Movies: King of Cool | Steve McQueen, pt. 2
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 8 of this portal into the past, where I document and reflect on the ‘60s, in real time, with both podcasts and our daily timeline, which features posts, video, the best images I can possibly find of what happened exactly 60 years ago. And that timeline, along with all our podcasts, social media links, contact info, so you can reach me directly with your feedback, which I strongly encourage you to do, all that can be found on our website, realtime1960s.com.
Our topic remains Steve McQueen. Last time, I covered the actor's often-tumultuous early life and then the first 3 of what I believe are McQueen’s top 6 films of the 1960s: The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, and The Cincinnati Kid. So today, we cover the three remaining films of those top six. And then at the end, since we’re not going to cover his films from the ‘70s, some of which are quite good, I’ll give you my personal ranking of his top 10 films overall. So, King of Cool, Steve McQueen, Part 2, right now. [Music]
I mentioned last time that I rank The Great Escape a little lower than most people. To me, it lacks the depth to justify its length. But our first film for today, Nevada Smith, shot in the summer of 1965, I rank higher than most people, in spite of its flaws, because I think it has something to say about the collateral damage of murder on those related to the victim -- or victims, in this case. McQueen’s parents are robbed, tortured, and killed in the opening sequence of the film, which was directed by 67-year-old Henry Hathaway. Tough, old-school veteran, and he'd done his homework on McQueen and the actor's subversive tendencies and made it abundantly clear on Day One that he would be in complete command of this production, telling his lead actor, “I don’t want any of this star-complex bullshit,” which McQueen accepted with no complaint, actually. He often tormented directors who were closer to him in age, constantly challenging their authority, but he generally got on pretty well with older directors -- kind of turned them into the father that he’d never had.
As this film begins, McQueen is playing teenage Max Sand. Nevada Smith is a pseudonym that he adopts much later. And in the opening scene, Max unwittingly provides directions for three outlaws, Martin Landau, Arthur Kennedy, and Karl Malden, to his parents’ home, where the outlaws proceed to rob and mutilate McQueen’s father, who’s white, and his mother, who’s a member of the Kiowa tribe.
So, right off the bat, we’re confronted with the primary issue that critics back in 1966 had with this film -- namely, that McQueen, as white as they come and 35 when this film was shot, plays a half-breed teenager, at least until about 45 minutes in, when enough time has passed in the narrative that he happily abandons his efforts to play young. To me, it’s a surface issue easily ignored. And given the options, I’d rather watch McQueen play young for 45 minutes -- which he actually does pretty well -- than some teenager who was hired for a passing resemblance to McQueen. I’m always happy to suspend disbelief if the story is good, which this is, with a number of compelling sequences, as McQueen rides off with just 8 dollars and a knife to track down and execute his parents’ murderers. This will be his only mission in life, his sole function, and he will use any tactic, any person to fulfill that quest.
But there’s an incredible shot that I want to mention in the opening sequence, pure cinema by one of the genius photographers of that era, Lucien Ballard. It’s the scene where McQueen discovers his parents’ mangled corpses. At first, the camera is behind him as he slowly approaches the entrance to the darkened house, and then after catching a glimpse of what’s left of his parents, he slumps against the door frame. And then comes the shot that I love. The camera is now inside the house looking out at McQueen, the sunlight partially illuminating his features. But then, as he slowly walks toward us into the house, those features gradually darken until he’s nothing but a black silhouette, a kind of foreshadowing of this character's submersion into darkness and loss of humanity. Again, no words, just pure cinema.
So, as McQueen embarks on this vendetta, he learns, first, to negotiate the landscape, and then a traveling gunsmith teaches him to shoot. He learns to read, to investigate, to manipulate, and ultimately to kill, going to extraordinary lengths to track these guys down one by one.
The first is McQueen’s old Actor’s Studio buddy, Martin Landau, whom he engages in a knife fight in a cattle pen, during which McQueen, who did his own stunts whenever possible, was nearly killed. After stalking Landau, he’s crouching behind a fence, and he opens a gate to let the cattle out as a kind of diversion. Some of the cattle went through the gate, but others knocked down the fence, which the set designers had not built strong enough, and McQueen was almost trampled for real. They used this accidental footage in the film, so his genuine alarm there and quick reflexes are the real McCoy.
