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A Guide to the King of Cool
by Andy York

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Never has there been a cooler movie star than Steve McQueen. He was, I guess, the "action star" of 1960's, but he wasn't over the top ala Stallone or Willis. In most of McQueen's characters, they were men who rarely had an advantage other than courage and maybe some skill with a motorcycle. Steve McQueen could never really be accused of being a great actor, but no one has ever owned the screen quite like the King of Cool. He never made that one revered film that's going to be remembered as an all-time great, but many of films are still classics. Here's a few of them -

The Magnificent Seven

Steve McQueen got his start on the slick western TV show, Wanted: Dead or Alive. It's no doubt his role as a good guy bounty hunter on a TV western made him the prime candidate for Yul Brynner's sidekick in this classic of the same genre. The story is of seven gunslingers who come together to defend a small village from bandits. The Magnificent Seven is a western version of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, but it's nowhere near as good. The real bright spot is McQueen. Steve famously tried to steal every scene he was in by improvising moments for his character, Vin. He'd add little things such as shaking shotgun shells to his ear to draw more attention to himself. It defiantly worked. It apparently drove the lead in the film, Yul Brynner, crazy. Oh well, McQueen was just too much of a star to be held down. It's by no means a bad movie, but the brightest light is from McQueen.

The Great Escape

This is the movie that made Steve McQueen immortal. The story is about a group of Allied WWII soldiers determined to break out of a Nazi prison camp. The film was based on the true story of the largest escape in WWII. Steve McQueen has many great scenes in the film, but there's only one that matters. McQueen steals a motorcycle in attempt to escape from the Nazi army that is chasing him. In one of the most memorable moments in screen history, McQueen jumps his motorcycle over a huge barbed wire fence. Steve McQueen apparently had feared that the film was going to be stolen from him by fellow cast member, James Garner. McQueen played the quintessential escape artist, but Garner was also cool as the prison con man. Once Steve McQueen jumped his motorcycle on movie screens across the world, there was no doubt. In The Great Escape, Steve McQueen became a megastar and the first actor to cross from TV to the big screen successfully.

Love with the Proper Stranger

Steve McQueen was the action star of the 1960's. Once he became famous with the TV show Wanted: Dead or Alive, his venturing into films rarely strayed from an action or western. Love with the Proper Stranger is a romantic comedy/drama about a woman(Natalie Wood) who has a one night stand with a musician, only to get pregnant. The scene in which Wood tells McQueen about her situation is priceless. Mostly because when she goes to tell McQueen he got her pregnant,
he doesn't really remember her. How pimp is that? Remember, it's a comedy. The one night stand becomes anything but. McQueen will always be remembered for being an action star, but he did slip and make a pretty good romantic flick just once.

The Thomas Crown Affair

This was Steve McQueen's personal favorite. It's been said that when McQueen would stay in hotels he often registered under the name of Thomas Crown. Now I know most of you out there have seen the Pierce Brosnan remake, but this one is the real deal. The 90's remake never comes close to the slickness of the Steve McQueen original. As far as I'm concerned, the original Thomas Crown Affair is one of the greatest movies ever made. McQueen plays the title character of a man who is wealthy, but decides to plan bank robberies simply out of boredom. When a female insurance investigator(Faye Dunaway) catches onto him the two play a dangerous game of lovers and enemies. The most famous scene in the movie is the seduction scene in which Dunaway and McQueen play a game of chess. My favorite scene is far less cinematic. When Crown is asked what his biggest worry is, he simply replies "What I want to be tomorrow." It's criminally underrated, but The Thomas Crown Affair is an amazingly cool and clever movie.

