|Like many of the world’s most charismatic movie stars, he saw something of life – of the rough and ready, unsuccessful, kind – before turning to acting. James Dean may have been the 20th century’s pre-eminent youth icon, and charming crooner Frank Sinatra appealed to an older generation, but Terrence Steven McQueen was the archetypal lone hero of cinema in the 1960s and 1970s.
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A man amongst men, destined to be more than just a Hollywood screen icon, McQueen was born on 24th March 1930, abandoned by his father, he grew up partly in reform school (an institution that was his charity of choice after he became a wealthy celebrity), and became – perhaps by default – a travelling manual labourer. He enlisted in the Marines after WW2, but spent nearly five weeks in lockup for being caught AWOL.
|Famously making his starring debut in cheesy sci-fi hit The Blob (1958), he went on to steal scenes from Yul Brynner in classic western The Magnificent Seven (1960), and achieved superstardom as the ‘Cooler King’ in John Sturges’ populist wartime adventure, The Great Escape (1963). Here, McQueen performed his character’s own motorbike stunts, remaining apart from the ensemble cast (often in solitary confinement), even as he provided a morale boost for the other prisoners by repeatedly breaking out of the Nazi’s camp, solo. Sitting still for mid-1960s gambling picture The Cincinnati Kid, didn’t suit McQueen, and he fared better as the loner crewman of a US Navy gunboat in Robert Wise’s entertaining The Sand Pebbles. Later, McQueen got to indulge his passion for racing cars in Le Mans (1971), made considerable impact as the tough antihero of Peckinpah’s The Getaway, and was married to actress Ali McGraw (his second wife) for five years. Papillon (1973) found McQueen trying to escape again, this time from a very dismal island prison (or perhaps just from being Dustin Hoffman’s bodyguard?), while his macho firefighter bought a semblance of gravitas to Irwin Allen’s overproduced disaster movie The Towering Inferno (1974).
“I’m not sure that acting is something for a grown man to be doing.” – STEVE McQUEEN
McQueen’s last two film parts were both bounty hunters. Tom Horn was his return to western territory, while The Hunter (directed by Buzz Kulik) has been lambasted as McQueen’s worst picture, even though it has a minor cult following because of its ‘true story’ origins. However, by far the greatest movie with McQueen is Bullitt. This features the definitive McQueen hero, an honest San Francisco detective stymied by police corruption, and a mafia plot to murder a prosecution witness. The film’s direction, by Peter Yates, is confident, and his handling of the action sequences filmed on location is assured. What makes Bullitt so memorable is its car chase. The ‘car chase’. It’s simply the most exhilarating and seemingly dangerous car chase ever shot. The camerawork is first rate, and the impressive editing by Frank P. Keller deservedly won an Oscar. Attentive viewers have suggested that what ensures McQueen’s high-speed pursuit of bad guys would become the undisputed all-time classic of pure cinema (moving images without dialogue) on four wheels is the peculiar absence of music in the sequence…
Speaking of music, such is McQueen’s iconic status nowadays that rocker Sheryl Crow wrote a song about him for her 2002 album C’mon C’mon … “Like Steve McQueen -/ All I need’s a fast machine/ I’m gonna make it alright/ … I ain’t taking shit off no-one/ … I’m an all-American rebel/ Making my big getaway”. And Ms Crow’s promo video for the track re-staged scenes from McQueen’s films, especially Bullitt (which only goes to prove how that film’s car chase was the defining moment of McQueen’s career).
PEDAL TO THE METTLE
From the moment that Lalo Schifrin’s jazzy score fades out, we know the real hotrod action is due to begin, and the steep hills of urban San Francisco serve as the stunning backdrop to a truly exciting, motorised battle of wits, as McQueen’s cop pursues a pair of suspected killers around town. With umpteen rapid gear changes, screeching tyres, and the fierce mecha noise of sporty engines growling like wild beasts (remember, the villains’ car was a Dodge Charger), this movie’s automotive sound effects have a kind of garage industrial appeal. Throughout this crime drama, McQueen is the epitome of cool, but behind the steering wheel of his green Ford Mustang GT, he attracts the power of modern myth. He’s the super-competent speed demon that every driver wants to be. In just over nine minutes of screen time, McQueen made his mark as the ultimate car hero.
Of course, with McQueen being an expert wheelman (though he shared duties with a stunt driver), the director was able to shoot close-ups of the star behind the wheel, and countless other filmmakers are still imitating Bullitt today. But whatever technical expertise and proficiency the film crew bought to the chase, it was McQueen’s show all the way. Some fans of Bullitt have claimed that it’s almost as if McQueen guessed he was making something special; citing a tense yet faraway look in his eyes (the 1,000-yard stare?). But I reckon there’s really no ‘almost-as-if-‘ about it. McQueen knew exactly what he doing. He knew what he was doing as the movie-hero cop, Frank Bullitt (the name launched many feeble TV copies such as Cannon, Magnum, et al); he obviously knew what he was doing as a racing-car driver; and he knew what he was doing as a man – the sort of ‘superman’ that women wanted, and that men wanted to be, of course. And that was the point of the exercise. Bullitt could not present the first filmed car chase (and, afterwards, there was no chance whatsoever of it being the last!), and so the filmmakers settled for creating the best live-action sequence of its kind that’s actually possible. The CGI effects generated for recent movies like Driven seem vapid, and artistically shallow, compared to the gritty realism of Bullitt.
Steve McQueen died (reportedly, of cancer) in Mexico on 7 November 1980. As an actor, he can replaced, but as a movie star he was unique. Of that Hollywood generation, only McQueen had the right stuff… (Brad Pitt’s intention to remake Bullitt should really be discouraged.) In 2001, Ford produced a new, limited edition Bullittreplica Mustang, and – later – some Ford TV commericals integrated footage of McQueen, cleverly using digital effects to place him behind the wheel of their stylish 21st century model. Was anyone out there in television-land ignorant of McQueen’s magnetic presence in those adverts? I think not. (I can’t even remember the car.)