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.