After disposing of Landau, he learns that Arthur Kennedy is serving time at a Louisiana prison. So, totally undeterred, he researches which jurisdiction he would need to be convicted in to be sent to that prison, heads down to the Bayou state, pulls a gun on a bank teller, walks into the vault, and then just sits there, waiting to be arrested and delivered to Arthur Kennedy like the wrath of God.
And there’s a really good, darkly ironic scene at that prison. Kennedy, as McQueen first arrives, has tried and failed to escape, and he’s brought back from the swamp half dead. As an object lesson, he’s hung by the arms on the edge of the water and bullwhipped by Pat Hingle -- great actor. Here, he plays a turncoat prisoner who does the bidding of the sadistic warden, who after about 15 lashes, cuts the rope, and Kennedy falls face-first into the water, unconscious. And McQueen, who’s been watching all this very carefully -- and not with any kind of vengeful, vicarious glee but with real consternation -- risks a whipping himself by rushing into the swamp to rescue Kennedy. The irony, of course, is that he’s not saving Kennedy out of any compassion or comradeship, as the prisoners and the guards assume, he’s saving him so that he can be the one to kill him.
So, there’s a nice, ripe darkness to this screenplay by John Michael Hayes, who had previously written four of Hitchcock’s better films, including Rear Window. And he wrote a really good scene later in the film. Before tracking down Karl Malden, McQueen is attacked by some peripheral outlaws who tie him to a horse and drag him through water. McQueen did that stunt as well, which I’m sure was not a whole lot of fun. But he’s rescued by Father Zaccardi, an immigrant priest who shelters him in this kind of retreat or monastery.
And here’s where the theme of the film is brought most explicitly into focus, as Zaccardi tries to convince McQueen not to kill this third man -- that, in doing so, he’d only be killing himself, a message to which McQueen is apparently unreceptive, although we later learn, in the great final scene -- which I won't describe -- that he did in fact take it in. But at one point, Zaccardi -- whose own parents were murdered by an anti-Italian lynch mob when he was a child -- takes McQueen into a sanctuary, and he points up to a large crucifix, and he says, “Did you ever see him before?”
And McQueen, with no great reverence, says, “Yeah, on the end of a little silver chain.”
Zaccardi says, “He is the son of God. He came to Earth to teach men love by example.”
And without missing a beat, McQueen says, “Well, he must have missed somebody. That looks worse than hanging!” I like that line.
So, to me -- I don’t want to overpraise it. There is the age issue in the opening act, and despite Ballard’s photographic expertise, the film doesn’t look great. It’s way overdue for a restoration. I mean, the Criterion Collection -- who do great work, don’t get me wrong; they did an amazing restoration of Marlon Brando’s only directorial effort, One Eyed Jacks -- but why go to the trouble of restoring The Blob, one of McQueen’s absolute worst films, and not this or Bullitt or The Getaway? Ridiculous. But if there’s one neglected stepchild film on McQueen’s resumé, this is it, maybe Junior Bonner would be the other.
Excellent supporting cast, all three outlaws. You know, Malden was often typecast as this kind of earnest, bumbling nice guy, like his role in Streetcar Named Desire, for example. But to me, his two best roles are this and as Brando’s nemesis in One Eyed Jacks, both utterly vicious. Suzanne Pleshette also effective as the ill-fated Cajun girl who falls in love with McQueen and helps him escape from prison, only to learn, too late, that she’s been used. Brian Keith also very good as the traveling gunsmith who kind of shows McQueen the ropes, while at the same time warning him, “You’ll wind up stealing and killing and turn yourself into the same kind of animal you’re trying to track down. Can’t you see that?”
To which McQueen responds, “All I see is my father laying on a blood-covered floor, all burnt and cut, with the top of his head blown to pieces. And my mother, split up the middle and every square inch of her skin ripped off,” which is a pretty compelling counterargument, actually.
But despite the critics’ lukewarm reaction, another big hit for McQueen, here and abroad, especially in Japan, where these kind of stories of honor and revenge often do very well, echoing as they do their own samurai films.
