great films, but, I still think Papillon is just as good. Certainly, Hoffman and McQueen deserved recognition for their roles. What an underrated film.5.5

“Blame is for God and small children.” – Dega

L13FC: The Extended Shot

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On the 13th of each month, the L13FC analyzes an aspect of the film industry. Please welcome co-host, Jordan at epilepticmoondancer, who wanted to suggest the topic of the EXTENDED SHOT with all of you.  

Jordan’s thoughts:

Each time there was an extended take, I find myself leaning forward, as the style seems to be near-extinct within the confines of popular American cinema. How effective is the decision to the narrative? For example, Luzbeki dazzled most with his flamboyant style in Birdman, using a little trickery to make the entire film feel like it was done in one long shot. While this enhanced the experience, it compromised the story it was telling, and upon the third viewing, the camerawork was nothing more than a distraction. (If anyone cares to see a film shot in a single take, one that takes us through the streets of Berlin while also adding to the story and plot, please check out 2015’s Victoria.)

Unlike Birdman, during the early scenes of The Revenant, this swinging, stylistic style of shooting enhances the experience and the story, as not only do we feel right in the middle of the action, with arrows flying in everything direction, we consequently feel the fear and the sense of feeling trapped. In this sense then, the camera almost functions as an unseen, unnamed character.

Moving away from Luzbeki, Orson Welles’s famous crane shot from Touch of Evil (1958) immediately establishes tension within the busy streets as we wait for the car bomb to explode. 

It seems then that these extended takes with a lot of movement work better outdoors than they do within. An exception is Son of Saul (2015). A simple hand-held camera follows Saul’s every move in the Auschwitz crematorium and the defocused, claustrophobic horror is captured effectively.  Son of Saul was praised for its unique visual presentation. We rarely see anything other than his face or the back of his head, and consequently, we see his reactions to other stimuli. Does this visual approach affect the way the story is perceived by the audience? It is the camerawork itself that tells us the story, that puts us in the shoes of Saul. It is a Holocaust film like no other, where we again feel right in the action.

I could obviously go on with endless examples, such as action films like The Raid or Tony Jaa films where the lack of cut after cut after cut means we can actually see the fighting, blow for blow. We can see that these guys know how to fight, and most importantly, we can see who is hitting who! Compare this to Hollywood, which has long been fond of using innumerable cuts to hide the fact that their actors have not been properly trained.

While such extended, moving cuts will consistently capture my attention, how much do you think it adds to a film? Does it distract you from the story in any way? Or, like me, can it draw you further in, adding another layer of immersion?
Cindy’s Impressions: 

One film that stands out recently for me is Hou Hsiao-Hsien’sThe Assassin (2015). The use of the long shot is used throughout the narrative, and it’s one of the more visually striking films I’ve seen.

I agree with Jordan that the choice of the extended cut adds an authentic element to the story-telling. Certain directors are heralded in part because they make good use of the long shot:

Stanley Kubrick, Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese, Alfred Hitchcock, and Alfonso Cuarón. Whether to move the action like Children of Men (2006) or to maximize the dialogue like director Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008), their decision creates a film where the audience is trapped; it is voyeurism heightened and felt.  The film becomes an experience rather than a passive attempt at engagement. 

Would you like more examples? I thought this article by Jessica Kiang in 2014, which ranked 20 of the best long shots, was interesting. You can read it here on INDIEWIRE.

Thank you, Jordan, for suggesting this interesting topic. You all have an opinion, so please feel free to join the discussion.

IMO: Bodily Fluids are Funny

Mike was a student  athlete of mine. His father was a pilot and encouraged his son to obtain his own pilot’s license. During his four years of high school, Mike racked up his hours in the sky. I admired him for tackling the challenge in addition to being the star of two sports teams and maintaining a high grade point average. A couple years after his graduation, he reappeared as my student at the community college where I worked as an adjunct instructor.. Pleased to see him and pleased to hear he was becoming a cop, it was summer in Illinois, hot and muggy, and I asked him if he flew, and he happily informed me he had his license and flew regularly.

