Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Top Ten Steve McQueen Anti Heroes

Steve McQueen is one of the most iconic actors there is. He often played determined underdog characters that followed their own rules and didn't much care what anyone else had to say. A typical McQueen lead role is a guy that doesn't talk much, but gets things done undeterred by obstacles. Abandoned by mother and father, he had a troubled childhood with many visits to reform school, he once said "If I hadn't made it as an actor, I might have wound up a hood." Fortunately, he did become a star, his tough life providing fuel for his powerful screen persona. He became known for own traits as much as those of any character he portrayed, his love of racing, his girlfriends, and his combative nature. He had a lot in common with his characters, and said that he eventually learned to be ok with the fact that he was typically "playing himself." He never forget where he came from, staying in touch with the California Junior Boys Republic (a reform school)  where he had spent some time as a teen, in an attempt to help those who started out as troubled as he had been. Although he died at fifty years old, his influence remains strong today. Fortunately, he made the movies, so he can go on being the King of Cool forever.

10 Tom Horn, Tom Horn

Tom Horn is a modern twist on the western genre. Based on a true story, Tom Horn is a figure from the Old West, and the a renowned scout from the old frontier days. Offered a job by a local rancher to be a "cattle detective" Horn sets out to deter rustlers by tracking and killing them if need be. Townspeople beome uneasy about him after a public gunfight and the cattle companies realize that they can't be associated with the outrage although he's doing his job very well. Soon his enemies set him up, framing for the murder of a young boy. He barely resists the charges, and his statements are taken out of context to look like a confession. He escapes from prison, but is soon recaptured. Realizing that he's completely out of his element when it comes to modern politics he agrees and goes quietly to his execution for the crime.While this is not one of McQueen's best performances it's still an interesting story and character, Filmed while he was already feeling the cancer that would take him, this is not the Steve McQueen we remember. He seems to know he's beaten through the whole film, and even his talent at killing isn't much use. As much as McQueen
helped define an era, it's somewhat fitting that he would play a character who didn't fit into modern times.

If you really knew how dirty and raggedy-assed the Old West was, you wouldn't want any part of it.

9 Nevada Smith, Nevada Smith

Nevada Smith is a standard western revenge tale. Nevada is a half white, half Indian kid whose parents are murdered by three men Jesse Coe (Martin Landau,) Bill Bowdre (Arthur Kennedy,) and Tom Fitch (Karl Malden) when he's too young and unskilled to do anything about it. Taken in by a man named Jonas Cord (Brian Keith) he learns from him how to handle a gun. He learns every skill necessary to catch up with the killers, having himself thrown in prison and even learning to read in order to settle the score. "Nevada Smith" is a pretty predictable and standard western, but it is interesting to see Steve Mcqueen take the whole journey from helpless kid to competent killer.

You're just not worth killing.

8 Doc McCoy, The Getaway

Doc McCoy is a great bank robber who is granted parole due to the efforts of his wife Carol (Ali McGraw) who sleeps with Sheriff Benyon (Ben Johnson) to ake sure that it happens. Benyon however, also insists that Doc performs a robbery for him, using his own men, Frank and Rudy (Al Lettieri,) as part of the crew. Doc reluctantly accepts having little choice. The Sheriff's men botch the job. Frank and Rudy escape together, although Rudy kills Frank. Doc and Carol also escape and head for their rendezvous point. RUdy attempts to kill them but Doc shoots him and leaves him for dead. Doc and Carol meet with Benyon and find his real plan, The Sheriff brings up his tryst with Carol, and his plan to have her kill Doc. She kills the Sheriff instead. They take off, on the run from Benyon's people, while Rudy is also pursuing them although they still think he's dead. Doc struggles to trust Carol while they try to figure out a way to stay alive. The Getaway is a Sam Peckinpah film and certainly feels like it, using startling violence for effect. McQueen is firmly on the criminal side of the moral compass here, but even so, he's a lot more ethical than Sheriff Benyon, the law figure. He's certainly a convincing action hero, and we don't have a hard time believing he can handle the violence, but trusting his wife is another story.

