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The Seldom Seen Steve McQueen: His Best Lesser-Known Films

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By Dwayne Epstein

Legendary actor Steve McQueen has been called “The King of Cool” due to such classic action films as The Magnificent Seven (1962), The Great Escape (1963), The Thomas Crown Affair (1967), Bullitt (1968), The Getaway (1972), Papillon (1973), and The Towering Inferno (1974). Movie fans will forever embrace him for them, as well as his well-documented love of cars and motorcycles. But in truth, McQueen proved he was capable of infinitely more than his best-known titles.

To better understand his less familiar screen performances, his personal life should be explored. Born in Indiana in 1930, Steve McQueen grew up a troubled youth, and with good reason. His father, a WWII pilot who flew with the Chenault Flying Tigers, abandoned him and his mother before he was born. His alcoholic teenage mother, Julian, moved with Steve to Slater Missouri, and periodically left her son with her Uncle Claude while she went off to places like New York City to “find herself’,” while Steve was physically abused by the men she dated.

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The actor’s second wife, Ali MacGraw, understood his appeal and where it came from when she wrote after their divorce, “He came by his sense of danger the hard way — by surviving a devastating childhood. And never trusting again…. For the rest of his life, he acted out his rage and distrust on all the women he met, particularly his wives. … Only occasionally did Steve dare to show anyone just how sensitive and gentle he was underneath all the macho swagger.”

That macho swagger and, more impressively, his sensitive and gentle side were on full display in many of his lesser-known yet still fascinating film performances. Below are seven films that many fans may not be aware of but are ripe for rediscovery.

Hell is For Heroes (1962, dir. Don Seigel)

By the time he made this tense little WWII film, McQueen had already studied at the Actor’s Studio in New York and acted on Broadway. He was married with two children, owned a sumptuous home in Brentwood, and had starred in a successful TV show and already made seven other films of various quality.

This movie had one of the most eclectic ensembles imaginable: Harry Guardino, Bobby Darin, Fess Parker, Nick Adams, Mike Kellin, James Coburn, and, making his film debut, Bob “Button Down Mind” Newhart. McQueen plays a grizzled, tight-lipped lone wolf, Private John Reese, assigned to a small rifle squad that has to ingeniously make the Germans along the Siegfried Line think it’s an entire platoon until reinforcements arrive. Each of the characters has a unique way of dealing with the situation, but it is McQueen, the surly and defiant dogface, who takes over in his own rebellious way.

Upon seeing his performance in this long-forgotten little thriller, director Stanley Kubrick sent McQueen a telegram that read, “It’s the most perceptive and realistic performance of any soldier in any war film I have seen.”

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Soldier in The Rain (1963, dir. Ralph Nelson)

Following his blockbuster success in The Great Escape, McQueen made this film based on the novel by William Goldman, playing Supply Sergeant Eustis Clay in the peacetime army, looking to hustle great deals with his buddy, Master Sergeant Maxwell Slaughter, played brilliantly by Jackie Gleason. Eustis goes so far as to convince Maxwell that life outside the army is so good, that he fixes him up with teenage nymphet, Bobbi Jo Pepperdine, played by an alluring Tuesday Weld. The film failed to gain an audience or positive reviews as it was released just days after Kennedy was shot, bad timing for any entertainment vehicle, though McQueen wouldn’t blame that for its failure.

“I hadn’t done any comedy since The Honeymoon Machine [1961],” McQueen said later. “Felt it was time to do something different. But the picture just didn’t come together. I really don’t know why because all of the right elements were there.”

The reason is quite simply that McQueen tries too hard when comedy deserves a light touch, something Gleason learned years before and that McQueen, like his rival Paul Newman, would take years to discover. That said, the seriocomic film does work best as a comment on unlikely friendships and male bonding. The affection the two leads have for each other is palpable, and it also includes a barroom brawl finale that remains one of the best of its kind. The film really deserves a second look for its dramatic impact alone.

Baby, The Rain Must Fall (1964, dir. Alan Pakula)

After his success in Love With The Proper Stranger (1963), McQueen teamed up again with producer Alan Pakula and director Robert Mulligan for this, the last film the actor would make in black and white. Based on a play by Horton Foote, it tells the sad tale of Henry Thomas, an ex-convict who lives like an indentured servant by day but spends his nights playing and singing rockabilly guitar at a Texas roadhouse. The poor man can not stay out of trouble, even when his wife, brilliantly played by Lee Remick, and their six-year-old daughter show up.

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“I believe in a lot of preparation,” the actor said at the time. “I want to look the part I’m playing. It takes time. It takes study. It takes a deep understanding of the character involved.”

McQueen does indeed prepare and have a deep understanding of his role. He practices his guitar and singing (which is later dubbed by Billy Strange) but the backstory of Henry is something he knows extremely well. It’s the closest he would ever come to playing a character with a childhood background not unlike his own, and that shows in some pretty harrowing moments. The biggest difference between him and his fictional character is that McQueen made something of himself while Henry suffered for his ways.

