Movies: King of Cool | Steve McQueen, pt. 1
by Joe Rubenstein
Joe Rubenstein: Greetings to you. Joe Rubenstein here, producer and host of Real Time 1960s. I want to thank you very much for joining me today for Episode 7 of this portal into the past, where I document and reflect on the ‘60s, in real time, with both podcasts and our daily timeline, where I post news, video, the best images I can possibly find, of what happened exactly 60 years ago today. And that timeline, along with all our podcasts, social media links, contact info, all that can be found on our website, realtime1960s.com.
And today, on this first installment of a 2-part episode, the action-packed life and films of Steve McQueen. And 60 years ago, on March 29th, 1961, to be exact, the last episode of the TV Western that made McQueen a household name, Wanted: Dead or Alive, aired on CBS, thus freeing him to pursue his one true goal: film stardom.
McQueen was a pioneer, as the first TV star who would achieve comparable and, eventually, far greater status on the big screen. Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin, and others would soon follow in his footsteps. But he was filtering into movies even before Wanted, playing the lead in The Blob in 1958, part of a wave of cheap teen flicks being churned out at that time for the drive-in market, and a film that he would later call a "professional embarrassment." But the runaway success of that film, Paramount’s most profitable that year, led directly to the role on Wanted.
Then in 1959, another rung up the ladder, a supporting role in Never So Few, a World War II flick starring Frank Sinatra, which kind of led to a career crossroads. McQueen had replaced Sammy Davis Jr. in that film. Davis had made the mistake of criticizing his benefactor, the notoriously thin-skinned Sinatra, during a radio interview, saying, “I don’t care if you’re the most talented person in the world. It doesn’t give you the right to step on people and treat them rotten. This is what Frank does, occasionally.” Certainly true, but Sinatra, to his credit, had helped break color barriers in both Hollywood and Las Vegas and had also heavily promoted Davis in those arenas. So, he was furious, and he proceeded to step on Sammy Davis and treat him rotten, cutting him off at the knees.
And McQueen, streetwise as they come, got on well with Sinatra, who kind of rolled out the red carpet for him, told John Sturges, the director of Never So Few, to give McQueen plenty of closeups, invited the young actor to join his entourage in New York, providing an up-close look at the good life. He offered McQueen a role in the upcoming Ocean’s Eleven, and also a mini showcase in a Vegas nightclub act, which is hard to picture. Comedy was not McQueen’s strong suit. But basically, McQueen was being groomed to replace Sammy Davis in the Rat Pack.
But when Hedda Hopper, powerful gossip columnist with whom McQueen was friends, heard about this, she called him and said, “Look, do you want to be a movie star, or do you want to be a Sinatra flunky?” You know, the axing of Davis -- which turned out to be temporary, he kind of groveled his way back in -- but that was a foreshadowing of the later expulsions of both Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop, both permanent. So, to stake your career on someone as fickle as Sinatra was sort of like building a house over a volcano. So, McQueen listened, declined Sinatra’s invitations, and signed on to do The Magnificent Seven instead.
McQueen, who I've always liked, may not be the best actor of his generation, as far as range. And 1930, the year he was born, '30, ’31, that was a real bumper crop for actors. You had McQueen, Robert Duvall, Gene Hackman, James Dean, Clint Eastwood all born within a few months of each other. But I do think McQueen is the most underrated actor of his generation, partially due to his kind of throwback, minimalist style. Compared to the method actors of the ‘50s and ‘60s, McQueen, at first glance, doesn’t seem to be doing a whole lot. But if you look carefully at the eyes, the posture, the movement, the use of props, he’s doing plenty.
But also working against him, I think, is his success as an icon, a superstar, the prejudice being that someone who achieves that can’t also be a really good actor -- often true, but not in this case. To me, his performances hold up very well, whereas the methody ones don’t. Looking at Papillon again, McQueen acts circles around Dustin Hoffman although, to be fair, that may be Hoffman’s worst performance.
But today, in Part 1 of this 2-part episode, I’ll cover the often-tumultuous early life of Steve McQueen. You know, he once said that he was an old man at 17; I think you’ll see why. And then we’ll talk about the first 3 of what I believe are McQueen’s 6 best films of the 1960s, in sequential order. So today, we’ll cover up to 1965, and we’ll begin there on our very next installment. So, king of cool, Steve McQueen, right now. [Music]
There’s a really good film called Shadowlands, released in 1993. Anthony Hopkins plays C.S. Lewis, who’s just lost his wife to cancer. And he says to a colleague at the university where he teaches, “Experience is a brutal teacher, but you learn; my God, you learn.” And sadly, lessons from this brutal teacher are sometimes administered to children before they’re able to bear the impact, which can greatly diminish their chances of future happiness. And Steve McQueen, not an especially happy person through most of his life, had a hard time trusting people, and that mistrust was learned early.
His biological father, William McQueen, a severe alcoholic, died in 1959 without ever having met his son. He took off soon after impregnating McQueen’s 19-year-old mother, Julia Ann -- known as "Julian" -- also a serious alcoholic. She too vanished six months after he was born, dropping the baby off at her uncle Claude’s farm in Slater, Missouri, on her way out of town, which was probably the best thing for him, actually. His great-uncle was tough and a taskmaster but also a pretty stable guy who served as a good substitute father figure.