All right, next up is The Sand Pebbles, in which McQueen plays Jake Holman, a navy lifer and machinist on the San Pablo, a fictional gunboat patrolling China's Yangtze River in 1926 -- the most difficult shoot and, at 7 months, the longest of McQueen’s career. He later said that anything he ever did wrong he paid for in Taiwan. This was the first major American film ever shot there; obviously, filming in Communist China was not possible. And the production was plagued by illness, weather issues, torrential rains. At one point, several crew members were dumped into the Keelung river, which doubles for the Yangtze in the film. A big camera boat carrying lots of expensive equipment sank; that set production back. And then McQueen had to be flown back to California at one point to deal with an abscessed molar, which also bloated the schedule.
Jake Holman, like McQueen, is a product of reform school, and also like the actor, more comfortable around engines than people. As the film begins, he’s catching a steamer upriver to his new assignment, running the engine room on the San Pablo. And the film, over the course of three hours, depicts how this loner becomes gradually, inexorably drawn into the bloody Chinese politics of the day, leading to tragedy.
Robert Wise, the director, had started his career back in the ‘30s as an editor. He actually cut Citizen Kane in 1941, and then as a director scored heavily with a series of hits in pretty much every genre: sci-fi, in 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still; an excellent World War II submarine film called Run Silent, Run Deep, with Clark Gable, in 1958; West Side Story, in ’61, got him his first Oscar. That also won Best Picture. And then Wise, son of an Indiana meat packer, had that great Midwestern work ethic. And as he was wading through the challenges of, first of all, adapting Richard McKenna’s 600-page novel, The Sand Pebbles, into a screenplay, and then arranging the shoot, which was a huge task -- I mean, 47 speaking parts, 32 interpreters, a 110-man crew, thousands of extras -- but even with all that on his plate, he didn’t want to remain idle as a director, so in ’64, he flew to Austria to shoot a little film called The Sound of Music and won his second Oscar, on what was virtually a time-filler for him.
And while, on the one hand, The Sand Pebbles doesn’t really draw you in and cast a spell the way great, great movies do, it’s still a film with significant strengths, starting with the surface -- excellent score by Jerry Goldsmith, who I love. Here, he creates a Westernized Asian orchestral sound without resorting to cheap stereotypes, no rinky-dink parallel fifths.
The photography by Joseph MacDonald, also excellent. This was the first Panavision film for Fox. Those lenses had actually been around since '59, but Fox was late to the party. Panavision was created to correct flaws in the earlier Cinemascope process, which did produce magisterial widescreen images that TVs of the day could not -- that was the point, of course -- but those lenses distorted the image. They called this the “Cinemascope mumps.” Closeups would overstretch the actors’ faces, and then on wide shots the edges looked skinny. So Wise, wisely, pushed for Panavision on this film, and some of the wide shots of the river at the golden hour are really like exquisite paintings.
Now, another big positive for me, as a history buff, is that The Sand Pebbles explores a time and place with which I -- and, I think, most people here in the West -- are not that familiar. Now, does it do so in great depth? No; it’s not a documentary. But you do get a sense of the issues, which I will now quickly break down.
The Chinese Revolution of 1911 -- so, 15 years prior to the events of this film -- was the culmination of years of agitation and revolts. It put an end to the imperial dynastic era, which had lasted in China for over 2,000 years, and established the Republic of China, which, similar to the Weimar Republic in Germany a few years later, was a fragile, fractious entity from the start. They called it a Republic, but it really wasn’t. It was run, initially, by a dictator named Yuan Shikai, who actually tried to restore the monarchy, but his death in 1916 marked the beginning of the Warlord Era. The country was divvied up among various military cliques and regional factions that were always fighting.
In 1925 -- just before the film begins -- Chiang Kai-Shek’s National Revolutionary Army arose out of that chaos to try and topple the warlords. But his Army had internal divisions of its own and quickly split in two, with Chiang leading the Nationalists and Mao Tse-Tung the Communists. And that struggle between those two factions -- namely, the Chinese Civil War -- would play out between 1927 and ’49 with a pause between ’36 and ’45, when the two factions formed a temporary alliance to resist the Japanese. So, that’s a drive-by look at the first half of the 20th century in China, which ended with Mao on top. So sadly, the end result of all that struggle and loss of life was a mass-murdering dictator.
