Steve McQueen’s Most Powerful Performances

We look at a trio of Steve McQueen's lower profile movies, but ones that helped cement his movie star image...

The king of the motorcycle, the lover of fast cars, the runaway boy who became the number one movie star in the world: Steve McQueen still appears on posters and t-shirts 35 years after his death. Perhaps that’s because he was a movie star at a time when the audience wanted their leading men to be the epitome of cool. The Great EscapeBullittThe Magnificent Seven: these films made him incredibly popular because they offered us a vision of being a man’s man. We identified, and still do identify, with McQueen as someone who doesn’t play by the rules, but uses the system to his own best advantage and somehow comes out smiling.

Here’s a look at three of his roles which haven’t been remembered in quite the same terms, if they are remembered at all. These are the ones that intrigue and move us, and offer something more than the image alone. McQueen would have been the first to admit he was a racing car and motorbike enthusiast first and a movie star second. Acting came way down the list: “There’s something about my shaggy-dog eyes that make people think I’m good,” he said, and mainly he was happy to let it go at that. But not always, and certainly not in the case of these three performances:

Love With The Proper Stranger (1963)

This film is a really strange mixture of screwball comedy and harrowing social drama, and that means it’s pretty much impossible to end it well, because somebody is always going to be disappointed, but you have to love the film for being brave and surprising, even if the final scene doesn’t work. It also allowed both Steve McQueen and Natalie Wood (two stars who never really got associated with being masters of the craft of acting) to give really good performances.

McQueen plays Rocky Papasano, a New York musician who has attempted to escape his Catholic upbringing and close family, and thinks marriage and children trap men into domestic drudgery. But his one-night stand with Angie Rossini (Natalie Wood) results in her pregnancy, and as they attempt to raise the money for an illegal abortion they finally begin to get to know each other.

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It doesn’t sound like your usual romantic comedy, but it is very funny at times, and also very frank in his treatment of abortion. McQueen wears an open expression throughout, registering every emotion plainly, from despair to confusion to attraction. It makes him seem very young, even though this film was made three years after The Magnificent Seven, and in the same year as The Great Escape, where he appears to be so much more assured. Here he is lost in his feelings, unable to express himself, and attempting to come to terms with his responsibility. He may be a bad boy, but he’s trying so hard to make good. In no other film I can think of was he quite so vulnerable.

The Sand Pebbles (1966)

This is the only role for which McQueen received an Academy Award nomination, although I’d say the best performances in it belong to Richard Attenborough and Richard Crenna. Still, surrounded by such class McQueen gives us a lot with few words. He plays US Navy Machinist’s Mate Jake Holman, a man with a passion for machinery who is serving aboard the Yangtze River gunboat USS San Pablo in 1920s China. He would like nothing better than to be left alone with the engine, only making occasional visits to the prostitutes on shore, but the political situation worsens and he becomes an unlikely focus of the tension. It’s quite a complicated story, but all the better for asking you to engage your brain as well as your emotions.

The Sand Pebbles looks incredible. It has a scope and a richness of landscape that you would expect from the director – Robert Wise. He was very committed to getting the look of the film just right, so he agreed to make a fill-in project for the studio while extensive pre-production work took place. That fill-in was The Sound of Music. It’s weird to say this, but the two films have a lot in common, in cinematic terms. It’s the glorious sweeping shots of the river and the mountains that win me over for both films.

Papillon (1973)

Life imprisonment in the penal colony of French Guiana. Heat, disease, dangerous work duties, rape, murder, bad food, and heavily tattooed lepers. What a grim story Papillon is; one of the best of prison movies, in which unremittingly horrible characters find themselves in the worst of circumstances, and we root for Steve McQueen to survive. More than that – we want him to, against all the odds, escape.

The sequence in solitary confinement is one of McQueen’s best, I think. In The Great Escape he made solitary confinement look, well, not exactly easy, but manageable with a baseball glove and a ball. Here it looks agonising, and we see him disintegrating before our eyes, yet still he clings on to the idea of freedom.

Roger Ebert said he didn’t care for the film because he didn’t care about McQueen, or Dustin Hoffman as his only friend in prison, but I find myself rooting for them intensely. There’s a quality to their friendship, beyond words, that we also find in The Sand Pebbles, where McQueen’s quiet decision to support Richard Attenborough’s character bring a dignity to the film. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why he’s had such longevity as a star. He was very good at portraying male camaraderie at the worst of times.

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McQueen pretty much always played a rebel. He was outside of the system, and he made that look good, even when (as is nearly always the case with the movie rebel) he ended up either dead or back in the fold in one way or another at the end. It’s no different with the three films mentioned here, but in these films he reached for something deeper. He delivered performances that could surprise and involve you. Yes, his face looks great printed on a tee shirt, but he was capable of being more than a cipher. He could, when he put his mind to it, deliver a great performance.