The Sand Pebbles

The Sand Pebbles holds the record along with The Color Purple for the most Oscar nominations without a win. It just so happens that this was Steve McQueen's one and only Oscar nomination. McQueen plays Jake Holman. Holman is an engineer in the US Navy in early 1900's China. Holman must navigate distain from fellow soldiers, a pressuring captain and increasingly dangerous political climate. Jake Holman never asks to be a leader or a hero, yet, that's what he becomes. Steve McQueen as Jake Holman in The Sand Pebbles gives his most praised performance. I wouldn't call it his best, but McQueen does create the perfect anti-hero. It's the last five minutes of the film where McQueen truly shines. Considering the film is over 40 years old, I don't think I'll be spoiling it for anybody. Holman stays behind fending off the Chinese army so his fellow soldiers can return to their ship. One man versus an army never turns out good. Holman is shot just as he's about to make his own escape. One of the most memorable character deaths I've ever seen. McQueen was the most vulnerable out of all his roles in The Sand Pebbles. It wasn't a very frequent sight, but a welcomed one.

Bullitt

Bullitt was Steve McQueen's biggest hit. Steve McQueen plays detective Frank Bullitt. Frank must fight murderous criminals and corruption to solve a case of his dead witness. The most famous McQueen image is of the motorcycle jump in The Great Escape, but coming in a close second is the scene in which McQueen jumps a classic Mustang down the hills of San Francisco. Bullitt is not much more than a cop movie, but it's a good cop movie. The big claim of this
movie is it's unbelievable car chase. You could almost call this America's first chase, at least as we know it. This was 1968, no CGI, nothing. Steve McQueen famously did all his own driving(except the dangerous jump) and what it produced is possibly the greatest car chase of all time. The film, as the chase, is rugged and honest. I've said it before, but this is how action films should be made.

The Getaway

Forget the horrible Alec Baldwin remake! The original Sam Peckinpah film is where it's at. Steve McQueen teams with future wife Ali MacGraw as a husband and wife, Doc and Carol McCoy. Together the two commit robberies. As they finally take their one last score for the crime boss Jack Beynon(Ben Johnson), they are doubled crossed. Only in the double cross, McQueen comes out on top. After foiling the ambush, McQueen and MacGraw must escape to México and avoid the wrath of Beynon's organization. The Getaway is the closest McQueen comes to our modern action star. The Getaway is shootout from start to finish. It's what director Sam Peckinpah brought to American cinema with films such as The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs and The Getaway. The film is McQueen's most violent, but it works for him. It's sad to see that after this film McQueen's career would start to wind down. Though he still had one classic left in him....

Papillion

This was, as far as your humble narrator is concerned, Steve McQueen's last great film. If you're a true McQueen fan you might enjoy his last couple of efforts with The Towering Inferno or Tom Horn, but neither are classics. Papillion is a film based on the true story of an innocent man imprisoned in a French jungle. Steve McQueen plays the title role of a man who's only mission in life is to escape or die trying. Many will call this Steve McQueen's best performance. His co-star and acting great Dustin Hoffman would receive the Oscar nomination as the white collar criminal that follows McQueen's attempts of escape, but Steve McQueen's performance is the true heart of the film. Prison breaks were the type of movies that made McQueen, well, McQueen. Papillion is as much a staple of Steve McQueen's career as any of his films.

***************

It's kind of weird writing about movies again. Even though my columns appear on time at MatchFlick, I haven't written in a long time. As of now, I'm writing this on June 13th. That should show you the lead time for columns. For the past month I've barely watched anything except the NBA Playoffs. It's not that I had writer's block, but just that my mind's been in other places. It feels good to get all nostalgic about classic movies again. Nothing better than watching a couple of McQueen flicks to do it either. Next time look out for another showdown. Some weeks ago I wrote a column about the comedy Office Space. For this next one, I'm going to two movies just as hilarious. The next Out of the Past will be a Mel Brooks Showdown. See ya then!!

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Out of the Past
Every other Tuesday

Discussing classic films from City Lights to Apocalypse Now and everything in between and beyond.


Other Columns
Other columns by Andy York:

Top 10 Coolest Movie Characters

Stewart-Mann Western Connection

Academy of Irrelevance

Ride of Terror Showdown

A Guide to the Fiercely Divine

All Columns


Andy York
Andy is a life long movie fanatic. The first movie he saw in the theater was Back to the Future, Part 2 at the age of 3 and he has loved movies ever since.



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If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Andy York by clicking here.


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