October 15, 2011

Steve McQueen was Never Secure As an "Actor"

Steve McQueen was one of the pleasures of 1960s moviegoing. He was and is a unique presence, the essence of cool, and a quintessential screen persona like Bogart, Clint Eastwood or John Wayne. His star burned bright but not long. He died at 50 from cancer caused by asbestos exposure.

He was the highest-paid actor in the world when he took a five-year break from movies. Unlike Paul Newman, he didn't adapt into middle-aged character roles. Unlike Eastwood, he didn't live long enough to develop a behind-the-scenes career. "I've got a feeling, I'm leaving stardom behind ..." he said. "I don't think I can be doing my kind of thing in the seventies; I want to be (a filmmaker on) the creative side of business."

He was never secure as an actor. "I really don't like to act," he said. "At the beginning I was real uncomfortable." Even at his peak, he was the type of actor who counted his lines in "The Towering Inferno" to make sure co-star Paul Newman didn't have
more.

McQueen minimized his talent, calling himself not an actor, but a reactor, not acknowledging that reacting is really what movie acting is all about. The great director John Ford said, "The secret is in people's faces and eyes." In that respect, McQueen was as brilliant as Gary Cooper. "Bullitt" director Peter Yates considered McQueen a marvelous actor, a study in movement.

McQueen had gotten Yates hired on the strength of the British director's first film, "Robbery," which had featured a highly regarded chase scene. In "Bullitt," McQueen is a San Francisco cop guarding a politically sensitive mob witness. When the witness is murdered, the cop becomes a political football.

Yates used McQueen well. He knew how the actor could command the screen in a close-up. You can't take your eyes off him. Several times in "Bullitt," Yates set up props in a crime scene investigation without McQueen knowing what was there, so in close-up we see the cop looking around, paying attention, and thinking as he figures things out.

Besides the technology of an early fax machine, "Bullitt" does not feel dated nearly 45 years later. McQueen's dark blue turtleneck under a brown sport coat could be in this month's GQ. Yates' insistence that the film be entirely shot on location in San Francisco, which was rarely used then, was unique, giving the film a dynamic, real and immediate atmosphere with the feel of a French or Italian film of the era.

"Bullitt" provided the template for the contemporary action film, especially in its famous 11-minute chase scene, featuring McQueen's 1968 Fastback Mustang GT flying over the hills of San Francisco in pursuit of the villains driving a shark-like Dodge Charger. With its always-moving camera, Oscar-winning editing and perfect sound design, the "Bullitt" chase scene is kinetic, sensory overload that never sacrifices character or emotional connectivity.

"Bullitt," like the '68 Mustang and its cool driver, remains a timeless classic.