If you're trying to get me back in Huntsville, you're going about it the right way.


7 Henry Thomas, Baby, The Rain Must Fall

Henry Thomas is a singer in a band, recently paroled. When his wife Georgette (Lee Remick) learns he's out, she comes to join him, bring their daughter along. Raised without a father, he's pressured by his abusive foster mother, Kate Dawson (Georgia Simmons) to stop singing and get a real job. He craves her approval, but she does nothing to support him, instead insisting even on her death bed that he's always been bad. Unable to deal with his issues, his temper gets the better of him and his old habits lead to the same place they always have, while his wife must try to accept that there's little she can do about it, and her best bet is to move on.McQueen here gives a terrific and weighty performance. While he isn't as "cool" here as he is on other films, he is once again playing the outsider. In this case however, the character is ill equipped to function in society. Having only his destructive habits to rely on, he seems destined to end up in prison time and again. His Henry is a real tragedy and thanks to his performance, a sadly believable one.

I'm not going to quit my music! You hear that, old lady?... I'm not going to quit music!

6. Vin Tanner, The Magnificent Seven

In this western remake of "The Seven Samurai" Vin Tanner comes to the aid of Chris (Yul Brynner) attempting to bury an Indian in the town cemetery, despite local protests that only whites are buried there. The two of them agree to help some visitors from a small Mexican village at the mercy of Calvera, (Eli Wallach) a bandit who frequently raids their village. They and five other gunmen follow the visitors back to their village, and all fortheirown reasons, assist them in getting rid of Calvera. This another all star cast similar to "The Great Escape," thistime including, RobertVaughan, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn. Here, McQueen is once again a standout almost taking the lead from Yul Brynner as the most well rounded and all around reliable character.

We deal in lead, friend.

5 Capt. Hilts "The Cooler King" The Great Escape

Capt. Hilts is one in a group of Allied POW's in a German WWII prison camp. Nicknamed "The Cooler King" since his behavior gets him many stints in the cooler, a version of solitary confinement. Led by Roger Bartlett, the Allied prisoners resolve to committ as many escape attempts as possible for two reasons; to escape, and to keep the German soldiers busy with them and away from the war. Hilts attempts his own escapes, which keep attention from the main plan, to dig a tunnel. ALthough the attempts have some success, nearly everyone is recaptured and most are killed, including 50 in a mass execution. McQueen is great here in an all star cast including, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson and James Coburn. His portrayal of Hilts is the best representation of the camp's determination to escape. While most of the camp works in concert, he's typically the wild card, his actions being relied on to draw attention away from others.

Sir, let me know the exact information you need. I'm going out tonight.

4 Eric Stoner, The Cincinatti Kid

Eric Stoner is the Cincinnati Kid, a talented and promising Poker player who wants to be the best. He's coached by his friend and once contender, Shooter (Karl Malden,) who helps him set up a game with Lancey Howard (Edward G. Robinson,) the man to beat if he wants to be the best there is. He's offerred a lot of assistance as Howard has his enemies, chiefly from a man named Slade (Rip Torn) who was humiliated by Lancey Howard in another game. He blackmails a dealer to give the Cincinnati Kid an edge. At the big game, The Cincinnati Kid discovers the cheating and insists that it be stopped, trusting in his own luck. When his demands aren't met, he insists on a change of dealers. The game between Howard goes back and forth finally coming down to the cards, leaving the Kid with his integrity perhaps, but wondering about his luck. Another role perfect for McQueen, The Cincinatti Kid is another guy stubbornly following his own kid. Very talented and full of confidence, he's flawed as well, and we wonder about his distinctions. He insists on only winning through his own luck, yet cheats on his girlfriend in a break from a poker game. While for some characters that may not be significant, for this character and the importance he places on his code, it's tough not to wonder if he changed his own luck.

