Monday, December 17, 2012

The Five Best Steve McQueen Performances

McQueen & motorcycle.
1.  The Great Escape (1963). Steve McQueen probably would have become a superstar anyway, but his charismatic performance as "The Cooler King"--along with a terrific, fence-jumping motorcycle chase--hastened his fame. Although this classic POW action film features a fine ensemble cast (featuring James Garner, Charles Bronson, Richard Attenborough, etc.), McQueen stands out thanks to a distinctive, immensely likable character and the actor's unique brand of offhand humor.

McQueen and Natalie Wood.
2.  Love With the Proper Stranger (1964). This dramedy co-stars Natalie Wood as a sales clerk who seeks out McQueen's musician when she becomes pregnant following a brief fling. He doesn't even remember her--but agrees to help raise the money for an abortion. Wood earned an Oscar nomination for her performance, but McQueen steals the film with his realistic transformation from schmuck to suitor. Career-wise, it opened the door to more dramatic roles for the young actor.

3.  Bullitt (1968). On the one hand, you could argue that San Francisco police detective Frank Bullitt is a one-dimensional character that hardly warranted his own film--and I'd agree. However, it's a moot point because Bullitt is responsible more than any other film for defining the "McQueen cool." Think of Steve McQueen and chances are the first image will be of him wearing the black turtleneck, with shoulder holster, from Bullitt. And, of course, the shots of McQueen driving his dark green Mustang over the streets of San Francisco are so iconic that the film was selected for preservation by the U.S. National Film Registry in 2007.

4.  The Sand Pebbles (1966). 
Steve McQueen received his only Oscar nomination playing a Naval engineer who falls in love with a missionary in war-torn China in 1926. It's a good movie, but I wouldn't rank it among McQueen's best. Still, this is a list of his best performances and New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther noted this was "the most restrained, heartfelt, honest acting he (McQueen) has ever done."

5.  The Magnificent Seven (1960). This popular Western remake of the Akira Kurosawa's classic The Seven Samurai is my favorite McQueen film and features my personal favorite of his performances. As with The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven boasts an incredible ensemble cast peppered with engaging actors (e.g., Yul Brynner, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, etc.). McQueen makes every effort possible to steal all his scenes (a documentary once pointed out the numerous times he touches his hat to draw attention to himself). None of that is necessary as McQueen hits all the right notes as Brynner's de facto second-in-command.

Honorable Mentions: Hell Is for Heroes (a highly effective, modestly-budgeted war film with Fess Parker, Bobby Darin, James Coburn, and Bob Newhart); The Reivers (a change-of-pace role as Boon Hoggenbeck, a Faulkner character); and The Getaway.

What are your picks for Steve McQueen's best performances?


  1. Even if he didn't attempt the accent, he got everything else right as PAPILLON. THE REIVERS is a personal favorite of mine, and in THE CINCINNATI KID he matches the great Edward G. Robinson (no easy task).

    I need to see AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE (the only McQueen film I haven't seen yet).

  2. Junior Bonner is my favourite McQueen performance; I think Steve really identified with the world weariness of the character at that stage of his life.
    I also enjoyed his work in his penultimate film Tom Horn.

  3. I also enjoy McQueen in "The Magnificent Seven" where he did handle his hat numerous times and "The Great Escape" where he made do quite nicely without a hat. A tip of the hat to you, Rick, for this fun post!

  4. PAPILLON is a personal favorite of mine, and don't forget THE WAR LOVER.

  5. I second Hal's nomination for "The Cincinnati Kid". That final poker scene between McQueen and Edward G. is really something, and I don't even play (and scarcely) understand poker.

  6. The Sand Pebbles is a really an overlooked gem...anchored by a stellar McQueen performance...beautiful cinematography...great story line (if a bit long) doctom666

  7. The Sand Pebbles is his best IMO. McQueen is pretty much terrific in all his films, and I'm particularly glad you included Love and the Proper Stranger, a wonderful film and Wood's best performance.

  8. His performance in THE SAND PEBBLES was his most complex and nuanced- but he's a lot of fun in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, stealing the show from Brynner.

  9. For me, McQueen's best performance was in THE SAND PEEBLES which I watched for the first time this year. I would also go with THE CINCINATTI KID. Like you and some other mentioned he is a lot of fun to watch in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, THE GREAT ESCAPE and BULLITT. Mostly, he just plays Steve McQueen. I also thought he was miscast as an Italian-American in WITH THE PROPER STRANGER - no way!

  10. I totally agree that The Magnificent Seven was his best -- don't you love the line "You don't happen to have an older grateful sister, do you?" Just a great movie all around. My second would be Papillon, a marvelous performance too. Your list otherwise is aces with me!

  11. I like his performance in Solider In The Rain, with Jackie Gleason, Tony Bill,and Tuesday Weld with a script by Blake Edwards. BTW Rick, The Mustang in Bullitt is GREEN, not black.

    1. Thanks, Paul! Correction made...the dark green looks black on my old copy :)

  12. Rick,THe other car (The Charger) was Black.