Top Ten Steve McQueen Films
Steve McQueen was known as the King of Cool. Rugged, unflappable, and unrelenting, McQueen was known for playing rebels with rough edges and adrenaline in their veins. Starting off as a TV cowboy on the show Wanted: Dead or Alive, Steve made the unlikely jump to film and quickly became one of the biggest movie stars in Hollywood and an enduring cultural icon. A professional level race car driver and motorcyclist, Steve was a force to be reckoned with both onscreen and off. In 1978, he was even inducted into the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame for his career as an off-road racer.
Although known for his wild countercultural ways, Steve was also a loving and devoted father to his children, Chad and Terry, often taking them with him on location. Not growing up with a father himself, Steve spent much of his own adolescence at the Boys Republic in Chino Hills, CA (a reform school for troubled youngsters still in operation today). Forever grateful for the guidance he received there, he would visit the school often, at the height of his fame, to speak to the students. He was even known to demand extra jeans and toiletries in his contracts so they could be donated to the school later. Today, his grandson, Steven R. McQueen, is the one who continues the family acting legacy (appearing in shows such as Chicago Fire and The Vampire Diaries). But, if you have yet to see the original cool-as-ice rebel in action, you've come to the right place.
Keep in mind that I chose the order of these top 10 films by considering their importance in Steve’s overall career, as well as the size/importance of his role in them. I also took into account their overall popularity today as evidenced by their ratings on sites like IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes. Naturally, feel free to watch them in any order you like (this is merely a recommended top 10). You might watch them in the order listed here, chronologically (like I did), or in a way that corresponds with your own movie tastes. If you discover your favorite Steve McQueen film is missing, feel free to post a comment explaining why you would recommend it.
Top 10 Steve McQueen Films
- The Great Escape
- The Magnificent Seven
- The Sand Pebbles
- The Getaway
- The Cincinnati Kid
- Love With The Proper Stranger
- The Thomas Crown Affair
- An Enemy of the People
1. “The Great Escape” (1963)
Featuring Steve in one of his most iconic roles, The Great Escape is the movie that truly launched him into superstar status. Based on the book by Paul Brickhill and filmed entirely on location in Germany, The Great Escape tells the true story of the 1944 mass escape attempt made by WWII Allied prisoners from the high-security German POW camp Stalag Luft III. Steve plays the role of Captain Virgil Hilts, an American Air Force pilot dubbed “The Cooler King” for his frequent stints in isolation (i.e. “the cooler”) thanks to his various attempts to escape and habit of disrespecting the prison guards. Although Steve is only one of many great actors in this ensemble film, his scenes make such an impression, it gives the illusion he's in a much larger chunk of the movie than he, actually, is. Aside from McQueen, the film’s all-star cast includes Richard Attenborough (in his US film debut), James Garner, James Coburn, Donald Pleasence, and Charles Bronson. Most of the cast were genuine military veterans, including Steve, who had served in the Marines. Donald Pleasence, in particular, even doubled as a technical advisor on the film, since he had spent a year in a real German POW camp while serving in the Royal Air Force. One of The Great Escape’s most famous scenes is the extended motorcycle chase sequence across the German countryside, featuring Steve on a stolen German bike. Although Steve performed most of the film's stunt riding himself (even doubling for a German soldier at one point), the scene’s iconic sixty-foot motorcycle jump, actually, ended up being performed by his friend and stunt double, Bud Ekins. That said, Steve was capable of performing the stunt, himself (and made sure he got a chance to try while Ekins was rehearsing), however, Ekins had to be used in the film for insurance purposes.
