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

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.

 

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.

Winter Project: actor Steve McQueen

Here continues an annual series exploring the filmography of a male film legend I know little about. I grew up with those blue eyes and wrinkled face in the setting of my early childhood, but I’ve only seen a couple of his films. This winter, I’ll set to task to read Marshall Terrill‘s biography on Steve McQueen. I’ll revisit his iconic roles, the lesser known, and check out the films you think I shouldn’t miss. Please join me with your thoughts and observations.

Nevada Smith (1966)

Directed by Henry Hathaway and starring: Karl Malden, Brian Keith, Suzanne Pleshette, Arthur Kennedy and Martin Landau. Screenwriter John Michael Hayes adapted the film based on a character from The Carpetbaggers(1961), a novel by Harold Robbins.

Steve McQueen was 36, the wrinkles in his forehead deeply etched, when he played Max Sand, a naive “kid” seeking revenge on the murder of his parents. The tale is a good one where Max establishes a mentor-master relationship with Jonas Cord (Brian Keith) who teaches him how to shoot and attempts to dissuade him from his route as the avenger. Along with his journey, he is loved and assisted by women who get him out of tight fixes like Neesa, (Janet Margolin) an Ojibwe or the cajun girl, Pilar (Suzanne Pleshette), who knows the Louisana swamps better than anyone. McQueen has a gift for picking roles that showcase his life talents such as riding a horse and shooting a gun. He acrobatically leaps up out of his saddle and jumps from fence to fence to sidestep an attacker. McQueen was wiry, dexterous; his complicated childhood as farmer-vagabond-Marine-circus traveler had a silver lining; hard knocks infused a graceful, effortlessness to his future characters. The cinematography of the Nevada mountains to the Louisiana swamps where he is a prisoner of a chain gang adds to the expansiveness of the story. 3.5/5.

The Sand Pebbles (1966)

Directed by Robert Wise and starring: Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna, Candice Bergen, Marayat Andriane, Mako, Charles Robinson, and Simon Oakland.   

Nominated for 8 Academy awards and 8 Globes, including Steve McQueen’s only Oscar nomination, Robert Wise’s pet project took years to bring to fruition, but it was worth the trouble. Clocked at 3 hours long, I split the experience into two days. It is one of the better classics I’ve seen — a great blind spot choice for anyone who wants to watch a highly satisfying film. It’s 1926 China, and the gunboat USS San Pablo (Sailors are nicknamed Sand Pebbles.) cuts through the Yangtze and Xiang River.  It is a love story. It is a historical drama about communists, xenophobia, and international intrigue. It is a sensory treat visually and aurally, with a dramatic Jerry Goldsmith score, engaging sub-plots, and great acting by the entire cast. A youthful Richard Attenborough provided sensitivity and compassion as Frenchy, in love with a Chinese girl named Maily. How was Steve McQueen? His style of acting is minimalism. He appears to stand around a lot doing nothing, saying little, but he creates a type of realism that is surprising. It is hard to keep your eyes off him. He is the core and the actors revolve around him. The tricks he employs to manipulate the audience to keep looking at him is natural and deliberate. I’m trying not to give away spoilers, but in the comment section, feel free to discuss your favorite scenes or thoughts about Steve McQueen. If you haven’t seen The Sand Pebbles, here is a descriptive trailer. 4.5/5. 

Robert Mitchum Spotlight: Home from the Hill

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Thanks, everyone for the recommendations of Robert Mitchum films to explore during this winter’s festival of a star whose filmography I know too little about. Home from the Hill (1960) is a family saga of repressed passions with the scale and flavor of Giant (1956). This film is a better melodrama with puzzling characters that lodge in your heart. Combine the fine direction by Vincente Minnelli, the strong presence by Mitchum, the excellent acting by newbies George Peppard and George Hamilton, and place them on location shots of Paris, TX (exterior) and Oxford, Mississippi (interior) for a charismatic, southern experience.  Check out the Turner Classic Movies site for facts and trivia found HERE

“Requiem” by Robert Louis Stevenson

Under the wide and starry sky/Dig the grave and let me lie:/Glad did I live and gladly die,/And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you ‘grave for me:/ Here he lies where he long’d to be;/Home is the sailor, home from the sea,/And the hunter home from the hill.

