Even at this late date, it's still a mistake to watch "Bullitt" and then get into your own car. Whether you've got a Mustang or a Beetle...
Even at this late date, it’s still a mistake to watch “Bullitt” and then get into your own car.
Whether you’ve got a Mustang or a Beetle, the Chernobylesque residual testosterone from the 1968 cop classic will pool in your right foot. Side effects might include taking air on hilly streets and getting pulled over by The Man.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t get behind the wheel to find the glorious new special edition “Bullitt” DVD, part of Warner’s box set “The Essential Steve McQueen Collection” ($68.92). It’s among the critical mass of machismo that includes the Turner Classic Movies documentary “Steve McQueen: The Essence of Cool,” which premiered June 1 (and included as an extra on “Bullitt”); the first season of his 1958 Western series, “Wanted Dead or Alive” (New Line, released June 7); and Fox’s handsome repackaging of four already available classics in “The Steve McQueen Collection.”
Try to think of a contemporary equivalent of McQueen, the ’60s quintessential superstar. When you’ve given up, boil him down to his basics: a thick layer of ice over a core of nitroglycerine.
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Even though he was a disciple of Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio, McQueen’s range as a thespian was limited. You wouldn’t find him taking a vanity run at “Hamlet” — which he once declared “candyass.” But he honed what he did to perfection and then drove it into the red.
An intense loner with X-ray blue eyes, McQueen was handsome and fit, but not a pretty-boy who’d been personal-trainered into porn-star buffness. His dangerous vibe was no persona. Stallone and Schwarzenegger never scared anyone. McQueen, people knew, would mess you up.
The well-worn cliché about a star like McQueen is that women want him and men want to be him. But no man would have wanted to pay that kind of freight. His upbringing would have made Dickens’ chin quiver.
Like your car-chase scenes with white-knuckle realism? Here are the top 10 car chases on film, period:
1. “Bullitt” (1968)
2. “The French Connection” (1971)
3. “To Live and Die in L.A.” (1985)
4. “Ronin” (1998)
5. “The Bourne Identity” (2002)
6. “The Seven-Ups” (1973)
7. “The Driver” (1978)
8. “The Italian Job” (1969)
9. “Gone in 60 Seconds” (1974)
10. “Vanishing Point” (1971)
McQueen was born a poor Hoosier, sired by a drunken father he never met and relentlessly taunted as a bastard. His drunken mother was hardly discreet about her part-time prostitution. He shuffled friendlessly between her (with her assorted abusive companions) and the relative idyll of a great-uncle’s hog farm before landing in reform school and then the Marines. Stealing hubcaps and working in bordellos were among the semi-literate young McQueen’s many dicey endeavors before he began making money as an actor.
Even as a fabulously rich superstar, he never could shake that past. McQueen’s first wife, Neile Adams, recalled his ordering two steaks at a New Orleans restaurant. She asked why he didn’t just start with one and order another if he was still hungry. His response: “What if there isn’t another one?”
Sources in the Turner doc and Christopher Sandford’s recent “McQueen — The Biography” (Taylor, $22.95) call the off-screen McQueen cheap, rebellious, driven, difficult, competitive, insecure, paranoid, astonishingly charitable in secret, loyal to a select few. Add “extreme” to all the above, as well as his reckless passion for anything with wheels or breasts.
It wasn’t the pot, booze or increasing violence that killed him at 50. It was, indirectly, the speed. Cancer, probably from the asbestos in his racing gear, along with exposure in the Marines.
He left behind carefully chosen performances that reflected who he was. The six from the “Essential” box, also available individually:
• “Never So Few” (1959): Not McQueen’s first film, but the first one that displayed him fully formed and marked him for the big time. As young Corporal Ringa, his nerve impresses rebellious Capt. Reynolds (Frank Sinatra) enough to recruit him to fight with Burmese natives against the Japanese in WWII. In his limited screen time, McQueen effortlessly robs attention from The Chairman. The too-Hollywood war flick is otherwise noteworthy for the ruthlessness of Sinatra’s character as well as lines including this one before he kisses Gina Lollobrigida: “OK, I’ll see you get a good conduct medal to add to the rest of your loot. Meantime, let me pin this one on you.”
