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

33 thoughts on “Winter Project: The Final Five of Steve McQueen

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  1. They play The Great Escape here all the time, so that would be in my Top 5. Bullit was awesome too. Not sure which ones I’d take out. He was just so effortlessly cool. I’d never thought of the connection between Austin Powers and The Thomas Crown Affair.

  2. Papillon is one of my favorite films. I am not a huge McQueen fan, but I love that movie.

    Tell me, Cindy – while I was on a sabbatical from blogging did you cover the films of my all time favorite actor, George C Scott?

      1. Patton is m favorite, but I’ll watch any movie in which Scott is featured. I think he is mesmerizing. I once sat in the front row of a theater production of Inherit the Wind. He played Clarence Darrow. I’ll never forget his penetrating blue eyes and command of the stage.

  3. I was so involved in the book of ‘Papillon’ that I dreaded the film. But they did it justice.
    I remember being dazzled by the song ‘Windmills of your mind’ in the sequence in ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’, (I must do a post on that song one day) and that early split-screen device too. But overall, I thought it was shallow, and uninvolving.
    Despite my intense dislike of Ali McGraw (which I never got over) I loved the cool vibe of the gangster film ‘The Getaway’. And as much as I adored ‘The Cincinnati Kid’, I thought it was Edward G’s film overall.
    Talking of which, have you ever seen ‘Hard Eight’? My favourite gambling film ever, starring one of my all-time great actors, Philip Baker Hall. It’s a wonderful look at the world of the hustlers in modern gambling houses in the US. Unreservedly recommended.

    I hope you are feeling more settled in your new home now.

    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. The Thomas Crown Affair is a classic case of style over substance. It’s a movie about nothing, nothing at all, but the stars look great, I loved the split-screen thing, and THAT song … so hypnotic! 🙂

  4. Howdy, Pete! Getting settled. How strange to move into a clean, lovely home and have to return to the other and see all the work remaining returning it to its former glory to get the security deposit back. In other words, I’m cleaning two places at once. I’m overwhelmed, truth be told, and craving a smoke.
    So, regards to your comment, yes, I dislike Ali a lot. What a boring, wooden female. Ugh. Sorry, though, I disliked windmills of your mind — seemed too cheesy to me. But understand, I only just watched it for the first time a couple weeks ago. So yeah, it’s dated. I LOVED The Cincinnati Kid — the New Orleans music, the vibe, the suspense — yes, I agree the film belonged to Edward G and honestly Ann Margaret — what a femme fatale. I hated her, but she was an awesome presence. I haven’t seen PBH ‘Hard Eight’ but since you recommend it, I will watch it. I love shooting pool and playing cards, the ex-sailor in me–no one plays cards anymore (young folk, that is). I love playing Euchre. Have you heard of it?

    1. Poor Ali! And to think that she almost got Chinatown and The Great Gatsby! Thanks God she ran away with Steve … 😉 She does have one good performance in her resume: I really liked her in Goodbye, Columbus (1969) — she’s quite appealing as the Jewish heiress.

      1. I haven’t seen Goodbye, Columbus. I suppose it’s wrong of me to judge her on one performance. I think part of the problem was that McQueen was also pretty wooden. The two supposedly had enough sparks flying to leave their spouses (McQueen anyway) so I walked into the viewing looking for it. I didn’t see much.

    2. I have heard of that game, but never played it. If I recall, it is something like ‘Trumps’. I lost a good deal of money during the 70s playing five-card stud, and swore off gambling after that.
      As for Ann-Margaret, she is one of my ‘women of the century’. (My century, anyway) I wasn’t that bothered about her as a young woman, but my did she age well! By the time she got to ‘Tommy’, I was hooked. Then came ‘Magic’, and I was near as damn it in love with her when she was 41 years old. She is 75 now, and still fabulous.
      Best wishes, Pete.

  5. You picked out some strong ones from his filmography! Happy to see love for Papillon, that’s a favorite of mine. My god, that finale by the ocean is unforgettable. Interesting to read the film is based on an autobiographical novel.

    I watched The Cincinnati Kid a couple of months ago. McQueen and Edward G Robinson do poker face well. The women seem to mainly be there as filler to make up the scenery though, which is why my rating wasn’t higher. I liked how the story builds towards the inevitable showdown. Among the better poker movies out there.

    1. Welcome, Chris. I’m glad we share the love for Pappilon. As for The Cincinnati Kid, I read that McQueen was nervous starring across from Robinson, what a presence! McQueen was notorious for upstaging and competing for the audience. At the locker scene, while the two are engaged in a dialogue, Steve takes a lemon and starts sucking on it. It’s difficult NOT to watch him. Yes, the women were supporting, but I thought Ann M. did a great job creating a presence on the screen–I really hated her! So did Karl Malden.

  6. He certainly finished out his career with great films. I am not including THE TOWERING INFERNO in the mix though. PAPILLON is so fine. Too bad he died so young. I would have liked to see his films when he matured a little more.

  7. Nope. I didn’t think ‘The Towering Inferno’ was all that great. He managed to cram just about every goal in his brief life. I know he was fed up with making movies about the time he reached 50. He sure ended on a high note!

  8. The Poseidon Adventure got there first and made all the disaster craze in the 70s possible but its The Towering Inferno that I love the best. I don’t particularly think McQueen is doing great work in it, just playing a quiet professional. Newman has the better park and performance but there you have it. The ensemble characters have more depth and variety I guess in Poseidon but whatever. 🙂 As a young man watching The Thomas Crown Affair a few years ago I was struck how many techniques used in it were present in the films of my time. These things go in cycles don’t they, Thomas Crown was perversely old school and modern to early 21st century eyes. As a film I agree it’s all style over substance but oh what style and wasn’t Faye Dunaway such a talent. I certainly look forward to checking out Papillion and The Cincinnati Kid. For the car chase alone I want to see The Getaway.

    1. My stupid WP. I don’t know why I didn’t “see” these comments the usual way, Lloyd. Sorry! The Thomas Crown Affair–I have not seen the reprisal, but probably will sometime down the road. I wasn’t aware how sexy Faye D. was. No wonder she had quite the repetition. I only remember Chinatown and Mommy Dearest. That’s not good.

      1. The Thomas Crown remake is solid enough but just lacks the timeless 60s cool of the original. It’s softer to be quite blunt. In the original these were two people who were all about their pursuits. Still if you love Brosnan and Rene Russo it’s fun to see them together.

  9. Just stopping by to say hello Cindy! Sorry I don’t have much to contribute as I’ve only seen one Steve McQueen film and I didn’t really like it :\

  10. I agree that Poseidon Adventure (1972) is the best of the so-called disaster films of the ’70s. We also agree that Papillon is a great, great film. It was a big success too, so I’m surprised at the Academy’s lack of interest. McQueen and/or Hoffman should have gotten something for it (I think they are both better than the winner, Jack Lemmon in Save the Tiger). Anyhow, I didn’t know about the asbestos and the cancer. That’s sad. Hope you get to see Junior Bonner, which I think was McQueen’s (and Peckinpah’s) favorite — a really nice character study. 🙂

  11. I’ve read Henri Charrière’s “Papillon” and its sequel “Banco” in the original French. Of course, I’ve seen the film in which Steve McQueen stars, but that was a long time ago. I don’t recall whether the film incorporates any of “Banco” in its plot.

    1. I am glad we share the love for Papillon. What a fine film and book. No sequel Banco elements that I am aware since it ends with the jump and his floating away. Thank you much for commenting.

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