But that stability was not to last. Julian suddenly reappeared when her son turned seven and hustled him off to L.A., where he would be subjected to a string of new father figures, each worse than the last. The worst, Julian’s eventual husband, was Hal Berri, who McQueen would later refer to as a “prime son of a bitch.” Berri’s abuse of his previous wife is a matter of public record. It’s detailed in divorce documents from the 1920s. He was a sadistic bully who would taunt his new stepson and, when he finally got the reaction he was looking for, use that as an excuse to beat him up.
Eventually, McQueen fought back, despite being greatly outweighed, later explaining, “I would have borne any punishment, anything, just for the pleasure of knowing that I had given back even a little of the pain he had inflicted on me. God, how I wanted that.” But any pleasure was counterbalanced by the escalating severity of the beatings and the additional humiliation of being locked in a darkened room without food or water for hours afterward. And it’s striking how often McQueen’s film characters are incarcerated: The Great Escape, in that POW camp; the chain gang, on Nevada Smith; The Getaway opens with that terrific montage that was shot in an actual maximum-security prison in Texas; he was, of course, a convict on Devil’s Island in Papillon.
But in Los Angeles, his salvation became the streets. He joined a gang, got in numerous fights, stole cars, until finally, truant officers and judges entered the scene, and he was summarily sent back to Missouri in 1941, where the truancy continued. Now, the school troubles did not emanate from lack of intelligence. McQueen’s later scores on the Marine Corps aptitude test placed him in the highest percentile. But the problem, well -- first of all, he was dyslexic. And that’s a disorder that was not that well-understood in 1941. Dyslexic children were often written off as stupid. He was also hard of hearing, the result of an untreated mastoid infection before antibiotics were widely available.
And the other issue was kids, being the sweet, angelic creatures they are, would tease him mercilessly about his unorthodox family situation. So, he was one of these kids that kind of just falls through the cracks. And when he hit puberty and got interested in girls, he started to resent the endless farm chores that his uncle expected him to perform. And after he and a couple other kids shot out the windows of a local restaurant with a BB gun and Uncle Claude threatened to send him off to boarding school, he took off. He left Slater with a traveling carnival, which he soon abandoned, hopping freight trains back to L.A., where all the old patterns resumed, until finally, in 1945, Julian signed a court order to send him to reform school, Boys Republic, in Chino, California.
Now, not all reform schools are created equal. Some are total hellscapes with all the horrors of maximum-security prison, just with younger inmates. But Boys Republic, which still exists, is a true reform school that tries to give the kids there the tools to become responsible members of society. The program is actually modeled after society. There’s a student government, newspaper, stores, it has its own monetary system. It’s a place that’s changed a lot of lives, McQueen’s included, and he would support Boys Republic to the day he died and beyond, actually. He left them a big chunk of money in his will. But even at the height of his fame, he would make frequent, unpublicized visits to that facility to hang out with the kids, and then afterward, he would ask the director for their individual life stories so he could correspond with them in a more personal way.
And one of the knocks on McQueen later in his career, was that he was so demanding, like on The Cincinnati Kid, for example, he asked the production company for 100 pairs of tailored jeans. But it later emerged that those jeans and most of the other stuff that he asked for found its way back to the Boys Republic, where a critical figure for him, as a teenager, was Lloyd Panter, who was a guidance counselor. McQueen, when he first showed up, was a very hard case, rebellious, ran away a bunch of times. But this guidance counselor took him aside one day, and he said, “You know, I’ve been looking at you, and I think you should really give life an honest shot -- because you could be somebody special someday.” Which was news to McQueen, no one had ever spoken to him that way before, namely, as a human being. And this what he said about this later: “Understanding is the magic word. That’s something more important even than love, and it ought to be easier to give. You don’t have to beat your heart out to give someone understanding. Mr. Panter helped change my life. He didn’t give me love, but he did give me understanding. It was enough.”
But eventually, his 14-month term there came to an end, in the spring of 1946, and Julian, now divorced and living in New York with an older, sort of wealthy, bohemian guy named Victor Lukens -- a good guy, for a change -- he suggested that she invite her son to come to the city, where Lukens set him up in a room of a friend’s apartment. But to a 16-year-old kid bursting with energy, having just been released from confinement -- albeit benevolent confinement -- this felt like a new incarceration. So, McQueen, who actually went by Steve Berri at this point -- as much as he hated that stepfather, he resented the vanished biological father even more and declined to use his name. So, 16-year-old Steve Berri lied about his age and joined the Merchant Marines on a ship headed for the West Indies, which sounds romantic, but was not. He was given all the worst jobs: swabbing the decks, garbage duty, urinal duty. So, once they docked in the Dominican Republic, he jumped ship, assuming -- correctly, as it turned out -- that there would be no repercussions because he was underage.