“Ms. Bruchman, you should let me take you flying.”

I arranged to meet him after lunch at the regional airport. Along the way, I stopped for a bite to eat–onion rings with horseradish sauce. At one, he proudly opened the door to the cockpit, and I climbed into the small space about the size of the interior of my car. It was loud and hot in there, as we ascended and zoomed around the valley, the corn fields in tight rows, the Illinois River serpentine, and my smile constant.

“So, Mike, what did you have to do to get your license?”

With a mischievous smile, he dipped his wing to the left and leveled. Then he did the same with the right. “And I had to do this one, too,” and that’s when he dropped the plane. He steadied it and laughed at my expression, but I had the last laugh.

     Oh, no! I looked for a paper bag. A plastic bag. A container of some kind. “Mike, I’m going to be sick. Please, what do I do?”

“Okay, I’ll take you back. Hold on!” The sweat dripped and my stomach flipped. I projectile-vomited the onion rings in horseradish sauce over the windshield of the cockpit and down the front of my peach colored dress. We had to sit in it for fifteen minutes while he returned to the airport and requested to land.

When the propellers came to a stop, and he had turned off the switches, Mike rushed around and opened the door for me. He looked at me and the chunks that speckled the interior and said gently, “Go home and rest; I’ll clean it up.” I was so embarrassed I couldn’t say anything. I had to walk through the hangar past a gauntlet of people who pretended to ignore me. When I got to my car, I couldn’t stop laughing. A decade passed, and I ran into Mike at a local bar who gave me a bear hug, and we shared a beer and had a good laugh.

*****

What’s my one memorable Thanksgiving? The one where my grown children and their kids had gathered at my house and in the span of six hours, five of us were struck with the flu. People were racing to every toilet and retching in the bathtubs. It was quite the sight and strikes me funny now, the sounds of people puking and the bodily fluids flushed and cleaned away.

*****

A flamboyant friend, Lisa, was in the middle of sharing a crazy story in her small office one morning. A deranged man suddenly stumbled into her office trying to find a bathroom. He had shat himself; and she pointed, shocked, to her bathroom. He locked the door and painted the walls. Authorities were called, the poor man escorted away, and Lisa retched uncontrollably and begged me, crying, to clean it up. It was a long morning. She still owes me, fifteen years later.

Why should the gross parts of being human bring about a laugh? Perverse!

Are You Not Entertained?

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I was. Here continues a monthly series featuring the music, the books, and the movies that occupied my time.  

MUSIC

Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos epitomized the Baroque period. Introduced to them twenty years ago, and despite my leaning toward the passionate Russian romantics, I learned to appreciate the symmetrical beauty of Bach’s piano works. In the 1950s and 60s, no one denied Glenn Gould the title of genius when performing them. A quirky man in a world of his own, humming on his own recordings, I highly recommend the unusual, artistic film of 32 vignettes by Director François Girard (The Red Violin) and Colm Feore starring as Gould.

And then, for a musical treat, I got a kick out watching an old television program which featured some fabulous icons–Leonard Bernstein, Glenn Gould, and Russian composer, Igor Stravinsky. You can watch Glenn Gould play around the 18:00-minute mark.

BOOKS 

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It’s been all about Steve McQueen in my house this past month. For the winter project, I’ve immersed myself in Marshall Terrill’s biography. As a cultural icon of the 1960s and 70s, I was reminded how free-flowing the sex, drugs, fast cars, and fashion mattered. McQueen loved it all and was an international star, commanding at his zenith almost a million dollars a film. In 1980, he died at the age of 50 of Mesothelioma from his days as a Marine, scraping asbestos off the walls of a ship. Did I like Steve McQueen after reading all about him? Not particularly, but he was cool to watch on the screen, and the biography was fast and fun, just like the man. 4/5.