The United States, in this film, is represented by two entities: first, the San Pablo, which is there, essentially, to protect U.S. business interests; and second, a group of Christian missionaries led by a man named Jameson, played by Larry Gates. If you’ve seen In The Heat of the Night, released the following year, he plays the plantation owner that slaps Sidney Poitier, who then slaps him back. But Jameson’s only concern is improving the lot of the Chinese people with modern medicine and democratic concepts and, I suppose, Christianity, but that’s not really stressed in the film. And Jameson, who McQueen meets on that initial trip upriver -- his contention is that gunboats like the San Pablo impede his mission as symbols of the abuse and exploitation suffered by China at the hands of foreign powers. Britain, in particular, treated China, basically, like a giant ATM machine for 100 years, but the U.S. certainly as well, Russia, Germany, France, Japan, all these countries joined the party, forcing lopsided treaties on China at the point of a gun.
And significantly, most of the interactions in the film between the American sailors and the locals take place at a brothel called The Crow’s Nest. And there’s a really good, disturbing scene there, where one of the Chinese women -- not a prostitute, but a greeter, with whom Richard Attenborough, who plays a kindly sailor, falls in love -- but in this scene, she’s being auctioned off to the highest bidder. So, a good metaphor for rapacious imperialism.
There’s another good scene there -- a fight between a huge, drunken sailor and a Chinese man, Po-Han, played by a very good Japanese actor named Mako. He was actually nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Po-Han is McQueen’s kind of coolie assistant in the engine room, and those two become unlikely friends. McQueen is actually in Po-Han’s corner during the fight, which begins with the sailor giving the much smaller man an awful beating. But then the sailor runs out of steam, and Po-Han knocks him out -- another metaphor, I think, for what was really kind of a running theme of the 20th century: the beating back of mighty colonial powers by seemingly overmatched native forces. This dynamic played out not only in China but India with the British, Vietnam and Algeria with the French, in the Congo with the Belgians as well, although what replaced those colonial forces in some of these countries -- like the Congo, for example -- that had no real experience with democracy was often not so great.
One of the challenges of this film is that there’s no real, unassailable right or wrong, just competing interests. Both Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao turned out to be terrible people, especially Mao, who Nikita Khrushchev -- no angel himself -- described accurately as a "lunatic on a throne.” So, the lack of moral clarity in this film, while true to life, does present dramatic challenges. You know, who or what are we supposed to root for, exactly? The militant Chinese, who on the one hand, certainly have a legitimate gripe but on the other, torture and kill their own people? The sailors, who on the one hand, are performing a very difficult task in a hot zone across the world, but many of whom condescend to or even brutalize the locals? I'd say, other than McQueen -- who’s kind of a loner -- Jameson, the missionary, is probably the closest thing to a good guy, certainly well-meaning. But he’s also a pretty weak figure and dangerously naive.
But the critical response was interesting when this film was released in December of 1966, as the Vietnam War rapidly approached full boil. American combat deaths had tripled over the previous year. Critics, almost universally, assumed that The Sand Pebbles was a direct commentary on the Vietnam War, which was not the intention. The book was published in 1962, at which point Vietnam, while certainly in the headlines, was still just one of many Cold War hotspots. Cuba, Berlin, even Laos were making bigger headlines. We did have military advisors in Vietnam at that point, who were much more directly involved in the fighting than Americans were led to believe, but there were no American combat troops over there until Johnson sent in the Marines in March of ’65.
So the film, which is very faithful to the book -- which I read -- is about what it’s about: China in the 1920s. Now, you could certainly call it prophetic with respect to Vietnam, but any direct commentary was inadvertent. Even while they were shooting in '66, the cast and crew were much more aware of the tension between Taiwan and Communist China than they were the Vietnam War. There were constant military exercises, Taiwanese frogmen always training around the outskirts of the set, and there was also a propaganda war, so each side would drop leaflets from airplanes on the other.
McQueen’s performance in this film -- his only Oscar nomination, he lost out to Paul Scofield in A Man for All Seasons -- is kind of a mixed bag for me. It’s one of the only times he adopted a different manner of speaking from his own -- a kind of rough, lowbrow sailor’s cadence, which doesn’t sound all that authentic to me and has the unfortunate effect of making his character sound dumber than he actually is.
