1960s, actors, crime drama, directors, Film Spotlight, movies, scores, Winter Project: Classic Male Actors

Winter Project: More Steve McQueen


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.

1960s, actors, biography, directors, Film Spotlight, movies

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.