MOVIES (TV)

st-vinyl-vol-1-front-cover_3000Stranger Things, the Netflix series starred a shrilled, hyperventilating Winona Rider, an ensemble of geeky pre-teens, stereotypical high schoolers, and two actors whose characters were interesting: Chief Hopper (David Harbour) and the fantastic Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) who reminded me of a young Natalie Portman. Nostalgic, dripping with Steven Spielberg tricks, it is my new guilty pleasure. 4/5

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Controversial director, Roman Polanski, has a gift for making beautiful films, and this political thriller is no exception. You may think you are on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, but not so. The sand dunes, bulbous gray clouds, and windy spray was located on the North Sea island of Sylt. The Ghost Writer matched style with substance. Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan lead a fine ensemble cast with enough twists and turns to keep you engaged. And that closing shot is one of the best I’ve seen in a while.   4/5.

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Quiz Show(1994). Directed by Robert Redford. Stars Ralph Fiennes, John Turturro, Rob Morrow, and Paul Scofield. It’s funny. It’s smart. Based on true events, Ralph Fiennes plays Charlie Van Dorena WASP, a professor of literature, whose ivy-league-Brahmin-of-a-father has basked in fame and respect for decades and junior sets out to make a name for himself. Unfortunately, his moral dilemma piques the journalistic interest of a brilliant investigative reporter played by Rob Morrow. The acting is outstanding and Paul Attanasio‘s adapted screenplay is an English major’s dream. Who wouldn’t want to sit at the family picnic table with academian greats and listen to them recite Hawthorne and Shakespeare while munching on corn on the cob? Okay, well, I would. Robert Redford warns us of television’s manipulative power, run by executives, who will do anything for ratings. Sound familiar?  Mark Van Doren: Cheating on a quiz show? That’s sort of like plagiarizing a comic strip.”  4.5/5. 

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For the Love of Spock (2016). Even if you aren’t a Star Trek fan, I forgive you; everyone should watch this outstanding documentary for the cultural-historical relevance (breaking television boundaries with interracial mixing and science fiction influencing the leading scientists of today) and insight as to why Star Trek fans are a loyal bunch. On Netflix, it’s perfect entertainment during a work week evening when you are loafing on the couch with not much going on. Nimoy’s son chronicles his father’s life with balance and grace. I vividly remember as a girl lying on the floor in front of the TV mesmerized during all 79 episodes. Then came the movies. That’s a lot of emotional bonding and why creator Gene Roddenberry and Leonard Nimoy are tops in my book. 4.5/5 

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The Innocents (2016). At first, I wondered if this was a remake of the 1961 Jack Clayton film with the same title starring Deborah Kerr during Victorian England. Looks great! However, this is not the case. This French film directed by Anna Fontaine is about a young French Red Cross doctor (Lou de Laâge) who is sent in 1945 Poland to assist the survivors of the German camps and discovers several nuns in advanced states of pregnancy during a visit to a nearby convent. It is a fantastic based-on-true-events effort by Fontaine.  My only criticism is the space between the doctor and the nuns. The nuns remain “others” and in spite of the intimacy of delivering baby after baby; the nuns remain foreign entities other than a couple of brief conversations. On the plus side, I thought it a good call in the script to avoid flashbacks of the rapes. 4/5.

 A Man Called Ove (2016) This Swedish gem directed by Hannes Holms and his screenplay adapted from Fredrik Backman‘s novel of the same name was a surprise treat. This dark comedy affected me to tears which I wasn’t expecting. The grumpy old man, Ove, (Rolf Lassgård) who can’t come to terms with his wife’s death, discovers there’s still meaning in life. He seems like the dull model of mediocrity, but his love story told through flashbacks about his beautiful wife Sonja (Ida Engvoll) provides depth and surprises. The grumpy old man stereotype turns into a complex character when the people in his present like the Middle Eastern young wife (Bahar Pars) who helps him realize that life has a purpose even when you think you’re done with it. Touching and beautiful. 4.5/5.