2. “Papillon” (1973)
Based on the autobiographical novel of the same name, Papillon tells the true story of French convict Henri “Papillon” Charriere (played by Steve). Set in the 1930s, Papillon begins shortly after Charriere is falsely convicted of murder and given a life sentence to be served in the penal colony of French Guiana. On the voyage over, he meets and befriends fellow convict Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman), who was convicted of embezzlement and forgery. The two agree to look out for one another, but the horrors of the penal colony may be greater than either of them expect. Yet, regardless of the circumstances, Papillon still holds out hope for escape. A brutal film that may prove difficult for some to watch, Papillon features one of the greatest acting performances of Steve’s career. Unlike most movies, Papillon was, actually filmed in sequence, which allowed Steve to gradually build his character’s progression throughout the film. Although the film is based on Cherriere’s autobiography, it’s been suggested over the years that some of the details in the book may have been exaggerated or merged with the stories of some of Cherriere’s fellow inmates. Either way, the real Henri “Papillon” Charriere acted as a consultant while the production was filming in Jamaica but, unfortunately, passed away from lung cancer shortly before the film was released. The actual prison where Charriere had been held (The Prison of St-Laurent-du-Maroni) had long been abandoned by the time Papillon was made and was unusable as a filming location. So, instead, it was painstakingly recreated using the prison’s original blueprints.
3. “The Magnificent Seven” (1960)
Although Steve had appeared in a number of films before The Magnificent Seven was released, his role in this classic Western is the one most often considered his breakout performance. An American adaptation of the classic Japanese film, Seven Samurai, the movie stars Yul Brynner as Chris Adams, a Cajun gunslinger who is approached by three desperate Mexican farmers whose village is consistently ravaged by a group of bandits, led by the merciless Calvera (Eli Wallach). Recognizing Chris as an honorable man, the farmers ask him for advice about buying guns to defend their village. Chris suggests that they instead use their money to hire gunslingers and agrees to help them recruit. Although the villagers can only offer meager pay, Chris is, nevertheless, able to convince 6 men to come with him to Mexico to protect the small village from harm. Steve plays Chris’ unofficial second Vin Tanner, a lifelong gambler and gunslinger who is the very first to join Chris’ posse. Filmed on location in Mexico, The Magnificent Seven was directed by John Sturges, who Steve had worked with previously on the Frank Sinatra film Never So Few. Steve’s work on that film prompted Sturges to immediately consider casting him in this one. However, at the time, Steve was still under contract for his TV show, Wanted Dead or Alive. Steve was so desperate to appear in The Magnificent Seven that he purposely wrecked his car and claimed that he had suffered an injury that would prevent him from filming his show for a while. Once he was given time off, he secretly filmed The Magnificent Seven during his “recuperation time”. Along with its all-star cast, one of the most iconic elements of this film is its memorable Elmer Bernstein score. Even if you’ve never seen the movie before, you will most likely still recognize The Magnificent Seven’s main theme, as it has been referenced in countless films, commercials, and television shows over the years.
4. “The Sand Pebbles” (1966)
Based on the novel by Richard McKenna, this tragic war film brought Steve back to his military roots, while, also, marking the only time he was ever nominated for a Best Actor Oscar. Set in 1920s China, The Sand Pebbles stars Steve as Naval Petty Officer Jake Holman, who has just been transferred to the USS San Pablo on the Yangtze River Patrol. The San Pablo crew refer to themselves as Sand Pebbles, a play off of the ship’s nickname (“The Sand Pebble”). Not long after Jake arrives on the San Pablo, he is thrown by the ship’s bizarre social structure. Over time, the ship has taken on a number of local Chinese laborers and now these Chinese locals are the ones, actually, performing most of the ship’s work, rather than the actual naval crew. So, although Jake is officially the ship’s Machinist’s Mate, he is not, actually, expected to maintain the ship’s engine, himself. Rather, he is ordered to allow the Chinese laborers to do the work, even if they’re not necessarily trained for it. As a trained engineer, Jake immediately pushes back against this concept, putting himself at odds with the rest of the crew, as well as, the laborer currently in charge of the engine room, Chien. The more time Jake spends on the San Pablo and the more volatile relations between the US and China become, he becomes increasingly disillusioned with military life and the grim realities of war. Filmed primarily in Taiwan and Hong Kong, production on The Sand Pebbles was originally intended to last nine weeks but, ended up taking seven months. Even once production returned to Los Angeles to finish the film’s interior scenes, filming was halted for a number of weeks due to Steve suffering from an abscessed molar (he had avoided visiting a dentist while out of the country). After the grueling filming schedule was finally finished, Steve was so exhausted that he vowed he wouldn’t work for at least another year to recover. He was true to his word and didn’t return to work until 1968 (for The Thomas Crown Affair and Bullitt).
