Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The McQueen Persona, Part I: The Righteous Rebel (Bullitt & An Enemy of the People)

This entry is for the Steve McQueen Blog-A-Thon at Jason Bellamy's blog The Cooler.

I never considered Steve McQueen the greatest actor, as much as I considered him a great presence. One has to look at today's "movie stars" to truly appreciate what McQueen brought to movies that were, for the most part, mostly memorable due to him. He seemed to have a mature, been around the block quality even in his early thirties, while many present-day actors are more pretty and boyish even when some of them are approaching forty. He may have been considered too cool, and, by turn, too unemotional by some, but he still represents to me more how men really are or perhaps should be. Maybe, these days, pop psychology has infected male characterizations so much that I prefer some of the mystery that McQueen's opaque performance style offers.

For my two entries into this blog-a-thon, I will contrast two McQueen performances and films that have 10 year gaps between them. Most of McQueen's choice of roles had to do more with fitting a certain aspect of his persona than necessarily challenging his range as an actor. At first glance, you would think these two films could not be more different from each other, since the little-seen "An Enemy of the People" was made as a passion project by McQueen and renders him nearly unrecognizable under a long hair and beard. But there are some similarities between what some consider his most iconic performance and his least-seen one.

I had recently revisited "Bullitt", directed by Peter Yates, for the first time in about two decades and have to admit that the movie is almost a perfect example of how McQueen elevates what seems now to be a somewhat substandard film. McQueen plays one of film's early supercops Frank Bullitt, who is tasked by a politician (played by Robert Vaughn) with guarding a mobster who will be a witness for a Senate subcommittee hearing on organized crime. When one of his partners gets shot and the mobster killed by hitmen, Bullitt takes it upon himself to bend the rules to find out who was behind it and achieve his sense of justice.

Now, it does pain me to say this, but "Bullitt" is very much a relic of its time in style. There is little depth to the story, which leads to a lot of moments in the film that seem like padding to make the film reach its near-2 hour running time. When Bullitt's partner is operated on, the film spends about three minutes observing this, as well as Bullitt waiting outside in the hallway. Every scene with his girlfriend Cathy (played by Jacqueline Bisset) seems inconsequential until she is brought by Bullitt, for contrived reasons, to a crime scene and accidentally sees a dead body. This results in some halfhearted attempt to demonstrate that Bullitt lives in a violent world that she (and us) will never understand. It seems as if the story is attempting some sort of moral quandary about justice and violence, but the cop movie cliches are piled on so high that the film substitutes moving at a snail's pace and deadly serious facial expressions to suggest nearly non-existent depth. You can almost call it the "Miami Vice" of its day, although not as pretentious. It seems primed to be satired, as it was when Michael Murphy played a Bullitt-like character (complete with turtleneck shirt) in Robert Altman's "Brewster McCloud".

"Bullitt" coasts on the rebellious side of McQueen's persona. Even when his character is breaking the rules such as hiding the dead body of the informant away from Vaughn and his underlings, the movie is clearly on his side. He represents the moralistic holdout in a very corrupt world where the mobsters and the politicians are not to be trusted. McQueen does not talk much throughout the film, but when he does, he comes across more than a little self-righteous. Without any doubt, Frank Bullitt sees the big picture that everyone else is too short-sighted and amoral to see.

Strangely enough, I found myself admiring McQueen's work in the role, while not believing for a minute that this person can exist in the real world. Someone like Harry Callahan may be trigger-happy and flaunt the law whenever he pleases, but "Dirty Harry" actually presents his ideology in a way that you would understand and even empathize with though you may disagree with it. McQueen largely has to sell his character's ideology mostly on facial expressions and carrying himself with a level of confidence that suggests he came to his way of thinking through life experience. The problem I have with "Bullitt" is that the script does McQueen's performance no favors in making us understand him. Do we really understand Frank Bullitt any more at the end than at the beginning?

So, largely, the film, made at the midpoint of McQueen's stardom, seems designed to sell us his persona from previous movies, but does little to challenge it. Everyone in the film besides Bullitt's partners and his girlfriend are all suspect. Let's be honest. The character of Cathy exists more to prove how virile our hero is rather than seriously considering her discomfort with his line of work. To sell the Righteous Rebel aspect of McQueen, the movie itself becomes a bit of a macho posture, inferring Bullitt must be right because he's a man's man. A cop who is named after the lead that comes out of his gun has to be a serious bad-ass, right?

