After his death, Steve McQueen reached rebel-cool icon status based on his off-screen machismo (racing cars and motorcycles, martial arts with Bruce Lee, stealing Robert Evans’ wife) and partly on his actual film resume, which in retrospect isn’t as great as you would expect. His peak years start in ’63 with his one masterpiece, The Great Escape (he did the overrated but still influential Western The Magnificent Seven a few years earlier), a couple of big hits that now feel more like remake-bait time capsules (The Thomas Crown Affair and The Cincinnati Kid), and of course there is also Bullitt, largely famous for its amazing high-speed San Francisco auto chases. But for the most part the late sixties were rounded out with forgotten melodramas (Love with the Proper Stranger, Baby the Rain Must Fall and The Sand Pebbles). The early seventies include a couple lesser collaborations with Sam Peckinpah (Junior Bonner and The Getaway) and the super cast/super dud The Towering Inferno. But besides appearing as himself in the Oscar-winning motorcycle documentary On Any Sunday, McQueen’s best film since The Great Escape is the epic Papillon, a film that has been written off by some as overly long and cold. But for my money it’s one of the best prison escape movies ever, as well as an eye-opening look at worlds I knew little about. (ALSO OF NOTE: I first saw it as a very young kid, in its second run at a drive-in, and there are some moments of violence that then confused me, but have stuck with me ever since.)
Based on the questionable autobiography of French petty criminal Henri “Papillon” Charrière, (played by the very American McQueen and shot in exotic locations all over the world) the script is credited to blacklisted legend Dalton Trumbo (Spartacus) and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (one of the creators of the '60s Batman TV series). The film begins in pre-WWII France with Papillon and other convicted criminals being marched through town and on to a boat to be shipped off to a French penal colony work camp. On the long and brutal ship ride, Papillon strikes a deal with a wealthy and rather famous forger, Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman in full nebbish mode), for protection. With a promise to keep the meek embezzler alive, Dega will finance any escape attempts. Through the course of time, the two strike up an unlikely friendship (a prison adventure Midnight Cowboy). The film covers years in swampy, tough malaria-plagued conditions, finally ending on the infamous Devil’s Island. The film is loaded with wonderful set pieces, including long and short escape attempts, a leper colony, sadistic guards, creepy prisoners, solitary confinements and lots of double crosses (even a nun stabs Papillon in the back). It’s a survival saga and a friendship story, though the survival aspect is the highlight.Continue Reading
Back in ’77 the film Sorcerer was considered a mega-bomb, both artistically and financially. Coming off the mammoth success of both The French Connection and The Exorcist, it would mark the beginning of an enormous career decline for director William Friedkin. However in retrospect, Sorcerer is one badass action thriller and one of the most underrated films of the '70s.
By the end of the decade many of Friedkin’s peers, that great class of '70s film directors who set a new benchmark with their important and revolutionary films earlier in the decade, seemed to get bitten with the overindulgent bug. After years of hitting it out of the park, a number of these "geniuses" created what were considered duds with would-be epics. Spielberg had the loud 1941, Scorsese made the boring musical New York, New York, Coppola put forth the unwatchable One From The Heart, and Bogdanovich had a string of disasters. And of course Michael Cimino, after the success of The Deer Hunter, would help to sink a whole studio with his artsy Western Heaven’s Gate (which was derided for years, but more recently has found a new wave of critical support). Then it was Friedkin's turn to swing for his home run. For his epic he would do a remake of French director Henri-Georges Clouzot's adventure movie, Le Salaire de la Peur (The Wages Of Fear). Clouzot had of course also done the greatest French mystery thriller of all time, the more Hitchcockian than Hitchcock Les Diaboliques (Diabolique). Friedkin developed the remake for superstar Steve McQueen to head the international cast. Sorcerer was green-lighted with a budget that in its day made it a big, big event movie. But unfortunately McQueen got sick and then died and the film never made back its bucks. But what ended up on the screen is wildly spectacular filmmaking.Continue Reading
The Great Escape
After putting together a super team for the exciting western The Magnificent Seven, director John Sturges assembled the rat-pack for the much duller western, Sergeants 3; so down but not out, Sturges reconvened some of his Magnificent Seven cast for his masterpiece, the WWII POW epic The Great Escape. With apologies to King Rat, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, Empire of the Sun, The Hill, and even Victory, the official, no- arguments-allowed Big Three of POW flicks are (in order of release): Stalag 17 then The Bridge on the River Kwai, and finally The Great Escape; you can argue which of the Big Three is tops, but all three are wonderful and will rank in any war movie best-of list.
Like the recent action flicks The Expendables or The Avengers, The Great Escape is about assembling the team of super cool (now familiar) faces. The Magnificent Seven put the young supporting Steve McQueen on the A-List. Here, he’s the top dog and it may be his most memorable role; joined by two of the other Seven co-stars, Charles Bronson and James Coburn (who would both go on to be big stars in the years to come), with James Garner bringing his awe-shucks charm that would captivate TV audiences for decades and, rounding out the team, the British actors Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasence, David McCallum, and James Donald (who was also in The Bridge on the River Kwai), lending some class to the team.