Greeting all and sundry! After the wonderful comments and responses to my previous ‘First Impressions from Second Stringers‘. I’ve decided to take a few moments to delve into the allure and mystique of an actor who for years applied his talent and trade into the consistent definition and refinement of his several characters on television. Before branching into films. To meticulously evolve into the absolute embodiment of rebellious cool during the 1960s and early 1970s.
To that end. Allow me to introduce a retrospective and hypothesis into the inner workings and machinations of the guy every kid and young man wanted to grow to be. And every contemporary girl and young woman wanted to be with.
Steve McQueen: Acting vs. Reacting.
I first noticed Mr. McQueen as bounty hunter, Josh Randall in a repeated episode of the Sam Peckinpah written western series, ‘Trackdown’ from the late 1950s. In it, Randall helps Texas Ranger Hoby Gilman (Robert Culp) track down a philandering husband. The two don’t hit it off at first, since Randall seems to enjoy his job and its reward money a bit too much. Though there seemed to be an ease about this young unknown rookie as he traded lines and shared action with the more established Culp. A surety and lack of fear that was both refreshing and intriguing.
Others must have thought so as well. Remembering Mr. McQueen as he slogged through an entirely forgettable take on Harold Robbins’ potboiler novel, ‘Never Love A Stranger’. And his B-Movie introduction in the Sci-Fi classic, ‘The Blob’. Before given the chance to romp and play with Frank Sinatra and assorted other heavy hitters in the John Surges directed, Burma/Thailand, OSS WWII film, ‘Never So Few’ in 1959. Only to return under Sturges’ protective wing for another classic that launched many careers, ‘The Magnificent Seven’.
It is this film where I believe Mr. McQueen began to find the benefit of being miserly with his words. Keeping his face placid or with a hint of annoyance should the need occur. Then responding to whatever actor with which he was sharing a scene. Using as few words as possible His moments as Vin with Yul Brynner’s Chris early on in the film is an homage to subtle up staging. With Mr. Queen using deft, remembered tricks. Like shaking the shotgun shells before chambering them in his borrowed 12 Gauge scatter gun . And taking off and angling his beaten, sweat stained hat to supply some needed shade on their caisson ride up to Boot Hill. Vin’s quick, quiet loss at the saloon’s roulette wheel. And his silent counting of their desired number of gunslingers on his fingers as it grows. These small gestures and glances would quietly outnumber Mr. McQueen numbers of spoken lines. Yet seemed to carry close to equal weight, Recurring again and again his later films.
Which brings us back to Mr. McQueen getting his own television series, ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive’. That ran for three full seasons of 94 episodes from 1958 to 1961. And propelled Mr. McQueen’s bounty hunter, Josh Randall and his cut down Winchester lever action ‘Mare’s leg’ into house hold familiarity. Opening an opportunity for Mr. McQueen to try his hand at service comedy in ‘The Honeymoon Machine’. A 1961 compact minor gem where Mr. McQueen plays a Navy Lieutenant who uses his assigned ship’s computer to figure the odds and how to beat the many gaming tables of a Venetian casino. Sharing some great lines with civilian computer scientist, Jim Hutton and his fiance, Paula Prentiss.
Then being given the lead role and top billing amongst a plethora of proven character actors in a great, though oddly little known WWII drama, ‘Hell Is for Heroes’ from 1961. Directed by Don Siegel and written by Richard Carr and Robert Pirosh. Who would later achieve critical and audience acclaim for his long running WWII series, ‘Combat!’ for ABC television. In the film, it seems that all Mr. McQueen’s character does is react.
His Pvt. Reese has been under stress and combat for so long. It seems the only time he is relaxed is when he is on the front lines. Where he soon finds himself with the stalwart Sergent, Fess Parker. Veteran squad leader, Harry Guardino. Street wise hustler, Bobby Darin. Brainy southern Fix It guy, James Coburn. Always reliable Mike Kellin. And late arrivals Bob Newhart and Nick Adams.
Together, these soldiers have to keep a massively larger number of Germans occupied on the Siegfried Line prior to a major attack. The problem is that no one really cares for their situation or fellow man. And for Mr. McQueen’s Reese even less. They all just want to be somewhere else and go home. Those that are stopping them are the Germans. And if Germans need to be killed, that’s fine with Pvt. Reese. To facilitate this, Reese is equipped with the most phallic looking of sub-machine guns. An M-3 Grease Gun with flanking magazines taped upside down around the weapon’s main feed. Used propitiously through patrols and an aborted night attack on a bunker-ed German machine gun nest. As this gritty, character driven minor masterpiece concludes in a way that no one sees coming!