A separate issue, which is not McQueen’s fault, is -- what you want, in a fictional narrative, is a protagonist who's actively trying to achieve something, struggling to overcome some resistance. But here, McQueen’s struggle, in a way, is to remain inactive, to be left alone, which makes his character a little less compelling than, say, Nevada Smith. On the other hand, he gives you some phenomenal wordless moments. Po-Han is eventually kidnapped by some Chinese agitators who torture him within sight of the ship, death by a thousand cuts. Now, why they’re doing this to him isn't specified. I saw it as an incitement for the foreigners to attack so that the agitators could then use that attack as P.R. to grow their movement.
But as Po-Han is screaming out to the ship, begging for someone to shoot him and end this protracted agony, the captain, played by Richard Crenna, tells his men to do nothing. His orders are not to fire on the locals and risk starting a war. But McQueen takes matters into his own hands. And the time he takes -- you really see the turmoil on his face and his movements as he lifts the rifle, adjusts the sight, hesitates, lowers the weapon, builds an almost unbearable degree of tension until finally, he kills his friend. And the desperation, the anger, the sadness, it’s all there, and it’s some of the finest pure acting he ever did, without saying a word.
The set design also rates a mention. The brothel, all those junks and sampans on the river behind the gunboat, it all looks just right. You never doubt that you're in China in 1926.
And high marks to Wise, as well. All those boats had to be directed, you know, their movement had to be coordinated to maintain continuity. It’s a film with just a massive visual canvas. I mean, for those exterior sequences in the harbor, Wise is directing for miles of set, tons of extras, and no cheating, no digital optics back then. So The Sand Pebbles, while losing out to A Man for All Seasons for Best Picture, was a big hit -- rave reviews, probably inspired to an extent by the false perception that it was a critique of the Vietnam War, which many in the media opposed. But after this incredibly strenuous shoot, McQueen took a well-deserved break for a year. He didn't go before the cameras again until June of 1967, for The Thomas Crown Affair, a film that I'm not wild about -- surface charms, but pretty much devoid of any substance.
But Bullitt, McQueen’s other 1968 release -- and the last of our top 6 films of the ‘60s -- is, I think, his best. And at the time, at least on the surface, this was a role against type, similar in that regard to Thomas Crown, who’s a Dartmouth-educated, millionaire banker -- a far cry from McQueen’s personal background or previous roles. Here, Frank Bullitt is a lieutenant with the San Francisco Police Department -- also a far cry and an interesting choice in 1968, when police were not all that popular, at least not among the younger generation, and certainly not in San Francisco, where this film was shot in the winter and spring of 1968.
And just to give you a sense of the craziness of that year, here are some news events that coincided with the shooting of this film. Right before cameras started rolling in February, the Tet Offensive -- surprise attacks by the Viet Cong on command centers throughout South Vietnam, including the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, total 45,000 casualties. Two months into filming, Martin Luther King was assassinated, which led to massive riots until Johnson was finally forced to send not just the National Guard but regular army troops into many cities. Just after they wrapped, Robert Kennedy, who had entered the Presidential race a few weeks before King was shot, was himself assassinated in Los Angeles. And then later that summer, the riots in Chicago at the Democratic convention.
So, all that was in the air. And initially, McQueen resisted playing a cop -- not because he was anti-police, he wasn’t, but he was concerned that the younger portion of his audience would, essentially, cancel him. And that did happen, even back then. I was just reading about James Brown, the singer, whose endorsement of Nixon in 1972 led to a boycott of his performances and cost him a big chunk of his audience.
But McQueen, after thinking about it, decided that a straightforward portrayal of an honest cop might be useful in changing some of the more distorted public perceptions of the police -- which have somehow become even more distorted today -- but also maybe bridge the gap between the establishment and the counterculture, of which McQueen was not necessarily the biggest fan, saying at the time, “The hippies have gone too far. They’re one of the reasons we’re losing the unity of this country. We’ve got to get together, and they’ve got to help. Their lack of concern is dangerous, and so is their conformity.”
That last word is interesting. You know, I saw the movie Woodstock last year, the best parts of which are not the music, much of which I found pretty dull. But the interviews with both the participants and the audience members are often quite interesting. And it did strike me how all these alleged rebels and non-conformists all sort of looked and sounded the same. But the best interview is not with a hippie. It’s with this kind of tough-looking, middle-aged guy, whose job it is to disinfect the portable toilets. Absolute genius to interview this guy because the stereotype would be that he would resent all these hippies whose mess he’s cleaning up, but not at all, he’s this totally positive guy, happy to be there, happy to help. And then the clincher: at the end, he mentions, almost in passing, that his son is off fighting in Vietnam, which adds a whole other layer to the conversation.