It was in Santo Domingo that he got his first real job, as a towel boy at a brothel where, among other things, he embarked on a lifelong, in-depth course on the opposite sex. Eventually, he got bored, found a ship back to New Orleans and just kind of drifted for a while, job to job, state to state, sleeping on park benches, eventually drifting up to Ottawa and working briefly as a lumberjack before heading back down to the Deep South, where he was picked up for vagrancy and sentenced to 30 days on a chain gang. So, Steve McQueen and Robert Mitchum, charter members of a highly exclusive club of two: Hollywood stars who once did time on a Georgia chain gang. After serving that time, he headed back to New York, where after a brief period working as a cashier and then loading trucks at the docks, he headed down to the Marine Corps Recruiting Headquarters, carrying with him a consent waiver from Julian, since he was under 18, and signing a 3-year enlistment contract.
So, you can see the life pattern to this point: periods of extreme chaos alternating with extreme regimentation, the Marine Corps being the ultimate example of the latter -- which he saw as just a huge challenge. And with the exception of a late lapse in discipline that may have cost him his life -- I’ll explain -- he excelled as a Marine, powered through boot camp, ascended in rank, enjoyed his work as a tank crewman and driver. This was the beginning of a lifelong infatuation with engines and machines that move. He also became an expert marksman, qualifying as a sharpshooter with both the M-1 and the Colt .45. And when you watch McQueen handle weapons in his films, whether it’s that 1920s-era Springfield rifle in The Sand Pebbles, the Colt snubnosed revolver in Bullitt, the pump shotgun in The Getaway, there’s a kind of ease there that derives from experience. The weapons almost seem like extensions of his body.
But the lapse that I mentioned came in 1949. After being transferred to the Naval Gun Factory in D.C., he went AWOL for a couple of days, which, during peacetime was not that big a deal -- fairly common for enlisted men to overstay with girlfriends for a day or two, which is what happened with him. But that AWOL plus a minor scuffle with a patrolman got him court-martialed and sentenced to 41 days in the brig, during which he was placed on a two-week work detail renovating the engine room of a ship, which involved ripping out ceilings and pipes that were just loaded with asbestos. He later said that the air was so thick with these asbestos particles that he was choking. And of course, mesothelioma, an incurable cancer caused almost exclusively by asbestos exposure, would put him in his grave at the age of 50. Now, there was also asbestos in the flame-protection suits and helmets that he wore when he raced cars and motorcycles, which may have played a role as well.
But there was a massive cover-up by the industrial giants that produced asbestos of the dangers involved with exposure: studies manipulated, safety inspections blocked, workers were lied to. So, it wasn’t really regulated as a hazardous air pollutant until 1971. Countless people paid the ultimate price so this multi-billion-dollar industry could maintain its bottom line. Disgusting. But that work detail was not intended to be a death sentence, obviously, and in general, McQueen viewed his time in the Marines positively, later saying, “It gave me discipline I could live with and a platform to jump off of. By the time I got out of the Marine Corps, I was able to cope with things on a more realistic level.” So, he was honorably discharged in April of 1950, just a couple of months before the start of the Korean War, so good timing.
Steve McQueen never won an Oscar, but if the Academy ever gave out an honorary award for lead actor with the most eclectic résumé, he would win that in a walk. In the early ‘50s in New York, he loaded bags at the post office, repaired TV sets, lugged radiators out of condemned buildings, ran errands for a local bookie, handcrafted sandals, recapped tires in a garage, sold encyclopedias door to door, made artificial flowers in a 3rd avenue basement, worked as a model for true crime magazines -- if you Google “McQueen crime detective,” you can see some of those magazine covers. He also gave unauthorized guided tours of the Village to any attractive female who caught his eye in exchange for money or lunch, those tours often concluding in his apartment. He also perfected a scam where he’d go into a store, pick an item off the shelf, and ask for a refund, summoning just the right level of outrage over this allegedly defective product so his lack of a receipt would go unchallenged.
And it was Victor Lukens, his mother’s boyfriend, who encouraged him to try acting -- not for store clerks, but for the camera. Lukens, who was from the wealthy Lukens steel family in Pittsburgh, was the house photographer for Audio Productions Incorporated, which produced documentaries and industrial films. And if you want to see what McQueen looked and sounded like around 1952, you can find one of these films on YouTube; it’s called Family Affair. He shows up as a sailor about two thirds of the way through. And it was also Lukens, by the way, who convinced him to use the professional name Steve McQueen, not Steve Berri, so one of the few Hollywood stars to change his name back to the real one, rather than away from it.
The two big acting programs in New York at this time were the Actors Studio, run by Lee Strasberg, champion of the Stanislavsky method, or his version of that method, which was very psychologically oriented -- and McQueen would later disparage the method. He said in 1964, “I think a lot of Stanislavski is so much Bulloslavski. As far as I’m concerned, acting for the movies is mainly intuition.” But the other program was Sanford Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse. Meisner’s approach was more behavioral. He emphasized actors getting out of their heads and reacting instinctively to the surrounding environment -- so, much more McQueen’s bag. So, that was his first stop, The Neighborhood Playhouse.
