What I learned from Roman Polanski’s playful political thriller The Ghost Writer is that the old man can still bring it. Not Polanski, the 77-year-old director, but Eli Wallach, the 94-year-old actor, who shows up about halfway through to deliver a very brief but charming performance as a crusty, all-weather resident of Martha’s Vineyard. Stepping out from behind a dilapidated screen door, Wallach’s face is revealed to be equally worn, but there’s still a sparkle in his eyes and a distinctive zing to his voice. He’s as feisty as ever, if not quite as intimidating, and seeing him up on the big screen, in what we’ve got to assume will be his final performance, might be enough to make you think that you’re in the middle of a cinematic dream from which you don’t want to wake. And yet, for me, Wallach’s presence is bittersweet. To marvel that he’s still around—more than that: still acting—is to be confronted with memories of Wallach’s costars past who have been off the screen and off this earth for years now. Even decades.
Among them is Steve McQueen, who starred opposite Wallach to memorable effect in The Magnificent Seven, near the start of McQueen’s career, and then to less memorable results in The Hunter, in what proved to be McQueen’s final film. McQueen died a few months later from complications due to cancer, and this November we’ll have been without him for 30 years. He was only 50 when he died, and today would have been his 80th birthday—old enough that he might have long since given up acting, but young enough that perhaps he’d have had at least one cameo left in him, like Wallach in The Ghost Writer, or like Karl Malden, McQueen’s costar in The Cincinnati Kid and Nevada Smith, who at 88 contributed to one of the greatest scenes in the seven-season run of TV’s The West Wing in 2000. We’ll never know.
McQueen’s was a career that started too late—in 1958’s The Blob, his first starring role on the big screen, the already-developing wrinkles in McQueen’s forehead give away that he isn’t the high schooler he’s pretending to be—and that ended too soon. But in just over two decades as an actor, McQueen turned out numerous memorable performances and contributed to some of cinema’s most celebrated scenes. He was a limited actor, as Matt Zoller Seitz articulates (all too well, for some McQueen fans) in his 2009 video essay “Too Cool,” but McQueen’s onscreen presence was undeniable. In his honor, today through Saturday I’m hosting the Steve McQueen Blog-a-thon over at The Cooler, inviting fellow bloggers to reflect on all things King of Cool. My primary contribution to the blog-a-thon is my own video essay, “Steve McQueen: King of the Close-up.” What follows here is a list of what I consider to be McQueen’s five most essential performances.
1. The Great Escape (1963): Captain Hilts might not have been McQueen’s most iconic character (see: blurb No. 2), but The Great Escape undoubtedly provided McQueen with the vast majority of “his” most iconic onscreen moments. The quotation marks are necessary, of course, because Hilts’ legendary motorcycle jump over a barbwire fence—the stuff of AFI and Oscar night montages—was actually performed by stuntman Bud Ekins. Somewhat justifiably, one could poke holes in McQueen’s legacy by pointing out that the most famous thing one of his characters ever did was something that McQueen didn’t do himself, but what shouldn’t be overlooked is that it was McQueen’s own expert riding that gave Ekins’ stunt its emotional heft. Specifically, McQueen’s talent on a motorcycle allowed director John Sturges to capture the actor in some intimate, exhilarating and entirely authentic action shots that validated Hilts’ high-octane heroics.
Besides, even without The Jump, Hilts would have thrilled audiences. He makes an impression long before his escape from the POW camp with his cocky antics along the “warning wire” and his routine banishments to isolation—“Cooler, Hilts!”—where he passes the time by tossing a baseball against the floor and walls of his tiny cell before snaring it in his leather glove. Boom-boom, pop. Boom-boom, pop. Boom-boom, pop. In a film that treats World War II like an intramural sport, Hilts is the star player. McQueen’s character spends a lot of the game on the bench—Richard Attenborough’s Bartlett and James Garner’s Henley are more consistently involved in the narrative—but he makes the most of his minutes, and he gets the ball in his hands at the end, both figuratively and literally. To call Hilts an antihero would be misleading, because the thing he’s rebelling against is Nazi Germany, and American moviegoers have always found that to be traditionally heroic. Still, Hilts moves to the beat of his own drum: always breaking the rules, always being sent to the cooler and always grinning defiantly. It takes a special kind of charisma to turn failures into rousing victories. Hilts oozes that charisma.
2. Bullitt (1968): Could there have been any other title? Bullitt has the faint outline of a plot—a key witness for the prosecution is mysteriously gunned down while under police protection—but what propels the film is McQueen’s Detective Frank Bullitt, who in his stone-cold, straightforward demeanor is indeed bullet-esque. The film is most famous for its 10-minute car chase, half of it through San Francisco’s hilly streets, and though McQueen reportedly did less of his own stunt driving here than on the set of The Great Escape, where his motorcycle riding was so prized that in addition to playing Hilts on the run he also played one of the anonymous German soldiers in pursuit, he certainly did enough to make the action credible. Memorable is the moment when Bullitt hangs his head out the window of his green Ford Mustang—“This ain’t Bud Ekins,” McQueen seems to be saying—as he throws the car in tire-burning reverse and then guns it off into the distance. Also of note is the shot over McQueen’s right shoulder in which the rearview mirror reveals the star to be casually chewing gum as he speeds down a hill toward Alcatraz. Talk about cool under pressure!