McQueen was never really politically active, although he did attend an LBJ fundraiser in Beverly Hills in the summer of ’64. You can see pictures online of him dancing the Watusi with Luci Baines Johnson, LBJ’s youngest daughter, at that fundraiser. This was when Johnson was at the height of his popularity. But one thing McQueen did care about was race. He would often talk about the segregated movie theaters back in Missouri when he was a kid. And as he evolved into an actor-producer, he went to bat for a number of black actors, including George Stanford Brown, whom McQueen cast as the surgeon in Bullitt. At one point, Brown is operating on a man with a bullet wound, a sequence that McQueen is not in. So, after watching a couple of takes, he pulled the director, Peter Yates, aside, and he said, “Look, Pete, I want that nurse” -- who was white -- “to wipe George’s forehead during the surgery. Let’s get that in there.”
So, Yates said, “Okay, why?”
And McQueen just kind of looked at him and said, “Because it’s important.”
Then Yates, who was a British director, realized what McQueen was up to. And it may seem small by today’s standards, but you do notice it. And these little shifts in mass culture back then, I mentioned the Sidney Poitier slapping scene, that was a shift, and then about a month after Bullitt was released, the first interracial kiss on TV on an episode of Star Trek, those things did, I think, have an impact.
Bullitt was based on a police procedural novel by Robert Pike called Mute Witness, a very poor novel which I read for a simple reason: the surface plot of Bullitt, which is not remotely what the film is really about, is pretty incomprehensible. The filmmakers, producer Philip D’Antoni -- who would later produce The French Connection -- Yates, and McQueen were so focused on making the film about the Frank Bullitt character that they left out key plot points from the book.
Very briefly, a Mafioso named Johnny Ross -- Hollywood had to use non-Italian surnames for Mafiosi back then because of pressure from various picket groups, which were often Mafia front groups, actually. They couldn’t even use the word Mafia; in this film, they call it “the organization." But anyway, this Ross offers himself up as a witness against the mob to Walter Chalmers, an assistant D.A., played by Robert Vaughn. So, Chalmers assigns a plain-clothes detail -- McQueen and two underlings -- to guard Ross in shifts in a hotel room over the weekend before his public testimony on Monday. But in the middle of the night, two hitmen burst in and shoot Ross, who dies after the surgery that I mentioned. It eventually emerges that the man who was killed was actually a civilian named Al Renick who had been hired by Ross to impersonate him -- totally implausible, but that’s the story -- and Ross hired these hitmen to bump Renick off so that Ross can use his identity to flee the country and escape the mob, from whom he has stolen a lot of money.
So Vaughn, who learns only later that he’s been duped, is furious at McQueen for failing to protect his witness. But McQueen’s only goals are to find out, first of all, what happened, and once he does that, to prevent Ross from flying off to Italy. And to accomplish these tasks, he cuts numerous corners, placing himself in constant conflict with Vaughn, this oily assistant D.A. whose only concern is his own career. So that dynamic, not the mob stuff, is the heart of the film: McQueen's tangles with the establishment. So, you can see how clever they were in tackling this issue of McQueen playing a cop in 1968. They just turned him into a rebel, and a super-cool rebel at that.
So, the big technical advance in this film, first of all, the famous car chase, which really set a new standard for realism -- but more than that, the use of practical locations. There are no sets in the film. The Daniels Hotel, where the shooting happens, is real, or was real, it was demolished during redevelopment after the '89 earthquake. The hospital, San Francisco General, still exists. The final segment was shot at San Francisco International Airport. They also used as many non-actors as they could: doctors, nurses, hospital administrators, ambulance drivers, the pathologist in the morgue was real. As McQueen said at the time, “Sure, we could shoot in the studio. But I think we’re getting into an era where pictures are more and more visual, and the audiences are really sophisticated. They’re not accepting substitutes.”