And even though he was raw, like, really raw -- Martha Graham, the famous modern dancer and choreographer, was the dance instructor at the Neighborhood Playhouse. And when she told McQueen to go warm up on the first day of class, he went over and sat down on the radiator. But Meisner liked McQueen’s untutored quality and valued his life experience and got him his first paying job, actually, in a Jewish play on the Lower East Side. The Yiddish theater was phasing out in the 1950s but still existed. So, for 40 bucks a week, blonde-haired Midwesterner Steve McQueen stood on stage and muttered, “Nothing will help,” in Yiddish. That was it; that was the entire role.
Unlike some of his contemporaries, Marlon Brando, for example, or James Dean -- whose motorcycle McQueen once repaired --- both those actors rocketed to fame in their early twenties, but McQueen had a long, often frustrating apprenticeship. He kept almost getting parts. He was a finalist for the role of the vicious gang leader in Blackboard Jungle that ultimately went to Vic Morrow. He was beaten out by Paul Newman for the lead in Somebody Up There Likes Me, a boxing biopic.
However, after completing the program at The Neighborhood Playhouse, he was accepted into the Actor’s Studio, which was a major coup. Two thousand actors auditioned for Lee Strasberg in nineteen fifty-five, and a grand total of two were accepted: Martin Landau and Steve McQueen, who was not viewed by his colleagues there as most likely to succeed -- far from it. He seemed to treat the Actor’s Studio mostly as a kind of dating service. And Strasberg frequently criticized him for not projecting, which is totally fair criticism for a theatrical actor, but McQueen was never cut out for the theater. He was a screen actor, through and through.
Around this time, he started seeing actress Neile Adams. She was performing on Broadway in The Pajama Game, and when she moved to Los Angeles in 1956, he followed, and they got married. So, she was the breadwinner, initially, which he hated. When he would visit her on the set of whatever show she was working on, people would call him Mr. Adams, which drove him absolutely up a tree. So, he was miserable, and he made her life so miserable that she begged her manager, Hilly Elkins, to find him work just to get him off her back and out of the house, which Elkins proceeded to do, with some one-off TV roles.
The breakthrough came in 1957 on the CBS anthology series Studio One. McQueen, on an episode called “The Defenders,” plays a delivery boy falsely accused of strangling the wife of a psychiatrist. His defense attorneys are played by Ralph Bellamy and William Shatner, who just turned 90 last week, God bless him -- another good actor born in 1931. But this 2-part episode got noticed. And it was obvious that the subtleties of his acting style were picked up by the camera and microphone in a way that they never could be on stage.
So, after a few more TV gigs, he got a supporting role in a terrible film called Never Love a Stranger, where he played a Jewish lawyer -- not sure what the casting director was thinking. But that led to the lead role in The Blob, in which 28-year-old Steve McQueen plays a teenager laboring in vain to convince the authorities of the veracity of the blob. And as I said up top, the unexpected triumph of The Blob -- which was in large part due to its popular theme song, written by Burt Bacharach and recorded by The Five Blobs, whose entire contribution to pop music was this kind of tongue-in-cheek theme song. But that led to actor-producer Dick Powell signing him to play bounty hunter Josh Randall on Wanted: Dead or Alive, which ended up being a bit of a mixed blessing. It did push him into the big leagues -- or, at least, Triple-A -- but the show became a different kind of confinement.
Back then, they would produce up to 40 episodes per season -- unthinkable today. So, that killer schedule plus promotional appearances that were part of his contract -- and the producers themselves made it difficult for him to do films on the side. So, when he was offered the part in The Magnificent Seven, they wouldn’t let him go because they were in the middle of shooting Season Two. So, McQueen purposely drove a rented Cadillac into the side of a bank, which made the papers. And when he showed up at the production offices in a neck brace that he didn’t actually need, production was halted, and he went off to do the film. This entire stunt was actually dreamed up by his manager, who felt comfortable advising it because he knew that McQueen was a highly skilled driver who could pull it off safely, which he did, and it worked.
Now, just a few words about the role of Josh Randall, the tough-but-ethical bounty hunter on Wanted: Dead or Alive. It’s a somewhat unusual role, in that, first of all, bounty hunters in Westerns at that time were generally portrayed as bad people, amoral opportunists. But also, this idea of the loner roaming the Old West by himself, it kind of went against the grain of ‘50s TV Westerns, which generally had a family or family-type unit or community with which the protagonist was deeply integrated. On Gunsmoke, you had Sheriff Matt Dillon protecting Dodge City. On Bonanza, you had the Cartwright clan. On Rawhide, you had the team of drovers on an endless cattle drive.
But McQueen’s character is just kind of out there, a free agent; no family, no home to speak of, which kind of hearkens back to the roles portrayed by some of McQueen’s boyhood film heroes, Bogart, Cagney, John Garfield. Many of their roles have this dynamic, which would later evolve into Clint Eastwood’s more distilled, nastier loner in Sergio Leone’s “Man with No Name” trilogy. But it’s striking how many of these Wanted: Dead or Alive episodes end with townspeople trying to get McQueen to stay in their community after he’s proven himself, and him saying, essentially, “thanks but no thanks,” and kind of riding off by himself into the sunset. And you see that a lot in his films, as well, like the last shot of Nevada Smith, him just going off by himself at the end.