5. “Bullitt” (1968)
The first film to be produced by McQueen's production company, Solar Productions, Bullitt features Steve in what became one of his most memorable roles. Based on the novel Mute Witness by Robert L. Fish (written under the pseudonym “Robert L. Pike”), the film stars McQueen as Lieutenant Frank Bullitt of the San Francisco Police Department. Frank is personally requested by a US Senator to provide protective custody for a witness testifying in a Senate subcommittee hearing on organized crime. The witness, Johnny Ross, is taken to a cheap hotel where Bullitt and his team plan on taking shifts watching over him throughout the weekend. But, when things go awry, Frank is determined to find out how things went wrong and begins to suspect that there might be more to this story than he knows. Filmed entirely on location in San Francisco, Bullitt is famous for its highly influential car chase across the city’s mountainous streets (often referred to as the grandaddy of all car chases). Although a stunt driver was used, Steve actually did a large share of the driving, himself. This is made quite obvious by the frequency in which his face is visible in both the car’s window and its rear view mirror. Probably as famous as the chase, itself, is Frank Bullitt’s iconic Ford Mustang. Ford has released “Bullitt editions” of their Mustang more than once over the years to commemorate the film, the most recent being the 2020 Mustang Bullitt. As for the character of Frank Bullitt, Steve specifically based his characterization and styling on real-life SFPD inspector Dave Toschi, who would later become famous as one of the lead investigators of the Zodiac murders.
6. “The Getaway” (1972)
Based on the novel by Jim Thompson, The Getaway is the movie that first introduced Steve McQueen to his future wife, Ali MacGraw. Directed by Sam Peckinpah, the film features Steve as Carter “Doc” McCoy, a career criminal currently in prison serving a 10-year sentence for armed robbery. In order to secure Doc an early parole, Doc’s wife, Carol (MacGraw), cuts a deal with corrupt businessman Jack Beynon. Part of the deal involves Doc and Carol pulling off a bank heist alongside Beynon’s henchmen, Rudy and Frank. However, the robbery goes terribly, terribly wrong, forcing Doc and Carol to go on the run. Originally, The Getaway was meant to be adapted for the screen by the novel’s original author, Jim Thompson. However, McQueen objected to Thompson using the novel’s original downbeat ending, so screenwriter Walter Hill was brought in instead. In adapting the novel for the screen, Hill shifted the story’s original 1950s setting to contemporary 1970s and toned down some of the book’s violence to make Doc a slightly less “brutal” character. At the time location shooting for The Getaway began in Texas, MacGraw was still married to Paramount studio head Robert Evans, while Steve had recently separated from his first wife. The two actors experienced an instant attraction that elevated their scenes together and sparked an affair that would culminate in their marriage the following year. Steve was, actually, given final cut privileges for The Getaway, which caused some contention between him and Peckinpah. One controversial decision Steve made was to replace original composer Jerry Fielding’s score with a new score by Quincy Jones after the movie’s second preview. As a frequent collaborator with Fielding, Sam Peckinpah was so angered by the sudden change that he took out a full page ad in Daily Variety to express his displeasure at the decision and his appreciation for Fielding’s work.