So, he loved all that grimy authenticity, of the hospital in particular, which has all these great sounds and telling details that set designers probably wouldn’t think to add. Like, outside the emergency room, you see a “Speed Kills” poster -- an interesting timepiece but also kind of ironic for a film with a deadly car chase. Shooting interiors in those urban locations, which is a snap today with tiny digital cameras and super-fast lenses, was not that easy in 1968. But William Fraker, the cinematographer, used a lightweight Arriflex camera so he could squeeze into smaller spaces, although he did use the larger Mitchell camera when he had the room. But even if some of the interior shots are slightly underexposed, that’s okay. You know, sometimes life is underexposed. I do think that Bullitt is underappreciated for being as groundbreaking in this regard as it was, because that use of urban locations -- which they’d been doing in France for years -- quickly became commonplace here, during what is now called the second golden age of Hollywood, or the “New Hollywood.”
This film was also influential in serving as a prototype for a parade of films featuring renegade cops: Dirty Harry and The French Connection probably the best of its descendants, but TV shows as well, The Streets of San Francisco, The Rookies -- one of whom was played by George Stanford Brown -- Columbo, Kojak, the list is virtually endless. The score by Lalo Schifrin -- who, two years earlier, wrote that great theme in 5/4 time for the TV show Mission: Impossible and then a terrific score for Cool Hand Luke the following year, he would later score Dirty Harry as well -- the music here works quite well, jazz flute, low percussive piano. But what I really appreciate are the long stretches -- pretty much the entire hospital sequence and most of the car chase as well -- that are unscored. You know, certain environments and events create their own music.
But just as The Great Escape is famous for McQueen’s motorcycle antics, this one is famous for its car chase, which goes on for almost 10 minutes and frequently earned loud applause in theaters when it was first shown. As in The Great Escape, most of the driving was done by McQueen, to the horror of the insurance people. He also does a crazy stunt at the end where he lies face down on the ground between the wheels of an advancing airplane, which taxies over his body. That one shook even him up. After one take, he went over to the director and said, “I hope you got it, because I’m not doing that again.” But they did get it, and it’s in the film.
For the chase, where he’s after the two hitmen -- the hitman who’s driving, by the way, was played by an actual stunt driver, Bill Hickman, who has no lines in the film. Hickman shows up again in The French Connection, where he does have some lines, he’s quite good, actually. But McQueen is driving a ’68 Ford Mustang -- actually, 2 cars were used -- the suspensions of which he and a mechanic toughened up quite a bit, along with the shocks, brakes, frame reinforcement, just so it could survive those amazing hills of San Francisco at speeds approaching 110 miles an hour. And they actually go quite a bit faster than that once they hit open road. And Hickman is driving a ’68 Dodge Charger. The Ford Motor Company had wanted both cars to be Fords, of course, but Yates liked the Charger. He said it looked “sharky,” which it does. The Charger actually had a larger engine and more horsepower than the Mustang, so Hickman frequently had to slow down so he wouldn’t pull away from McQueen.
But shooting a sequence like that in a big city like San Francisco is a major undertaking, obviously, which is why these chases were generally shot on sets. Clearing the streets, all that had to be coordinated with the police and the city. Every car they pass had to be driven by stuntmen, which led to a goof, actually. The producers did not hire enough stunt drivers for the other cars you see. So, actually, McQueen passes the same VW Bug in four separate locations.
But as with the practical-location aspect, the chase will not astound younger viewers today because it’s been copied and superseded. But it was groundbreaking. Hollywood directors, at that time, to simulate speed, would just undercrank the camera, which would then look faster when the final picture was projected at normal speed. I just saw a James Bond movie from back then, Goldfinger, where this was done -- looks totally fake. Even worse, they would use rear projection for closeups and blow the actors hair with a wind machine. Terrible. But with the lightweight Arriflex, Fraker could take the camera inside the cars and crouch in the backseat, and he also mounted cameras on the hood and sides of the cars. Again, it’s done all the time today, but it was cutting-edge back then. Fraker should’ve been at least nominated for Best Cinematography; he wasn’t. But Frank Keller did win the Oscar for Best Editing on the strength of this chase.
Bullitt was influential in other ways as well. McQueen’s clothes -- that trench coat, the blue turtleneck sweater, perhaps most famous, that brown tweed jacket with patches on the elbows -- like the two car models, these items got a big boost in sales as well.