But this series, Wanted: Dead or Alive, where he learned a thousand times more about acting than he ever did at any of the programs in New York -- it’s where he really formed his style -- but it was cancelled after 94 episodes -- thankfully, from McQueen’s perspective -- after a disastrous shift from Saturday to Wednesday night, where it went up against The Price is Right and lost. So, other than two appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents -- one with his wife -- McQueen’s career as a TV actor was done.
Which brings us to the first of our top McQueen films of the 1960s -- and I can’t honestly tell you that McQueen was ever in an all-time, classic film. If you look at the AFI list of 100 greatest American movies of all time, you won’t find any McQueen films on there. Not that their word is gospel, but there are no Godfathers or Vertigos or Casablancas on his resumé. However, he was in a number of very entertaining and influential films with elements of greatness in them. And he managed to work with some very fine directors along the way, including the underappreciated John Sturges, who began his career in 1932 as an editor, and then as a director, had a real knack for assembling great supporting casts, which he certainly did for the first two films we’ll discuss today.
The first, The Magnificent Seven, is a remake of Kurosawa’s 1954 epic, The Seven Samurai, which some regard as the best film ever made. I was unable to get through even one of its almost four hours, which is conceivably my fault. But The Magnificent Seven, like many of McQueen’s films, was shot on location -- a little less common back then. This one was shot in central Mexico. And while it may not reach the level of classic Westerns like Shane or some of the John Ford pictures or The Wild Bunch, it’s a solid, entertaining, commercial film that helped initiate a very popular subgenre of the ‘60s and ‘70s which, to my knowledge, has never been named -- that is, films where a team of men, each with his own defining quirk or characteristic, is assembled to perform a dangerous task. I guess it kind of evolved out of those World War II pictures of the ‘40s and ‘50s where you had each soldier representing a different ethnic group or regional background. But you see a lot of this in the ‘60s: in The Great Escape, which we’ll discuss in a minute; in The Professionals, another Western, released in 1966; also The Dirty Dozen, maybe the best of them.
But in this film, a farming community is being plagued by a thuggish outlaw, Calvera, played by Eli Wallach, who with his gang runs a kind of perpetual shakedown operation. And so these farmers pool their resources and hire Yul Brynner, a Russian actor passed off in this film as a Cajun, and Brynner assembles a team of seven gunmen to drive Calvera off for good.
So, a lot of the fun of this movie is watching the seven, this piranha tank of hungry young actors -- McQueen, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn -- watching each of them try to steal the picture. And McQueen, who plays a drifter named Vin Tanner, the first of the seven hired, pulls every trick in the book to try and steal scenes from Yul Brynner, who at that time was coming off a big Broadway success with The King and I. And he carried himself kind of like a king -- huge ego, big entourage. But McQueen, when they got to Mexico, pulled Robert Vaughn aside -- Vaughn was a friend, who would appear again with McQueen in Bullitt and The Towering Inferno -- but McQueen said to Vaughn, “Hey, man, have you seen Brynner’s horse?”
So, Vaughn said, “Yeah, what about it?”
So, he said, “What do you mean, what about it? Look how big it is, man. It’s huge, way bigger than ours. It’s going to make us look ridiculous.” Vaughn thought he was kidding, at first. But then McQueen started in on Brynner’s gun, how it had a white handle and how that was going to draw the camera away from them.
So McQueen commenced a kind of guerrilla campaign to whittle King Brynner down to size, starting with the very first scene they shot. Brynner is leading the seven on horseback, single file, across a river. So, McQueen takes off his hat and dips it in the water to draw the camera. Later, sitting next to Brynner, he shakes his shotgun shells while Brynner’s talking and holds them up to the sun before loading his rifle. He fusses with his Stetson; he whistles through his teeth; he tugs at his bandanna.
Actually, the funniest -- Brynner was paranoid because the other actors were taller. McQueen was only about 5’10”, but still a couple of inches taller than Brynner. So, in a scene where the two of them stood next to each other, Brynner had an assistant pile up a mound of dirt so he was taller than McQueen. But whenever he looked away, McQueen would kick the dirt, just kick it, until Brynner was standing in a hole. So, this was now war. Brynner had an assistant whose only job was to keep a running tally of all of McQueen’s various machinations. It finally came to a head when McQueen leaked a story to a movie magazine that he and Brynner were feuding -- kind of unsubtle way to level the playing field with the established star. So, when Brynner saw this, he ordered McQueen to call the magazine and have it retracted, and McQueen told him in no uncertain terms what he could do with his orders.
But you wouldn’t necessarily guess this watching the film. McQueen and Brynner -- all the seven, actually -- have good chemistry, with each standing out with his own little quirk. Vaughn plays a cold-blooded killer who’s secretly struggling with a panic disorder. Coburn plays a knife-throwing expert who says almost nothing. Bronson plays a kind of gentle giant, a tough guy who’s also fond of children. So, distinctive performances by that trio, all of whom would travel different paths to stardom.