Perhaps that’s why McQueen’s titular character, with his signature blue turtleneck that matches his piercing stare, is the one most closely associated with McQueen’s nickname “The King of Cool.” Bullitt isn’t a character examination, because we hardly learn a thing about the guy. Instead, it’s a character meditation. Or, more to the point, it’s a medication on cool. The picture’s every thrill, including the car chase, is a product of McQueen’s bottled intensity. His every gesture seems loaded with significance.
3. The Cincinnati Kid (1965): When Norman Jewison directed Steve McQueen, in The Cincinnati Kid and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), the recipe for creating on-screen magic was simple: capture McQueen in a close-up and get the hell out of the way. In The Cincinnati Kid, Jewison preps us for what’s to come with tight close-ups of Ann-Margret and Jack Weston at a New Orleans cockfight early in the film, but he saves his money shots of McQueen for the climactic poker match between “The Kid” and Edward G. Robinson’s “The Man.” Then Jewison goes all-in. McQueen does some serviceable acting throughout the film, mostly opposite Tuesday Weld and Karl Malden, but his silent strength is perfect for the poker table. His expressions are appropriately inscrutable and yet knowing, and he more than holds his own opposite Robinson.
Given America’s revived fondness for poker, a Hollywood remake of this film is inevitable. When it comes, it’s sure to trim away the supporting characters in favor of beefing up “The Kid” and the poker action, and that’s fine. Another actor, with some help from the screenwriter, could give this character greater depth. But few actors, if any, could rival McQueen’s tremendous presence in a close-up.
4. The Getaway (1972): If simply ranking McQueen films, The Getaway would make the list for the way director Sam Peckinpah takes a rather bland heist film and turns it into a gritty, violent and often misogynistic picture that’s always interesting to look at even when it’s uncomfortable to confront (see: virtually every scene between Al Lettieri and Sally Struthers). But as this is a celebration of McQueen performances, The Getaway makes the list because it reveals McQueen as his most emotionally naked and genuine. Really. If you’re thinking of some of the film’s most memorable scenes—McQueen’s Doc McCoy firing his shotgun into the back of a police car, or through the back window of his getaway car, or through the hallways of a dive hotel down by the Mexican border—you’re shaking your head in doubt. So, instead, think of McQueen’s scenes interacting with Ali MacGraw, who, despite being married to producer Robert Evans, quickly began a romance with McQueen that eventually led to a marriage of their own (and then a divorce).
McQueen is tender and playful with MacGraw in a way he never was with anyone else on screen. And though neither McQueen nor MacGraw ever demonstrates tremendous range, there’s a chemistry between them that’s enticing. Dramatically speaking, their best scene together is the one just after Doc has been released from prison and he sits down next to his topless wife, MacGraw’s Carol, and expresses angst over their inevitable physical intimacy. But their most enchanting scene comes just after that: McQueen standing at the stove in a bathrobe preparing breakfast until MacGraw walks in, a mischievous smile on her face, and wraps her arms around her man. “Uh-oh,” McQueen says. “She’s here.” That’s not a misprint; it really is McQueen offering that reaction. Save for the one line McQueen obligatorily utters on Doc’s behalf (“Thanks for getting me out”) both McQueen and MacGraw seem entirely out of character in the kitchen scene. These aren’t two people rekindling a love built long ago but two people falling in love on the spot as the camera rolls. It’s fascinating to watch, and charming, too. It’s also the most soul-bearing moment of McQueen’s career—for better or worse.
5. The War Lover (1962): Cocky, suave and rebellious, Buzz Rickson, a play-by-his-own-rules bomber pilot in World War II, might seem at first glance to be a typical McQueen character. But McQueen’s performance in this largely overlooked film is unusual for at least two reasons: (1) Rickson is something of a talker; and (2) Rickson is emotionally vulnerable, even if he spends the film pretending otherwise. It would be a stretch to call McQueen’s Rickson fragile, but he certainly isn’t indestructible, and in the context of McQueen’s career that’s saying something. Likewise, Rickson’s flirtatious/predatory interactions with the somewhat unattainable Daphne Caldwell, played by a spunky Shirley Anne Field, underline just how rare it was for a McQueen character to actually communicate with (not at) the opposite sex. Usually in McQueen movies, women, if there were any, were wallflowers that both McQueen and the screenplay barely acknowledged beyond their physical beauty (see: Bullitt, Le Mans, Junior Bonner, Papillon and even The Cincinnati Kid, The Sand Pebbles and The Getaway). In The War Lover, Daphne gets Rickson’s undivided attention and a backbone of her own.
McQueen is so assured in his scenes opposite Field that it seems a shame he wasn’t pitted against capable actresses more often. The War Lover suggests that, in fact, McQueen could handle dialogue, that he could be vulnerable and that he could play a guy who for the most part was just pretending to be cool, rather than having it in his DNA. It’s a refreshing break from McQueen’s norm—awesome though that norm could be.