7. “The Cincinnati Kid” (1965)
Based on the novel by Richard Jessup, The Cincinnati Kid stars Steve as Eric “The Kid” Stoner, a hot shot poker player in 1930s New Orleans just beginning to build a prestigious reputation for his skills. When famed poker player Lancey “The Man” Howard (Edward G. Robinson) comes into town, The Kid can’t resist the chance to take on the legend. Howard is happy to accept the challenge, putting The Kid’s reputation on the line as he participates in a tense marathon game of five-card stud to prove himself the very best. Although filmed on location in New Orleans, The Cincinnati Kid was, actually, set in St. Louis in the original book. The more colorful New Orleans was chosen for the film and it's hard to deny that the city does give the setting a unique flavor. Directed by Norman Jewison, The Cincinnati Kid, also, features a fantastic supporting cast that includes Ann-Margret, Karl Malden, Tuesday Weld, Joan Blondell, and Rip Torn. But, of course, it's the legendary Edward G. Robinson who gives one of his most iconic performances as the unflappable Lancey Howard (Robinson, himself, believed it to be one of the greatest performances of his career). Originally, Sam Peckinpah was slated to direct the film but, was fired very early on by producer Martin Ransohoff. Peckinpah had, actually, intended to shoot the movie in black-and-white to give it a vintage look, apparently forgetting that poker depends a great deal on the colored suits of the cards. When Norman Jewison took over, he immediately changed the film to color, knowing what a colossal mistake it would be to do otherwise. He did, however, still mute the film’s color slightly, both to make the card colors pop and to evoke a more period feel. Now considered one of the greatest poker movies ever made, The Cincinnati Kid is tailor-made for those who love the game. On the other hand, those who are unfamiliar with 5-card stud may have some trouble following it.
8. “Love With The Proper Stranger” (1963)
Although Steve played romantic leads quite frequently, Love with the Proper Stranger marks one of the few times Steve appeared in a film where the romantic storyline was not secondary to a more action-oriented or thriller-based plot. Set in New York City, the film revolves around the fallout of a one-night stand between musician Rocky Papasano (Steve) and Macy’s salesclerk Angela “Angie” Rossini (Natalie Wood). When Angie realizes that she’s pregnant, she manages to track down Rocky and bluntly informs him that she doesn’t expect (or need) any help from him. The one thing she does need is the name of a doctor for an abortion, so her domineering Italian family (who she still lives with) never finds out what happened. So, Rocky promises to help Angie find a doctor for the procedure. But, as the process of scheduling an abortion becomes trickier, shadier, and more expensive than anticipated, Rocky starts to suspect that Angie might need him around more than she thinks. Shot mostly on location in NYC’s Lower East Side, Love with the Proper Stranger is one of the few black-and-white films McQueen ever appeared in. Steve and Natalie Wood got along very well during filming and Natalie Wood, in particular, really loved working on this film. In fact, she would later call it “the most rewarding experience” she’d ever had working in movies. Although Love with the Proper Stranger was an original screenplay, the film’s screenwriter Arnold Schulman would later adapt the screenplay into a novel, prompting many fans to assume that the book came first (which was, obviously, not the case).
9. “The Thomas Crown Affair” (1968)
Reteaming McQueen with his Cincinnati Kid director, Norman Jewison, this stylish romantic caper tells the story of bored businessman Thomas Crown (Steve). Thomas is already a millionaire from his business dealings in real estate and investments, yet he masterminds the perfect bank heist, purely for his own amusement. He accomplishes this by employing 5 separate men who have never met him in person and, likewise, have never met each other. Each man is given a separate task to perform and they all go their separate ways when the crime is finished. Afterwards, they are all paid in installments by Crown to escape suspicion. After the “team” successfully steals over 2 million dollars, independent insurance investigator Vicki Anderson (Faye Dunaway) is contracted to investigate the robbery. Highly intuitive, Vicki knows as soon as she meets Thomas Crown that he's the one behind the robbery. The challenge is proving it. But, the even greater challenge Vicki must face is how to manipulate Thomas Crown without being manipulated by him in kind. Filmed on location around Boston and New Hampshire, The Thomas Crown Affair is all about the stylish visuals, as well as, the chemistry between McQueen and Dunaway. The film, actually, marks the very first time McQueen ever played an upper-class character. In fact, the part of Thomas Crown was originally intended for Sean Connery. Steve was only considered after the Bond actor turned the film down and it's been said that Connery later regretted not taking the role. One of the most memorable aspects of The Thomas Crown Affair is its music, which includes the Academy Award-winning song, “The Windmills of Your Mind” by Noel Harrison (son of Rex Harrison). Quite bizarrely, composer Michel Legrand’s musical score was, actually, written entirely separately from the film and the movie was later edited to fit the score, rather than the other way around. Despite this, Norman Jewison would later call it his favorite score out of his entire career.
