Tough upbringing? Steve McQueen knew all about that. Absent father and a heavy drinking mother who married a string of abusive men. Running with gangs in LA at fourteen. Two years in a reform school, from which he tried to escape, and then into the marines at seventeen. He went from that to become the highest paid star in the world. So, here’s a chronological look at the pick of his movies.
The Great Escape – 1963
There’s a whole bunch of established stars in this film but it’s McQueen’s character, Virgil ‘The Cooler King’ Hilts, that everyone remembers. He may not be the greatest actor there’s ever been but whatever star quality is, he’s got it. He’s super-cool, even when he’s doing something as simple as chucking a baseball against a wall. OK, so although he was famous for doing his own stunts, he didn’t actually do the bike jump over a twelve-foot barbed wire fence, but you never for a moment doubt that he could. And when he does escape, there’s nowhere to go, he’s in no-man’s land, ain’t it always the way.
The Cincinnati Kid – 1965
This time it’s a co-starring role and McQueen is up against Lancey ‘The Man’ Howard and the mighty screen presence of Edward G Robinson: once again he’s effortlessly cool. He doesn’t need dialogue, it’s all there in the eyes and the body language. Rated as one of the best gambling films of all time, that final poker hand is still being debated.
The Thomas Crown Affair – 1968
Clooney might well have taken notes for his character in Ocean’s Eleven from McQueen’s character in this movie. He’s a charming crook who sets up heists for fun. It’s a stylish cult movie, well split screen was stylish when it was made; which is really all about the sexual chemistry between Dunaway and McQueen. He was a man with a strong libido, without it he wouldn’t have been around to make his next movie. He was on his way to Sharon Tate’s party, the one where the Manson Family showed up, but he met a girl on the way and decided on a little infidelity instead.
The Getaway – 1972
Now here we’re talking real sexual chemistry; McQueen married his co-star Ali MacGraw straight after and made sure that she never made another film. The film is based on a weird novel by cult writer Jim Thompson and it’s kind of long and rambling but it’s McQueen’s authenticity that holds it together. Just watch the way he handles a gun, he knows what he’s doing.
Papillon – 1973
This is a story of human endurance based on the autobiographical account by Henri Charriere, who was imprisoned in the French penal colony on Devil’s Island. Again, it’s one of those roles with limited dialogue that McQueen does so well. His character escapes, gets captured, does solitary in total darkness, eats insects to survive, escapes, gets betrayed by a nun, does five more years in solitary, gets transferred to Devil’s Island…It’s not a glamorous role but McQueen is as riveting as ever.