And high marks as well for the cinematography and the music. The theme of the Oscar-nominated score by Elmer Bernstein became very popular. It totally rips off Aaron Copland, but who cares? That’s what popular culture is, right? Appropriation and development. And the visual compositions shot by Charles Lang -- the framing, the spacing of the seven, the colors of those sunlit, Mexican exteriors are excellent. I would say that this and The Sand Pebbles, which we’ll discuss next time, may be McQueen’s best-photographed films. And The Seven is definitely part of the canon of iconic, widescreen cinematography of that era.
As far as McQueen, obviously, he had a leg up with all those Western TV episodes under his belt, but no false moves. He comes across totally authentic. Wallach is often very amusing. And this is the role that Sergio Leone remembered when he cast Wallach as Tuco, the ugly part of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, in 1966. And Wallach was an accomplished scene-stealer in his own right. McQueen actually picked up a trick from him that he used years later. Wallach had some gold teeth inserted for this film which you see when he laughs. And McQueen did the same thing for Papillon in 1973, so you see the gold when he screams during the torture sequence -- nice touch. And Brynner in this film is also very good, projects a kind of masculine power that you really can’t fabricate.
Now, is the film about anything? Not really. But the screenplay doesn’t insult your intelligence either. There’s actually a nice quiet scene where the gunmen contrast their lives with the farmers’ lives, you know, existential rootlessness versus a lifestyle centered around family and the land. That’s kind of a running theme.
So, bottom line: The Magnificent Seven is a solid first step on McQueen’s ascent toward stardom. It also launched the careers of Coburn, Vaughn, and Bronson, although Bronson, who was almost ten years older than McQueen, didn’t really break through until the 1970s, when he was in his 50s -- a fact that he was quite bitter about, actually. He felt that when it finally came, he was too old to appreciate it. But he was kind of a melancholy individual.
All right, moving on to The Great Escape, shot in Bavaria in the summer and fall of 1962, and the first of 6 McQueen films over the course of his career to crack top 10 at the box office. And this role, Air Force Captain Virgil Hilts, really catapulted him into the category of international film star.
So, The Great Escape is a fictionalized version of a breakout by 76 POWs from a German prison camp called Stalag Luft III on March 24th, 1944. The escape was conceived by South African-born British aviator Roger Bushell, who was recaptured and murdered, along with 49 other escapees, by the Gestapo on the personal orders of Adolf Hitler. Richard Attenborough plays a thinly veiled version of Bushell in this film. Attenborough reluctantly accepted an offer from McQueen to ride on the back of his motorcycle during a break one day. There was kind of a rivalry between the American and British actors on the set, and Attenborough -- who, during World War II, had gone on bombing raids for the Royal Air Force -- didn’t want to lose face. But he would later say that he was never more delighted and thrilled to get off any vehicle of any kind.
The Great Escape, like The Seven, is a big-budget, commercial product with no pretensions to art -- which is not a criticism, just a classification. And while it does try to stay true to the results of the actual escape, the prison camp scenes -- so, the first two of the film’s three hours -- are often played as comedy, which to me, gets a little annoying. And you do see this in some World II films and TV shows of the ‘60s, sort of a ‘war is fun’ attitude. The prisoners in the film look awfully healthy, and the Germans, with a couple of exceptions, seem remarkably stupid. They also made no attempt to give the actors 1940s military haircuts, which could’ve been easily done. So, if rigorous historical accuracy is your thing, this film may not be for you.
But some really good performances, all male, of course, and in a three-hour film, you do kind of miss the female presence, or I do. Now, I will say that the final hour, when the escapees navigate the perils of Nazi-controlled areas outside the camp, is a major upgrade over the first two hours, due in large part to McQueen and his motorcycle.
But getting back to McQueen’s role, during early rehearsals, he kept saying to the director, John Sturges, “Where’s my thing? I don’t have a thing.” Meaning everyone in the film has a gimmick. Charles Bronson is the “Tunnel King.” His thing is dealing with extreme claustrophobia while tunneling out. James Garner -- to whose charms I’ve always been immune; I just feel like he’s a one-dimensional actor, and it’s not a dimension I particularly care for -- but Garner is the “Scrounger.” His thing is stealing items necessary for the escape. Attenborough is the “Big X,” the mastermind. Donald Pleasance -- who had actually been a POW in Germany -- is the forger. His thing is hiding severe myopia from the others so they won’t leave him behind. But in the original script, McQueen’s character was poorly defined. And when they wouldn’t make any changes initially, McQueen went AWOL from the production for six weeks in protest, which is a little unusual for a guy with only a few films under his belt.
But Sturges called his bluff. He just said, “Okay, Steve. If that’s how you want it, we’ll just pay you off, and shift the focus to Garner,” which he knew McQueen’s competitive ego could never sanction. So, this was one of the few times in McQueen’s career where he did back down, kind of. He ended his boycott, but he kept pushing, to the point where Sturges finally hired a screenwriter, Ivan Moffat, whose only job was to deal with McQueen’s script demands. And Moffat came up with pretty much everything that defines McQueen’s character.