Leaving Mr. McQueen in the WWII vein for an aerial stock footage laden quickie titled ‘The War Lover’. Where Mr. McQueen plays an Air Corp Captain and B-17 pilot with a near death wish. Opposite a very young Robert Wagner as his protege and co-pilot. Setting the stage for one Mr. McQueen’s most memorable roles. As Hilts, ‘The Cooler King’. Again under John Sturges’ direction and backed up by a ‘Who’s Who’ of young and established talent from both sides of the Atlantic. Amongst such company and with a propensity to be given some of the production’s best lines and scenes. Plus Mr McQueen’s ability and willingness to set up a near show stopping, groundbreaking motorcycle stunt cemented him firmly in the firmament of untouchable ‘Cool’.
Something he would easily maintain through three rather formulaic films. ‘Soldier in the Rain’ opposite Jackie Gleason in 1963. ‘Love with the Proper Stranger’ with Natalie Wood and Edie Adams. And ‘Baby the Rain Must Fall’ with Lee Remick. Aided by a theme song more popular than the film. Before given the chance to stretch his talents and romp and play with the then veteran big boys.
As Eric Stoner. ‘The Cincinnati Kid’. A young and enormously talented player of stud poker. Who holds makers for half the players in Depression Era New Orleans and is very much a local legend. Until a player with an ever larger reputation, Lancey Howard; wondrously, confidently and resplendently played by Edward G. Robinson steps off the train. A showdown is to be had and the Kid starts gathering up markers for his buy in and stake. Getting sound advice from his mentor, Karl Malden as ‘Shooter’. While being used as a pawn by Rip Torn’s ‘Slade’. An arrogant and sleazy southern gentleman who wants payback for losing to Howard in previous games. Trying to stay true to Tuesday Weld’s ‘Christian’. And avoiding the sensuous clutches of Shooter’s far too young and beguiling wife, Melba. Wickedly played by Anne-Margaret. More than enough distraction to throw any mere mortal off his game, but this is Steve McQueen at the near top of his game. In a showdown that many have likened to the one between Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason in ‘The Hustler‘, but with a much higher cool factor. The stare downs between Mr. McQueen’s confidence and Edward G. Robinson’s placid poker face quickly builds palpable tension until the last card is played.
Mr. McQueen’s cool and penchant to react return in 1966’s ‘Nevada Smith’. Playing a half breed Indian looking to kill the three men who killed his parents. With the aid of Karl Malden as a traveling gun salesman, Mr. McQueen is taught how to shoot, read and learns enough tricks to keep him alive through a stretch in prison to find one of the killers during their escape. And the other two in cow towns across the West. In a fair adaptation of the Harold Robbins novel. Then onto one of his most under rated roles as Machinist Mate Jake Holman in Robert Wise’s ‘The Sand Pebbles’. Assigned to the USS San Pablo as it operates along China’s Yangtze River during the 1926 era of ‘Gunboat Diplomacy’. Butting heads with the ship’s captain, Richard Crenna. Holman breaks a lot of small, traditional rules around the ship’s engines which irritates the crew and the locals. While falling in love with a Missionary’s stunning daughter, Shirley Eckert. Played by Candice Bergen in a well thought out and executed period piece, history lesson and anti-war film.
Which brings the cool back to the fore in ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’. Where Mr. McQueen plays a handsome, rich, influential bank executive who decides to hire a crew of four specialists who do not know each other to rob Crown’s own Boston bank. The heist goes off smoothly and four bags are dumped in trash cans and picked by Crown in his Rolls Royce. Which brings in Paul Burke, a federal investigator who is out of his league. And takes umbrage when Faye Dunaway shows up as insurance investigator, Vicki Anderson. Who is much more than she appears to be. The game is afoot as she politely question Crown over a game of chess. That makes a splendid introduction. Shared in flirtatious silence before more adult entertainment is hinted at under Norman Jewison’s deft touch. The game of high end Cat and Mouse continues through resplendent Massachusetts locales. Until Crown comes up with another plan that no one would expect. In a wondrously opulent ode to conspicuous consumption and elegantly dressed ’60s cool!
That’s knocked down a few notches status wise for Mr. McQueen’s next venture into reaction in Peter Yates’ ‘Bullitt’ . As blue collar San Francisco Detective Lieutenant Frank Bullitt. Given the task of protecting an organized crime witness for an up and coming, politically cunning District Attorney, Walter Chalmers. Played with arrogant, near sneering glee by Robert Vaughn. Whose future and career depends on the informant, Johnny Ross testifying in court after the weekend. Creating a large enough burden on the shoulders of Bullitt. His boss, Captain Sam Bennett (Simon Oakland). And Bulltt’s partner, Delgetti (Don Gordon. Never better) as well as assorted underlings assigned to the flea bag hotel protection detail.