Sinatra had given McQueen the break after bouncing Sammy Davis Jr. from the role because of a spat. The two bonded, but McQueen was even too cool for the Rat Pack. He turned down “Ocean’s Eleven,” not to mention “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
• “The Cincinnati Kid” (1965): McQueen is a talented young poker player who wants to win his own way in a marathon match against the aging master (Edward G. Robinson, elegant performance). Note the intensity when the Kid slams dealer Karl Malden against a door for sweetening his hand. The set wall shakes.
In his dishy DVD commentary, director Norman Jewison — who replaced Sam Peckinpah — recalls telling McQueen he couldn’t be the father figure he was looking for. And if the cockfight scene makes you cringe, he says the little blades on their legs are made of rubber. There’s also a shorter, “scene-specific” commentary from “Celebrity Poker Showdown” hosts Phil Gordon and Dave Foley. The latter wonders, “Who would have thought poker would be a more honest game than baseball?”
• “Bullitt” (1968): The seminal police thriller is a prime example of McQueen’s rising above his material. On paper, the story ain’t much: San Francisco detective Frank Bullitt is put in charge of protecting a mob informant who gets snuffed, then defies political pressure (from snakelike Robert Vaughn) to trust his gut and track the killers. As Lawrence Kasdan puts it in the included “Essence” documentary, McQueen had the coolest way of doing even the most mundane things. But if you remain skeptical about his acting chops, watch his eyes, his reactions. Watch him as he stands in a crime-scene room and wordlessly tries to piece events together.
Director Peter Yates’ semi-documentary style and the real S.F. locations elevate the material even more. In his commentary, Yates says the astonishing centerpiece car chase between a Mustang and a Charger was an afterthought not in the original script. A producer who’d seen a chase in Yates’ previous film added it because of McQueen’s well-known jones for racing. “Bullitt” won an Oscar for editing, and included on the double-disc edition is a very good feature-length documentary, “The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing.”
• “The Getaway” (1972): Here’s your Trifecta of Tough: McQueen, Peckinpah at the top of his game, working from a story by hard-boiled scribe Jim Thompson. If you’ve only seen the laughable Alec Baldwin remake, you’re in for a minor masterpiece.
Master thief “Doc” McCoy (McQueen) gets paroled after his wife (Ali MacGraw) succumbs to crooked local politician Ben Johnson — which leads to the still-jarring slapping scene between the couple later in the film. McCoy’s blackmailed into pulling an elaborate bank heist, discovers he’s been set up, then decisively blazes a trail of mayhem as he and his wife flee with the loot. Al Lettieri is wonderfully repellant as the wounded animal in pursuit who kidnaps a veterinarian and his wife.
The DVD includes a short “virtual commentary” with recorded interviews of Peckinpah, McQueen and McGraw playing as their photos appear on the side of the screen. There’s also a revealing commentary by a quartet of Peckinpah experts. For instance, note the karma when McQueen’s character snaps at Bo Hopkins for combing his hair. McQueen stole “The Magnificent Seven” from Yul Brynner with just such scenery-chewing. McQueen and MacGraw fell in love during filming, while she was still married to then-Paramount head Robert Evans.
• “Papillon” (1973): First released on DVD in 1999, but required viewing. McQueen earned a Golden Globe nomination in the title role of the memoir of the real-life Devil’s Island prisoner whose unbreakable spirit drives one escape attempt after another over the decades.
• “Tom Horn” (1980): McQueen’s penultimate movie was in some ways what “The Shootist” was for John Wayne: a full-circle completion of his cowboy persona, set at the time when such violent men were becoming obsolete. He plays another real-life outsider: the stubborn enforcer hired to stop cattle rustlers, and then framed for shooting a boy. McQueen’s assured, low-key performance — as he’s about to be hanged, Horn comforts the remorseful sheriff — is as beautiful as the outdoor locations. No DVD extras but the trailer. McQueen died later that year.
Also, from Paramount: “The Reivers” (1969, PG-13). The cloying Faulkner tale — about misadventures surrounding a purloined new 1905 automobile — was an odd choice for McQueen. But he gives a deft against-type performance as a 12-year-old’s roguish pal. Now if you still need to drive somewhere, try to come down with a few minutes of Lifetime Network first.
Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or firstname.lastname@example.org