Hilts became the “Cooler King,” the cooler being the jail within the prison camp where McQueen is always confined. And it was Moffat who came up with McQueen throwing that baseball against the cooler wall to pass the time and annoy the German guards. He also added the scene where McQueen gets conned by the British officers into serving as a scout for the tunnel operation, which gives his character a kind of reckless heroism.
But most important was the iconic motorcycle sequence in the final hour, which has no correspondence to any actual event. But McQueen, who by this point was a professional-level motorcycle racer -- actually, just before he was hired for this film, he seriously considered quitting acting and racing full time. It was not a hobby. He was always devouring manuals and history books on bikes and cars, always tinkering with engines. So, the motorcycle stunts on The Great Escape are him, except for that big jump over the barbed-wire fence. The insurance people put their foot down there.
So, Bud Ekins, his close friend and kind of motorcycle mentor, who happened to resemble McQueen from a distance, was hired. He converted a contemporary Triumph motorcycle to resemble a World War II-era German bike and was brought over for just that jump, for which he was paid a grand total of $750. But again, McQueen did the rest. Actually, he was so fired up that in the chase scene, he played one of his own helmeted Nazi pursuers for no extra charge. And many viewers, especially in Great Britain -- where, for some reason, McQueen was and remains enormously popular -- would come back just for those motorcycle scenes. This was before home video, of course. But these scenes kind of laid the template for McQueen’s big-screen persona.
And about that persona, I heard an interview with James Coburn -- who, unfortunately, is saddled with a ludicrous Australian accent in this film, almost as bad as Bronson’s Polish accent -- but Coburn said that most actors, when they’re reading a script and they object to a line, will say, “No, my character wouldn’t say that.” But McQueen was the only actor he ever knew who would say, “No, I wouldn’t say that.” So, starting with Wanted: Dead or Alive, McQueen was consciously crafting a cinematic version of himself: the loner, the tough guy, the freedom-seeker, the hater of regimentation; it’s a very American persona, in many ways.
Actually, John Wayne had done something similar in the ‘40s and ‘50s, creating the John Wayne character. The difference, to me, is that McQueen as an actor was capable of shadings and nuance that Wayne was not. Also -- and this has more to do with their respective eras than the actors themselves -- McQueen’s characters, especially as the ‘60s wore on, explored moral grey areas more than Wayne’s ever did, so they’re somewhat more interesting.
But The Great Escape was a huge critical and commercial success. Again, for me, as a kind of a history buff and someone who values authenticity, I rank it a little lower than most people because it does make a German prison camp look like a semi-strict, summer sleepaway, at times. The film is also a bit too long, in my opinion. But again, some really good performances, another good score by Elmer Bernstein, and when you get to that final hour, after all the confinement, the motorcycle scenes in those wide-open vistas -- they were shot near the Austrian border -- really take your breath away. And some very good suspense, as well, surrounding the other characters’ attempts to evade the Nazis. The question of who will survive kind of keeps you on the edge of your seat during that final hour.
Okay, our last film for today: The Cincinnati Kid, shot in New Orleans in late 1964, early ’65, so like our previous two films, a location shoot and also a period piece. It takes place in the 1930s and deals with a talented stud poker player, “The Kid,” played by McQueen, who, as the film begins, is seeking a showdown with the cold and calculating Lancey Howard, long-time champion known as “The Man,” played by the legendary Edward G. Robinson.
The film’s original director was Sam Peckinpah, who would later direct McQueen in back-to-back films in the ‘70s: Junior Bonner and The Getaway. But Peckinpah, in what became a running theme of his career, clashed with the studio. He was determined to shoot The Cincinnati Kid in black and white, with MGM protesting -- correctly, I think -- that in a film dealing with cards, the blacks and the reds really had to be clearly differentiated. But he wouldn’t budge. So, Peckinpah out, Norman Jewison in. And Jewison’s compromise -- a mistake, in my opinion -- was to shoot the film in muted colors. To me, the desaturation does not make it look like the Great Depression, it just makes it look depressing. If you look at Chinatown, which also takes place in the 1930s, the colors are very bright in that film, but it still looks period appropriate.
Another issue -- and this was noted by critics back in 1965 -- are the many parallels between this film and The Hustler, released a few years earlier, where you had a similar, cocky up-and-comer with character flaws, the pool shark played by Paul Newman. He too is on a collision course with an established, cynical pro, played expertly by Jackie Gleason. Also in both films, you have pure artistry corrupted by malevolent outside forces. In The Hustler, that force is gangster George C. Scott, another great performance. Both Gleason and Scott were nominated but beaten out for Best Supporting Actor by George Chakiris in West Side Story. I would not have voted that way.
But the corrupting force in this film is the wealthy, amoral Slade, played by Rip Torn, who, after getting totally gutted by Robinson in a poker match early in the film, seeks to avenge that humiliation by fixing the McQueen-Robinson match in McQueen’s favor -- unbeknownst to McQueen.
Now, another parallel: both Newman and McQueen are forced to choose between their ambition, on the one hand, and women who love them, on the other -- Piper Laurie in The Hustler, Tuesday Weld in this film. In general, The Cincinnati Kid suffers by these comparisons; it’s just not as fleshed out or as compelling as The Hustler. Another problem is that poker just is not cinematic, and pool -- you know, you’ve got motion, you’ve got dexterity, so very cinematic.