A weight that shifts precipitously when the informant, Johnny Ross (Pat Renella) unlocks the door for his and the detail’s demise via a team of shot gun assassins. A description is given by one of slowly dying detail detectives as Bullitt arranges for the deceased Johnny Ross to be listed in the morgue as a John Doe. Which doesn’t seem to slow the team of killers down as they try to find Ross and finish the job. Giving Bullitt a quickly glimpse at them. Annoying the heck out of Chalmers as Bullitt tries to put the pieces together and asks Bennett to be put in charge of the murder investigation. Bennett gives Bullitt close to carte blache and leads are followed the next morning. After waking with a hangover in the goofiest pajamas on earth. Waiting for his immursion unit to heat water for instant coffee. Giving Don Gordon’s Delgetti some of films better lines as motel managers are questioned and Ident-I-Kit drawings are put together. While Bullitt seeks out a cab and its driver (Robert Duvall) and dots are connected and snitches contacted. To determine Ross’s foot steps around San Francisco after fleeing Chicago with two million dollars stolen from his older, mob connected brother.
The pressure increases as Bennett is subpoenaed outside Sunday services by Chalmers and his milquetoast associate and Bennett’s boss, Captain Baker (Norman Fell). Something is not adding up as Ross’s trail ends at a middle of nowhere motel. On his way home, Bullitt sees the two shooters in their Dodge Charger and the great grand daddy of all car chases begins in amongst and over the many tight turns, narrow streets and hills of San Francisco. Then out on the highways. Weaving in and out of traffic at well over seventy miles per hour. Dodging shotgun blasts as Bullitt finally manages to nudge the killers’ Charger into the gas pumps of an off road gas station and a huge explosive fireball.
Shaken and stirred, Bullitt invites his girlfriend, Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset, never sexier!) to spend what is left of the weekend with him. Which includes a trip back to the motel. Where Bullitt discovers a murdered woman, Dorothy Simmons (Brandy Carroll). Along with two passports, travelers checks and two tickets from San Francisco International to Rome. Before the room becomes a taped off crime scene, Cathy stumbles in and is shocked to see what Frank deals with. And what he could become.
The passport numbers are faxed to both Customs and State as a pow wow of all the heavy hitters is brought together. As the question of who the John Doe in the morgue really is? And who leaked the information to Chicago about John Doe’s fleabag motel while under protective custody? Leaving Chalmers little else to do once the John Doe is identified as Albert Lee Rennick. Except try to smoothly lie and go into a defensive diatribe aimed at Bullitt. Who tolerates the rhetoric and replies, “You work your side of the street. And I’ll work mine.”
Unburdened of Chalmers, Bullitt and Delgetti go to SFX and open up Ross’s luggage and find that Ross exchanged his tickets for Rome for a same time flight to London. Calls are made and the 707 returns to the departure gate. Delgetti stays in the terminal and Bullitt gets on board. Sees Ross, who escapes through the rear exit door and runs for it. Bullitt gives chase. Finds Ross inside the crowded terminal. Catching Ross just feet away from freedom. Catching rounds from Bullitt’s .38 Colt Diamondback between the terminal’s sliding glass double doors.
Capping off a pinnacle of macho coolness that would run long after his death in 1980. Mr. McQueen would continue ti ride high as Formula race car driver, Mike Delaney in the near documentary style, ‘Le Mans’ two years later. Coming under Sam Peckinpah’s masterful touch as rodeo rider, Junior ‘JR’ Bonner in ‘Junior Bonner’ and as just released heist man Doc McCoy. In the ahead of its time, Walter Hill and Jim Thompson scripted heist gone bad film, ‘The Getaway’ with Ali MacGraw. Then turn in a very understated performance as petty thief, Henri Charriere who befriends a near unrecognizable Dustin Hoffman, Louis Dega in ‘Papillon’ on their way to a French Guyana penal colony (Devil’s Island) and their escape attempts from there.
I think Mr. McQueen may have struck onto something by remaining quiet and giving some more memorable lines away to others. Creating a sense of drama while letting his facial expressions do the talking. A trait I’ve noticed by other actors, particularly Clint Eastwood, Jeff Bridges, Joe Mantegna, and the late Jack Lemmon and James Coburn. Actors confident enough in their talent and abilities to let silence speak volumes.
Kudos also to Mr. McQueen for having the savvy to use credibility and cool as a commodity and bargaining chip in ‘Bullitt’. Especially his and Peter Yates’ behind the scenes negotiations to get Warner Brothers out of their studio and back lot confines. Venture down to San Francisco and shoot on location for how ever long a scene or the completed project required.
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What do you think of Steve McQueen and what’s your favorite McQueen movie(s)? Do share ’em in the comments.