McQueen's characters have always had some rebellious streak in them, but what sets Frank Bullitt and Dr. Thomas Stockmann in "Enemy of the People" apart from his other roles are that both films are strictly about casting his characters as the sole voice of reason. These admittedly play into the idea that McQueen was protecting himself as a star, which would not be a new concept. Much has been discussed how Mel Gibson's roles often cast him as a martyr (who often gets tortured for his salvation) or how Harrison Ford found one role after another that cast himself as the protector of his family. That said, it is often when actors step out of their comfort zones that they do some of their most interesting work.

Steve McQueen's role as Stockmann in "Enemy" was seen by many as a stretch because he transformed himself physically to play a role in a serious work of drama by Henrik Ibsen. The film was produced by McQueen and made for very little money (and it certainly looks it). Warner Brothers barely released the film into theaters clearly because any McQueen film where he was not driving a car or riding a motorcycle or putting out a towering inferno would not be seen as heroic enough for his core audience. I am sure that some may have even considered him too limited an actor to even attempt pulling off a role like this.

The thing is McQueen acquits himself quite well in the role, never bringing attention to the McQueen persona, even if the role does share many qualities with it. Like "Bullitt", I believe the film is elevated by his performance, although the supporting cast is a little stronger this time around. I wish I could have enthusiasm for the film or even the play itself. Directed by George Schaefer (whose resume before and after has been television), "Enemy" is the story of Dr. Thomas Stockmann who has helped come up with the idea of building a health spa with a spring in the town that will help heal people. However, when he discovers that the water running into the spring is contaminated by the local tannery, he wants to blow the whistle on this project which puts him at odds with the town's mayor, his own brother (played by Charles Durning). Since the mayor does not want to lose the money this new project will bring to the town, he decides to undermine his brother (and, in turn, discredit his good name) and spread the word that the project would have to be put off two years and everyone's taxes would need to be raised in order to fix it. Sound familiar to anyone following the health care debate?

While understanding the film had a low budget, "Enemy" still has the feeling of being stage-bound. The cinematography by Paul Lohmann (who shot both "Nashville" and "California Split") has lighting that seems like you are watching a VHS copy of a televised play from PBS in the 1970's. As what happens with adapting most plays to film, scenes drag on with characters often announcing their conflicts while also struggling to make awkward entrances and exits seem organic to the drama. It does not help that while I admire the message of Ibsen's play, it was relatively easy to see where it was going. It stacks the deck so much in casting Stockmann as the sole truth teller.

The highlight of the film is the scene when Stockmann attempts to address the town with his findings about the spring but is thwarted by his brother and anyone else the mayor has in his pocket. One can see how this moment reflects how the most honest voices are silenced by the shouting mob. Once again, sound familiar? This scene also showcases some of McQueen's best work on his film, as he attempts to explain the importance of hearing every opinion on a subject, however much it pains people to hear that inconvenient truth. This is actually one of McQueen's most vulnerable moments on film, an actor usually dependent on gestures and stances using eloquent words to make his argument, while, deep down, we know that he does not stand a chance at talking some sense into these people's heads. This scene makes watching the movie worthwhile.

As much as something like "Enemy" seems on the surface to be a stretch for McQueen as an actor, he essentially represents the Righteous Rebel viewpoint in this, as well as "Bullitt". Stockmann and Bullitt are constantly told again and again that what they are doing is wrong. They essentially tell him that he is disrupting the natural order of things. In one movie, Vaughn explains to him that he has to learn to play the game and, in the other movie, Durning tells him to stop making waves and accept things as they are. These films represent the typical story arcs of the non-comformist, although I think "Enemy" does a better job at convincing us of Stockmann's independent thought. As much as someone like Bullitt is told to control himself, he pretty much runs rampant around San Francisco and does not have much hesitation shooting people or participating in a car chase throughout the city. It is easy to stand your ground when you have a gun and a badge (a close-up of them is the final shot of the film) and your superiors only slap your wrists occasionally.

What does this say about McQueen himself? Now, it is hard to suggest any motivations about why he chose these roles, as I obviously do not know him. However, it has been my theory that actors do choose roles as some sort of wish-fulfillment. In someone like McQueen's case, I think this was true a great deal of the time. Because he did not have the greatest range as an actor, he tended to act in vehicles that represented his innate rebelliousness and confidence, as well as his propensity for physical stunts, as something admirable. There is a lot of reason men during the '60's and '70's not only admired McQueen for being the King of Cool, but they wanted to be him. Films like "Bullitt" and even "An Enemy of the People" cast McQueen in a somewhat worshipful light. His characters are right from the beginning to end and everyone else is a fool.