 

Film Spotlight: Denial

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Guest Review: DENIAL (2016) by Cinemusefilms 

The nature of truth and the power to manipulate it have long been contentious themes in history and cinema. The outstanding film Denial (2016) resonates loudly in today’s post-truth world where power is often used to create alternate realities. It is a film that portrays denialism as a dangerous and perverse form of moral corruption, something that may be contained but can never be eliminated.

The story is based on the celebrated 1996 legal case fought between eminent academic Deborah Lipstadt, an American professor of Holocaust Studies, and David Irving, a historian of Nazi Germany. A book published by Lipstadt (Rachael Weisz) accuses Irving (Timothy Spall) of being a Holocaust denier and falsifier of history, and Irving sues for defamation. In the British justice system, the burden of proof is on the accused so Lipstadt must prove that the Holocaust did happen to establish that Irving is a liar. She engages a top legal team led by senior barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) who insists that neither Lipstadt or Holocaust survivors should present testimony against Irving because of his history of promoting himself by humiliating victims. Lipstadt and her lawyers visit Auschwitz to gather evidence of the existence of gas chambers but the bulk of the story is played out on the legal battlefield at court.

Modern audiences are desensitised to the atrocities of war. It is glorified in movies and video games and feeds the entertainment and amusement industry. Today’s filmmakers struggle to find ways of remembering the Holocaust without alienating viewers. The extraordinary Son of Saul (2016) takes audiences right into the flames, whereas Denial (2016) explores the moral issues in a courtroom. In reality, this was a high-stakes legal battle that could have potentially delegitimised the entire history of the Holocaust. It is an outstanding achievement that this film can capture the tension and the burden of moral responsibility carried by the Lipstadt legal team.

The casting and characterisation in this film are brilliant. Rachael Weisz’s American brashness presents a stark cultural contrast with the conservative traditions of British justice. She convincingly portrays a principled academic and scholar of truth, showing restrained emotion beneath her loathing for Irving’s anti-Semitism. Tom Wilkinson gives a masterful portrait of wisdom and conviction, while Timothy Spall plays Irving with subdued Satanic malice. The other support cast makes up a strong ensemble. The narrative unfolds at a sweeping pace and the script is both intelligent and instructive in the legal nuance of courtroom manoeuvers. The footage of Auschwitz is emotionally harrowing and the film treats its subject matter with utmost reverence.

If you want light entertainment, do not see this film. It is for audiences prepared to confront the dark side of humanity as well as those interested in the intricacies and triumphs of the British legal system. But more than that, it’s an essay on the nature of truth in history and it exposes the moral abhorrence of those who manipulate facts to suit their prejudices It is also a warning that manipulators of truth will always be among us. 4/5

Director: Mick Jackson

Stars: Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall

Thanks, RICHARD, for contributing to my blog today! 

Winter Project: More Steve McQueen

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The annual winter project is underway. I’ve assigned to myself, actor Steve McQueen, because I knew little about him or his filmography. Catch the first post HERE. Biographer, Marshall Terrill, who wrote Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon provided the interesting backstories to the actor combined with the psychological explanations of what made this complex man tick.

Nothing came easily to Steve McQueen as a child. Both parents abandoned him. Adults administered physical and verbal abuse frequently in the fog of alcoholism. He had learning disabilities that kept him targeted and punished at school. Jostled from one faithless home after another, these circumstances created one tough juvenile delinquent, a rebel without a cause with deep trust issues. Two factors kept him on the fringe of acceptability. Uncle Claude’s farm where Steve learned how to ride horses and complete the exhausting chores of maintaining a farm, and the Boys Republic, a boarding school where he learned to lead with ethical consequences in a penitentiary type setting. Steve McQueen characters were on the backs of horses, busting out of prison, and seemingly detached but intense leaders; he was always a step away from the ensemble cast, and that was how he cultivated his screen power. 