Listen, Christian, after the game, I'll be The Man. I'll be the best there is. People will sit down at the table with you, just so they can say they played with The Man. And that's what I'm gonna be, Christian.

3. Papillon

Henri "Papillon" Charriere a bank robber, is convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison, to be served at an island penal colony. He quickly becomes friends with counterfeiter Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman,) who is an interesting foil for Papillon, relying on his brains, and physically limited, they reach a deal where Papillon  looks out for Dega who has many enemies, if Dega will fund Papillon's escape plans. He escapes but is soon caught and punished for refusing to give up Dega as his financial backer. He quickly comes up with another escape plan and this time takes Dega with him. They're soon separated however and when Papillon is eventually caught he gets five years of solitary and then sent to "Devil's Island" an inescapable prison where he's reunited with Dega and has to decide whether he's done with escape attempts or not. An interesting role and perfect for McQueen in that despite knowing he's a bank robber (although not a murderer he claims) we're asked to put that aside and accept his own code of morality, which here, is basically not being willing to endure the cruel conditions of imprisonment. His determination to escape even though it's impossible is the drive of the movie, along with the long lasting friendship between Papillon and Dega.

Me, they can kill. You, they own!

2. Jake Holman, The Sand Pebbles

Jake Holman is an engineer transferred to the U.S.S. San Pablo, (nicknamed the Sand Pebbles) a gunboat on the Yangtze River in China. Not fond of the Chinese, who are doing most of the work on board the ship, or the standard maintenance practices, which leave a lot to be desired, he insists on working the engine room himself. His insistence on a repair leads to him being blamed for the death of the Chinese engine room boss who was assisting. In training Po-Han (Mako,) the dead man's replacement, his opinion of the Chinese starts to broaden and he actually makes a friend. The friendship comes to a sad end when Po-Han  is captured and tortured and Holman shoots him to end his misery as he has no other options. His shipmate and friend, Frenchy (Richard Attenborough) falls in love and marries a Chinese woman, and is killed sneaking off the ship to see her. His wife is killed as well and the Communists frame Holman for it, adding to the U.S/ Chinese tension by demanding Holman be turned over to China, which the Captain refuses to do. They have the opportunity to leave, but the Captain decides instead on a dangerous rescue mission which leads to Holman making some tough decisions. Probably McQueen's most challenging role, Holman is on the surface an unlikable racist who can't along with others. In his interactions with others, we see that there is more depth to him than he willingly presents. He cares a lot more than he'd admit, although this doesn't typically lead to good things for him.

I was home. What happened? What the hell happened?

1. Lt. Frank Bullitt, Bullitt

Lt. Frank Bullitt is a cop who helped define the "Loose Cannon Cop" in films ever since. The role seems tailor made for McQueen, a stoic loner forced to try and outwit the system he works for just to do his job right. He loves his car but has no idea how to handle a relationship. Assigned a protection gig for a witness against a crime family, he watches as things go off the rails faster than should be possible and he ends up in a political danger as wells as physical. His true adversary in the film is ambitious politician, Chalmers (Robert Vaughan) who tries to sell Bullitt on compromising his integrity to advance his career, which is unsurprisingly not effective. Featuring one of the most memorable car chases in film history, terrific action sequences and a great backdrop for McQueen to be cool, determined, and detached while bringing in the bad guys.

Look, Chalmers, let's understand each other... I don't like you.


Unknown said...

Brilliant, brilliant post. I love Steve McQueen and this list contains my favorite performances. I could watch him for hours and hours, lost in his presence. He really had all of this contained energy that filtered out at just the right moments. I also loved him as the roguish Boon Hoggenbeck in The Reivers. He was funny and unlike many of his serious, "cool" characters.

INDBrent said...

Thanks, Mel! I definitely agree with you there. he was one of a kind and his presence really made the characters. Ah yes, "The Reivers" another good one, and yes a very different side of him in that!

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