10. “An Enemy of the People” (1978)
Based on Arthur Miller’s English adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play, An Enemy of the People was a big departure for Steve that went against his reputation as an “action star”. Set in the 1880s, Steve plays the role of Dr. Thomas Stockman, a simple doctor living in a small Norwegian town. As the brother of the town’s mayor, Peter Stockman, Thomas has been appointed the medical officer of a new spa and hot spring that is about to open in the town very soon. The entire town expects a busy tourist season because of the hot spring and are looking forward to the boost in revenue. However, Thomas discovers that the springs have been contaminated by the town’s nearby tannery and will require a major refurbishment to be safely used. When Peter hears of this, he is eager to keep the news under wraps and hopes to find a way to open the spa anyway, despite the possible health hazards. But, Thomas is a man of conviction and refuses to be bullied by his brother to stay quiet. However, Peter will not admit defeat so easily. Produced by Steve’s production company, Solar Productions, An Enemy of the People marked McQueen’s first film role in 4 years. Steve had been immediately intrigued by the play and saw the movie as an opportunity to prove himself as a classical dramatic actor. He took a pay cut to get the film made and oversaw the construction of the sets, personally. He even based his hair and makeup on pictures from a 1902 Swedish production of the original play. Unfortunately, An Enemy of the People ended up having a very limited theatrical release since the studio (Warner Bros.) didn’t really know how to promote Steve in a quiet period film. Due to its short run in theaters, the film has become very obscure, but it features a transformative performance by McQueen that every fan should see.
Honorable Mention: “The Blob” (1958)
I couldn't possibly finish a Steve McQueen Top 10 without mentioning the 1950s horror classic that gave Steve his very first starring role. Specifically set in July of 1957, The Blob revolves around the threat of a strange alien creature that crashes to Earth inside of a meteorite. Steve plays the role of teenager Steve Andrews, who (along with his girlfriend, Jane) is one of the first people to find the creature after it oozes out of the meteorite and attacks an old man. The creature is small at first and resembles an innocuous glob of jelly. But the more it absorbs, the larger it grows and the larger it grows, the more dangerous it becomes. Unfortunately, Steve and Jane seem to be the only ones who recognize the threat of this strange carnivorous creature. Arguably one of the best movies to come out of the campy 1950s sci-fi/horror trend, The Blob is certainly one of the most popular. Initially distributed as the B-film of a drive-in movie double feature (alongside I Married A Monster From Outer Space), The Blob’s surprise success prompted it to be quickly moved up to the main feature on movie theater schedules. Steve was only 28 when he did the film and as payment was offered either $3,000 or a lower fee plus 10% of the profits. Steve took the $3,000 and would live to regret it when The Blob ended up grossing over $4 million at the box office. Funnily enough, the name “the Blob” is never, actually, used in the movie. Even the script only ever referred to the creature as “the mass”. It was only after the movie was shot that the name “the Blob” was, finally, decided upon. Although The Blob was filmed all around the Valley Forge, Pennsylvania area, one particular town the movie was filmed in (Phoenixville, PA) continues to celebrate its connection to this fun monster movie. Phoenixville has been holding its annual Blobfest event since 2000, which always includes a re-enactment of the film’s classic movie theater scene and, of course, a screening of the film inside the actual Colonial Theatre used in the movie.
If you would like to learn more about the King of Cool, be sure to check out McQueen’s Motorcycles: Racing and Riding with the King of Cool by Matt Stone and Steve McQueen: The Salvation of an American Icon by Greg Laurie and Marshall Terrill.
© 2020 Lindsay Blenkarn