But the strength of The Cincinnati Kid is the interplay between McQueen and Robinson. There’s a scene during a break from their marathon match, and Robinson, who’s presented as an almost Satanic figure -- the first time you see him, he’s getting off a train in a cloud of smoke, and he’s got this tight little beard -- but in this scene, he kind of verbally bores in on McQueen, always with a smile, but needling, probing for any kind of weakness he can find in the Kid’s psychology. And of course, there’s the subtext of the old, established actor versus the up-and-comer.
And McQueen, having watched Robinson as a kid, at Saturday matinees in Slater, Missouri, was nervous about this film. He knew that Robinson, despite his diminutive size, was more than capable, with all that charisma, of stealing the picture. But they ended up getting along really well. On the first day, they had a laugh about having both gotten their start in Yiddish theater. Robinson was part of that scene in its heyday. But here’s what Robinson said about McQueen after the film was released: “This young man comes out of the tradition of Gable, Bogart, Cagney, and even me, playing the sort of roles that we used to play but adding his own dimension. McQueen is a stunner, and I have a lot of respect for his talent.” So, high praise from a real master, and Robinson was proud of his own excellent performance in this film, which he considered his best and which launched a kind of comeback that continued until his death in 1973.
Now, there was friction between McQueen and Karl Malden, entirely generated by McQueen. Malden plays a dealer named Shooter who is blackmailed by Rip Torn into helping throw the match. But Malden, like Paul Newman -- with whom McQueen had a separate kind of internal vendetta for years -- was one of the nicest, most unassuming guys in Hollywood. But there’s a scene in a hotel room where McQueen accuses Malden of throwing the match, which Malden denies, initially. And out of nowhere, McQueen just explodes, he grabs the much larger man and slams him into a wall -- which was not in the script, but remains in the film. And you can see the surprise and even some fear flash onto Malden’s face. So, after they cut, Malden kind of touched McQueen’s shoulder from behind, as if to say, “Are we okay?” And McQueen really turned on him, snarled, “Don’t ever touch me.”
Now, one thought I had, reading about that incident -- people who have been abused often do not like to be touched, especially by men and especially from behind. I once knew someone who had been repeatedly abused -- not by his father, but by an older brother -- for whom that was the case. But anyway, Malden kept trying and failing to defuse McQueen’s anger. And he eventually learned the truth from an agent at William Morris, who told him that when he, Malden, had been a casting director back in the ‘50s, he had rejected McQueen for a role in a play called Tea and Sympathy, which Malden had no memory of. But McQueen had held onto this for years.
So, here’s an example of McQueen’s inability -- or perhaps, unwillingness -- to let things go, you know, similar to Michael Jordan, who when he was playing, would often fabricate slights by opposing players or coaches to motivate himself. McQueen was always looking for an edge. But he did eventually smooth his relations out with Malden, as he did with Paul Newman when they worked together on The Towering Inferno, where they got along fine. And Malden has a pretty substantial role in McQueen’s very next film, Nevada Smith, where he, Martin Landau, and Arthur Kennedy torture and murder McQueen’s parents in the opening scene. We’ll discuss that film next time. But Malden, when he was later asked about this grudge that McQueen had held over the Tea and Sympathy rejection, he kind of made light of it, but then he said, “I still say he wasn’t right for the part,” which I loved.
So, if you set aside the kind of senseless color desaturation and the fact that men sitting around a table playing poker is not remotely cinematic, The Cincinnati Kid can be appreciated as a further development of McQueen’s “King of Cool” persona -- as always, trying to win the game on his own terms, very true to the man himself. But again, what makes this film stand out, for me, is the excellent McQueen-Robinson interplay.
And despite the critics’ unfavorable comparisons to The Hustler -- with which I generally agree -- this was a big box-office success for McQueen in ’65 after a not-so-hot ’64, when he released 3 films. Love with the Proper Stranger has its moments, with some good chemistry between McQueen -- who plays a musician -- and Natalie Wood, who in the opening scene, informs him that she’s pregnant with his child, the result of a one-night stand he doesn’t remember. There’s actually a compelling scene in that film depicting a back-alley abortion, or almost-abortion. McQueen whips her out of there. But that film is mortally wounded, I think, by some really unfunny ethnic comedy, with Natalie Wood’s Italian-American family just yelling and yelling.
And the other two films from ’64 were total stinkers: Soldier in the Rain and Baby the Rain Must Fall. So, McQueen actually took a step back in his career after The Great Escape. But this film, The Cincinnati Kid, was the beginning of a real hit streak, the first of 5 films released between 1965 and ’68 that just killed it at the box office and established him as a bona fide star. A quick look at our next episode, right after this. [Music]
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Coming up on Episode 8 of Real Time 1960s: "King of Cool, Steve McQueen, part 2," as we track the actor’s ascent to icon status and examine what, I believe, are his best films from the latter portion of the '60s -- Nevada Smith, The Sand Pebbles, and Bullitt. And after I break down those films, I’ll give you my personal ranking of his top ten films overall.
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