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Captain Wade Hunnicutt (Robert Mitchum) has everything a man could desire. He possesses a beautiful wife, Hannah (Eleanor Parker), and the wealth and power as an East Texas baron. His son Theron will carry on the family name, and a collection of stuffed trophies are daily reminders of his prowess as outdoors man. Wade Hunnicutt is the epitome of the alpha dog who does what he wants when he wants because he can.

Now step behind the impressive facade of wealth and power, and the thorns and scars of a broken family emerge, player by player. Who is Rafe played by George Peppard? Sensitive, wise, calm, tender, honorable–George gives a performance that overshadows his mentor, Robert Mitchum. It is the primary reason to watch the film for Rafe is a character that will stay with you long after the film is over.  I admire the direction of Vincente Minnelli. His staging and versatile shots are beautiful, colorful and balanced.

For me, epics are hard to watch because they run too long or the melodrama descends into a soap opera or the acting dips and feels flat. Take Giant for instance. However, Home from the Hill has enough plot twists and room for all the characters to change and grow.  My only criticism would be I disliked how the music manipulated the audience to respond emotionally instead of allowing the actors to do that. When the scene changed, the music staged the mood and how you should react to it. Still, 150 minutes flew by, and I cared for many of the characters, especially Rafe. 4.5 / 5.

Did you feel sorry for confused son Theron? Libby who disgraced her family? Bitter and icy Hannah? What was your favorite scene? 

Robert Mitchum

 

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Alone in NYC, Jerry doesn’t know what he wants.

Robert Wise directed the adapted William Gibson Broadway play, Two for the Seesaw in 1962. The romantic drama featured a powerful pair, Shirley MacLaine and Robert Mitchum. After West Side Story’s success in 1959, Wise collaborated again with André Previn and provided a memorable score. Ted D. McCord’s cinematography (The Sound of Music 1965) with Wise’s leadership as director is reason enough to watch the film. From the wide-angle NYC location shots to mid-range street angles to the split screen emulating two sides of the seesaw, it is a solidly crafted film.

Perhaps they seesaw too much, but the love story is authentic and portrays the painful situation one experiences if one has been in love enough times–being the ghost in the room. That is, you are madly in love but the other person cannot love you because they are hung up on the predecessor. Gittel Mosca, played by MacLaine, is looking for a man to commit. She is smart in understanding Jerry Ryan’s loneliness and his insecurities. Played by Mitchum, Jerry wants individuality. It’s a double-edged sword living the career handed to you on a silver platter by Daddy. Jerry doesn’t want his life orchestrated by his rich wife from Nebraska, but he’s scared he will fail if he seeks out his accreditation as an attorney with his own wits. He has filed for divorce but cannot cut ties.  When it comes to love, it’s hard to shelve over ten years of marriage and pretend it didn’t affect you.

He is smart intellectually while Gittel is smart intuitively. Back and forth they go, giving and withdrawing, hoping and receding. Gittel chooses self-respect and autonomy–a lesson any gal should learn regardless the decade. With stellar acting, direction, and an intelligent script, it holds up today as it did in the 60s. 4/5

I assign myself an actor to explore over the winter break. Robert Mitchum is the man this year. Nothing I’ve seen him in has disappointed me. What a voice! I confess I’ve seen only a handful, so I need your help exploring his filmography. Other than the usual like The Night of the Hunter, Cape Fear, and The Big Sleep, I’m curious which film you think I should investigate.  Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison? Out of the Past?  What’s your favorite Robert Mitchum film? 

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