He was an icon, adored by men and women across the globe. He was also a maverick who spent a lot of his youth getting into trouble and loved motor racing. But when it came to acting the King of Cool Steve McQueen really was the King. Here are what I think his five greatest films.
5- The Great Escape- a star studded ensemble cast featuring the great Gordon Jackson, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, Richard Attenborough, James Coburn and David McCallum. Yet despite this, the enduring character embedded in everybody’s minds from the film was and still is the “Cooler King” Virgil Hilts, played with real effervescence by the uber-cool McQueen.
Then there was of course that jump on that bike over that border. Despite the mythology around whether or not McQueen did the stunt himself, in actuality it was stuntman Bud Ekins, The Great Escape is a timeless classic and McQueen steals the show.
4- The Getaway- McQueen plays an ex-con who is out to carry out a bank job. What follows is a web of deceit and double cross. As Carter “Doc” McCoy, McQueen plays the conflicted anti-hero perfectly.
The moral boundaries are blurred, as you don’t know whether to root for or against the McCoy’s. The film is a gritty affair thanks to Sam Peckinpah’s direction but also thanks to McQueen’s portrayal of a con on the run faced with several moral dilemmas.
3- Papillion- Adaptation of the book, this film features McQueen playing real life con Henri ‘Papillon’ Charriere and chronicles the tribulations faced by the real Henri Charriere whilst imprisoned on the notorious Devil’s Island off the coast of French Guiana.
This film is special in that it gives McQueen a real opportunity to develop his character. He exhibits madness when in solitary confinement, that is conveyed so well that it affects the audience on a visceral level. The on screen chemistry between him and Dustin Hoffman makes this film memorable. The two show real emotion as the bond between their two characters develops through the film.
2- The Magnificent Seven- Once again Steve McQueen found himself surrounded by an all-star cast, featuring Yul Brynner, Robert Vaughan, Charles Bronson and Eli Wallach. This western caper was adapted from Seven Samurai. Although Yul Brynner was the one given top billing it was McQueen who stole every scene he was in. In fact it got to the point where Brynner apparently threatened McQueen that if he tried anything funny again he would cause him harm.
It was the little nuances that saw him steal the spotlight and cause much chagrin amongst his fellow cast members. A wiping of the brow here, a scratching of a cheek there, McQueen showed that actions can speak louder than words. McQueen is as charismatic as ever in this John Sturges western.
1-Bullitt- This for me has to be McQueen’s finest hour. As San Francisco Lieutenant Frank Bullitt McQueen is Stoic. Once again Steve McQueen exhibits something that very few actors possess and that is the ability to captivate an audience without saying much. He has screen presence, bags of it. This film clearly outlines this. One particular scene that comes to mind is where in the evidence lock up McQueen’s character is going through a suitcase full of clothes looking for evidence, a mundane act that is made enthralling by McQueen’s ability to grip the audience with his piercing blue eyes and granite facial expressions.
The interaction between his and Jacquline Bisset’s character is highly charged and makes us wonder about the state of Bullitt’s mind. Then there is of course the car chase. The mother of all car chases lasting over 10 minutes sees Bullitt turn the tables on the hit men who had been following him. What follows is an explosive end to an explosive car chase.
Unlike the bike jump in The Great Escape McQueen did the driving himself in the chase sequence. This film is light on dialogue, but it doesn’t need long monologues when you have McQueen at the helm. A pulsating score by Lalo Schifrin accompanies what has to be one of McQueen’s greatest performances.
Other notable performances;
The Towering Inferno, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen opposite one another was always going to be something special. The Blob was genesis, didn’t really take off until McQueen’s success in the TV series Wanted: Dead or Alive, but this was the launch pad for the Cooler King’s career.
The Cincinnati Kid, difficult to follow if you’re like me not a stud-poker connoisseur, yet the King of Cool really has the x-factor once again. Thomas Crown Affair despite a weak plot, McQueen has a good chemistry with Faye Dunaway.