1956 photo by Roy Schatt
1956 photo by Roy Schatt

Steve McQueen’s fearless, inquisitive nature made him a jack-of-all-trades. He ran away and joined the circus. He enlisted in the Marines at seventeen. He hitch-hiked to Greenwich Village in the early fifties, staying for a time with his mother’s friend who worked in the world of the theater. Acting offered exposure to beautiful women, and Steve McQueen exercised his insatiable sexual appetite. After acting lessons, a play, and the help of his accomplished first wife Neile Adams, he got his break as the star of a hit television Western series called Wanted Dead or Alive. Director John Sturges should take credit for advocating McQueen in essential roles that transitioned him from television and secured his superstar status (The Magnificent Seven & The Great Escape). 

The Magnificent Seven (1960) 

An American Western directed by John Sturges and starred Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, Horst Buchholz, Brad Dexter, and Elie Wallach. The film was a remake of Akira Kurosawa‘s 1954 Japanese classic Seven Samurai. They are seven gunfighters hired to protect a small village in Mexico from a group of bandits and their leader (Wallach). Elmer Bernstein composed the famous score.

Most lovers of Westerns know the story about McQueen and Brynner jostling for screen time. Although McQueen had only seven dialogue exchanges in the film, his presence was felt throughout. Sturges granted McQueen generous close-ups and downstage placement. Steve did his best to make you watch his character, Vin. He flipped up his bandanna like an erection when señoritas sat near. Contemplating their next move, McQueen twirls his hat or sits higher on his horse to grab attention away from stoic Yul Brynner, the star of the picture. Steve’s physical prowess with a gun and a horse stole the limelight from the others. Having said that, it was Charles Bronson’s role as a tender father-figure to the children of the village and James Coburn’s silent knife-throwing cowboy who stayed in my mind long after the film was over. 5/5

The Great Escape (1963)

Following up on the success of The Magnificent Seven, director John Sturges brings back Elmer Bernstein for another iconic score and Charles Bronson and James Coburn. Add James Garner, Richard Attenborough, and Donald Pleasance to form an exciting male ensemble. Based on the true story of a Nazi POW camp built for uncooperative Allied soldiers, the tunnel escape and the relationships between the key characters make the film engaging 54 years later. Charles Bronson gave his character claustrophobia, James Garner and Donald Pleasance stole a plane to fly away, and Richard Attenborough’s RAF “Big X” masterminded the escape. Steve Mcqueen’s natural ability with the motorcycle and that classic jump over the barbed fence — it was fourteen feet high, and while McQueen loved racing cars and motorcycles and generally performed his own stunts, this jump was done by his loyal stunt double, Bud Ekins. Everyone has a buddy in the film, but McQueen stands aside. He enters the prison last, he is locked up with his baseball in solitary confinement, and he escapes alone.  4.5/5

Accepted into the Actor’s Studio, he infused his personality into his acting style, that is, saying little but commanding a central presence. Which stars today emulate that kind of Steve McQueen cool? Daniel Craig? Ryan Gosling?

Bullitt (1968) 

This highly popular Steve McQueen film featured all the components that made Steve the “King of Cool” in the 1960s: the sexy car (green, 1968 Ford Mustang GT), the sexy girl (Jacqueline Bisset) and the great chase scene shot in San Francisco. Why is it great? The camera is put in the car and the audience becomes a passenger. Bouncing up and down the streets of San Francisco, the Ford Mustang vs. the Dodge Charger eventually hit the highway and race at speeds over 100 mph. Nine minutes of film time is a thrilling ride. In addition to the adrenaline rush, the plot is interesting. As an emotionally detached police detective, Steve McQueen plays the lone hero effortlessly. With him again is co-star and friend, Robert Vaughn from The Magnificent Seven as the suspicious official. It’s a good thriller/mystery and a solid blind spot choice for anyone. 4/5.

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