The tagline for the film was “The love story of a born loser.” Probably that explains its failure. Twenty years later, Horton Foote revisited the character in Tender Mercies (1983), winning an Oscar for Robert Duvall. One wonders what would have happened if McQueen had lived.

The Reivers (1969, dir. Mark Rydell)

The huge success of Bullitt allowed McQueen any project he wanted to do next. Although he enlivened many of his action films with comedic touches (his idol James Cagney called it “sprinkling the goodies along the way”), McQueen never liked doing out-and-out comedy or watching himself in it.

At nearly forty years old, he had a change of heart and played the role of Boon Hoggenbeck. His longtime ambivalrnce  toward comedy took a backseat to the sentimental tale of Boon, an overgrown Huck Finn in a style reminiscent of McQueen’s happier childhood days on his Uncle Claude’s farm in Slater, Missouri.

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by William Faulkner (awarded posthumously), the role of Boon fit McQueen perfectly, who seemed to finally learn how to have fun in a comedic role. It takes place in turn-of-the-century Mississippi and the rascally Boon manages to talk young Lucius McCaslin (Mitch Vogel) into “borrowing” his grandfather’s brand new automobile for a trip to Memphis by advising, “If you ever wanna reach your manhood, ya gotta say goodbye to the things you know … and HELLO to the things you don’t!”

Junior Bonner (1972, dir. Sam Peckinpah)

Audiences that expected the teaming of director Sam Peckinpah and actor Steve McQueen would result in a slam-bang action film were sadly disappointed. What they got instead was a melancholy tale of an aging rodeo star and his encounters with his hometown, family, and friends.

Despite McQueen giving a believable and moving performance, moviegoers stayed away in droves … which is their loss. They missed the chance to see a different side of both McQueen and Peckinpah’s talents, as well as a superb supporting cast consisting of Robert Preston, Ida Lupino, Joe Don Baker, Ben Johnson, and Barbara Leigh. Like the other films on this list, it truly deserves a second look.

An Enemy of the People (1978, dir. George Schaefer)

Of all the films Steve McQueen ever made, Enemy of the People was the least seen, yet the one most fans should see. Following a years-long hiatus from movies, McQueen decided his return should be more of a challenge than any of his previous work. After much searching, he came to this adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1880s play that had been adapted for American audiences by Arthur Miller in the 1940s.

The play starred Fredric March and flopped on Broadway. None of that mattered to McQueen. It was the story and the point being made that mattered to him.

Enemy‘s plot concerns a small Norwegian town that takes great pride in the healing natural springs that bring in tourists and money. McQueen as Dr. Thomas Stockmann is almost unrecognizable in glasses, long hair, a bushy beard, and the extra pounds he put on for the role. Stockmann’s run some tests and discovers a tannery nearby has been poisoning the waters and sickening those who use the springs. In an attempt to warn the townspeople, he and his family are ridiculed and threatened. His brother, who is also mayor (Charles Durning) leads the charge. Mrs. Stockmann (Bibi Andersson) wants her husband to stop but he refuses and holds a public meeting, only to be confronted by even more anger and a poignant conclusion.

As the film’s executive producer, McQueen went out of his way to help it succeed. The normally reclusive star even went so far as to speak at Loyola Marymount College and take questions from the film students.

None of it helped. Enemy of the People sat on the shelf for two years until Warner Brothers finally released it for a few weeks and then let fade into obscurity.

Its failure broke McQueen’s heart.

Tom Horn (1980, dir. William Wiard)

Legendary actors are not always able to decide what their last film will be. In the case of Steve McQueen it should have been Tom Horn instead of the wince-inducing The Hunter, released the same year.

Horn was plagued with problems, not the least of which was McQueen’s failing health. Still, he drudged on as original director Don Siegel was replaced by several others, making this rarely-seen western about the last days of one of the old west’s iconic figures.

When asked for advice on making films, McQueen told Chuck Norris, “Surround yourself with great character actors. Let them carry the plot and speak as little as possible so your words carry more weight.”

He took his own advice often and Tom Horn is proof. It costars such veterans as stuntman-turned-actor Richard Farnsworth, Elisha Cook, Jr, Slim Pickens, Billy Green Bush, Geoffrey Lewis, and Linda Evans as the love interest. McQueen himself is masterful from the opening to the finale, in what could have proven to be his wonderful transition into an aging character actor.  Sadly, it was not to be, as he would succumb to the cancer that was plaguing him the same year Tom Horn was released.

Steve McQueen was fifty years old at the time of his untimely death. We can mourn his passing and regret the films he’d never get to make. But we can also celebrate his life and continue to rejoice in the films he made.

I prefer the latter.


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