Ground also broken in the area of profanity. The use of the time-honored, American curse word “bullshit,” spoken by McQueen to Vaughn in the final scene -- that had never been heard before in a Hollywood film, although I should say the second syllable alone had been used the previous year for the first time, in the film version of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. The dreaded F-word would have to wait until 1970 for its grand debut in M*A*S*H.
This film also provided the first Hollywood images of a modern fax machine. That technology’s actually older than you might think. American police departments had been using much larger, slower fax machines -- which they called “telecopiers” -- as early as the 1930s. But the one you see in Bullitt, the Xerox Magnafax, had just been introduced and was considered revolutionary not only for its small size but because it could be connected to a standard telephone line.
Bullitt was another huge hit for McQueen, number 4 at the box office that year, behind only The Odd Couple, 2001, and Funny Girl. And then it was re-released in '69 as part of a double feature with Bonnie and Clyde, which also cleaned up. But this performance by McQueen is the one that I thought of when I read a really nice tribute by Vincent Canby, New York Times chief film critic back then. It was published about a week after McQueen died of mesothelioma in 1980. And here's what Canby said: “The death of Steve McQueen at 50 deprives American movies of a great national resource. McQueen didn’t ‘act’ in a movie as much as inhabit it. He wore it, as if it were an old, somewhat shabby, utterly comfortable jacket, without ostentation. Like Cooper and Gable, McQueen contributed through his particular presence far more to the films he was in than he ever received from them.” Nice little tribute.
Finally, my personal rankings of McQueen’s top 10 films overall. Number one is Bullitt. Number two, The Sand Pebbles. Third, I’ve got The Towering Inferno -- that may be high, but kind of a guilty pleasure. It’s the only McQueen film I remember actually being out in the theaters; I was about five. My brother and I had a huge poster of it in our room. It’s cheesy, but fun, McQueen’s last good role, really, as the firefighter who assists architect Paul Newman in putting out the blaze. Scott Newman -- who bears almost no resemblance to his father -- plays a firefighter as well who’s terrified of heights, and McQueen helps him overcome that fear with some tough love. One surreal aspect to that film -- which was number 1 at the box office in 1974 -- is watching NFL superstar and future murderer O.J. Simpson running around saving kittens.
Fourth, I’ve got The Magnificent Seven. Five, The Great Escape. Six is The Getaway from '72, directed by Sam Peckinpah -- a mixed bag. I hate the score, by Quincy Jones. Anyone who uses wordless vocals in a film score, especially an action film, should be severely reprimanded. He did the same thing on his score to In the Heat of the Night. But The Getaway opens with a stunning montage, filmed at a real Texas prison, one of the best isolated segments that McQueen was ever in. It’s like a poem about confinement, with this low mechanical drone on the soundtrack and this cold, steel-blue photography by Lucien Ballard. Seven is Nevada Smith. Eight, The Cincinnati Kid. Nine is Junior Bonner, from '71, one of Peckinpah’s personal favorites of his own films and one of his only non-violent films, which may explain why it tanked at the box office. McQueen plays a veteran rodeo rider who returns to his Arizona hometown to try and reunite his estranged family. Ida Lupino, who I always like, came out of retirement to play his mom. Number 10 is Papillon, based on a mostly fictional book by Henri Charriére about his escape in 1933 from a penal colony in French Guiana. What dropped this film to 10 -- first of all, it’s not a whole lot of fun. But it also features a fidgety, very self-conscious performance by Dustin Hoffman. McQueen kept telling him, “Less, Dusty -- do less,” and he really should’ve listened. It’s one of his worst performances.
But those are my top 10. If you're on a McQueen rampage, and you get through all 10 and still are not satiated, I would give honorable mention to Love with the Proper Stranger and The Thomas Crown Affair. A quick look at our next episode, right after this. [Music]
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Coming up on Episode 9 of Real Time 1960s: “Bay of Pigs, Part 1, Invasion and Aftermath,” as we examine the evolution of the C.I.A. plan to invade Cuba and topple Fidel Castro. We’ll cover a 1954 precursor and model for the ’61 Bay of Pigs Invasion -- that precursor played out in a different Latin-American country -- the increasing friction between the U.S. and Castro in 1959; how the Cuban situation impacted the 1960 presidential campaign; and finally, the pressure on JFK, from the moment he took office, to approve the invasion plan.
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