In these roles, you can see McQueen almost believing in his own hype. Both films would have significantly improved if they had suggested some deeper shadings into Bullitt and Stockmann. What both stories are missing is a sense of doubt, not only in the main characters but those that surround them which makes for more obvious drama and does not allow McQueen to go a little further into turning these characters into more than symbols. Perhaps, in both cases, McQueen was trying to enhance his image, although one was one of his most commercial films and the other was definitely his least. While McQueen does do admirable work in whatever both roles allow him, I actually believe this side of his persona, the Righteous Rebel, gets in the way of truly delivering his best work.

And, now, a song:

In Part II (which I will publish before this blog-a-thon ends), I will discuss what I consider a more interesting side of the McQueen Persona, The Imprisoned Free Spirit, where I will focus on his roles in "The Great Escape" and "Papillon".

Bullitt was viewed on DVD via Netflix. An Enemy of the People is available from Warner Brothers as a DVD-R, which can be ordered from them directly.


Jason Bellamy said...

Wonderful, Steven! Great stuff. A few replies ...

* You can almost call it the "Miami Vice" of its day.

Assuming you're referring to Mann's film, you're right on. In fact, I've often said that Mann would be the perfect director to helm a Bullitt remake. And Bullitt is a perfect film to be remade because -- as in the case of Miami Vice -- it isn't really about anything. You just need the right setting (San Francisco, in this case) and the right accoutrements (a car chase, for example).

* I agree with most of your assessment of Bullitt, but over time I've found a little -- just a little -- more depth there. The key is that last shot: Bullitt washing his face; his girlfriend sleeping in the other room; his gun off his hip but on the railing between them. Like a Mann character (particularly from Heat), Bullitt can't escape who he is, even as he recognizes that he's losing himself to his world of violence, becoming so numb that he indeed doesn't think twice about tearing through San Francisco in pursuit of the bad guys. Now, we're supposed to revel in the cool of the character, no doubt about it. But I think we're also supposed to see that he's mostly numb to the world around him. What Bullitt lacks is an arc. As you say, we don't learn anything about him. Beyond that, what we know doesn't change. If the movie were made today, it would get the Syd Field treatment and Bullitt would evolve. Instead, he just is. And, well, I'm OK with that.

* You've done well to identify McQueen's strengths in Enemy, a movie that reveals McQueen didn't have to be quite so narrow. Alas, that's one of just three McQueen films I didn't have time to review prior to the blog-a-thon, and my memory of it is somewhat faint. But your description matches it. Nice job.

* However, it has been my theory that actors do choose roles as some sort of wish-fulfillment.

That could be possible. Another option, I think, is fear. I re-read the biography Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel, and I think it's James Coburn who says that you didn't want to take McQueen to a football game because he would be worried the guys in the huddle were talking about him. He was paranoid. His really was a rags to riches story, and I think he lived in constant fear that it would all disappear. He was also a noted cheapskate, and so it only makes sense that he was frequently drawn to those big-ticket movie roles (he wanted to get paid), which tend to be less nuanced in the first place. And then there was his lack of education, which made dialogue difficult for him, and so he cut it almost whenever he could.

I think the wish fulfillment factor with McQueen was less about wanting to be this cool -- because homeboy was part of the reason these guys were so cool (imagine another actor in the role of Bullitt and he's entirely different). But as he had success doing less, I think he kept chasing that, assuming that he could keep cutting, keep minimizing and have it work. He believed this right on through Le Mans, when he went too far, and then he started to loosen up again.

I will say this, though: There aren't many McQueen roles that I can look at and say, "You know, if they would have put Paul Newman there (a peer with far greater range and emotional complexity), that character would have worked." Again, I'm sure McQueen had a part in the narrowness of his performances. But was he ever given a great character? Not exactly.

Excite for Part 2!

Hokahey said...

Another great analysis of McQueen's persona. Well done. Yes, McQueen brings great presence to a flimsy script in Bullitt.

Jason makes an apt comparison with Heat. I've always wondered if Mann thought of Bullitt when he staged his own pursuit-through-the-airport sequence.

I see more conflict and depth in McQueen's role as Jake Holman as he grows more and more disillusioned with the military and disgusted with his participation in violence.

Steven Santos said...

Thanks, Jason and Hokahey, for the comments.


I was referring to Mann's film which I think exists like "Bullitt" mostly for producing its own vibe. I wouldn't be surprised if Mann devoted a scene to his protagonists buying tv dinners! Like Hokahey, "Heat" was the first movie I thought of during that airport chase.

Also, you are certainly right that fear played a big part in McQueen's choices, as it probably does for any star of that caliber. To his credit, even in his most obvious paycheck roles, he injects a certain human quality to stock characters that almost makes you forget that he's coasting a bit.