Look out, he's dangerous

He was pure sex - and it was all done with the twitch of a lip and the arch of an eyebrow. David Thomson remembers Steve McQueen

There is a re-make of The Thomas Crown Affair about to open, and the people behind it are taking a hell of a chance. In this updated version of the story about a man so rich he has grown bored with life, so he finds a hobby - robbing banks, Crown is played by Pierce Brosnan. Now, I am not unimpressed with Mr Brosnan. Better than anyone else, he has managed to say his name is James Bond without leaving us wistful for Sean Connery. He's handsome, urbane, smart and vaguely classy. Isn't that right for Crown? Well, yes, but no. Because I don't think I'm the only one, more than 30 years later, who says that the whole point of being Thomas Crown was not that the actor looked and behaved like a prince. No, if you were really hip to what happened with the original, you'd cast Sean Penn or Brad Pitt. Because - am I right, or am I right? - Thomas Crown was, is and ever will be Steve McQueen.

Dead nearly 19 years, McQueen is more than remembered. Rather, we have the eyes now to see that he was better than we thought, so sure about film's divining of inner being or hope. Norman Jewison, who directed the original Thomas Crown Affair, was violently against McQueen in the title role. He'd directed him in The Cincinnati Kid, so he knew how brutish and intractable he could be. But McQueen read the script and knew that's what he wanted to be. So many good movies begin with the star's fantasising energy. He ignored jokes that he'd never worn a tie before on screen (not quite true). He tried on good clothes. He thought of what it meant to have money and power (he had those) and assurance (much more elusive). Then one day, as even Jewison had to admit, he had the walk, the look and the presence of Crown - of a trucker turned into a tycoon.

Yet he had always been such a bad boy. McQueen was born in 1930 in a small town in Indiana, the child of a barnstorming flier who moved on a month or two after the birth, and never met his son again, and of a woman who left the boy to be looked after by older relatives in Slater, Missouri. Over the years, Steve saw his mother, but it's clear he blamed her far more than he did his father for being raised on a farm as a kind of orphan. He was tough and out of control, and by the time he went to Los Angeles in his early teens - trying to keep up with his mother - he was in gangs and a petty thief. The mother then turned him over to Boys' Republic, a kind of remand home.

With scant education, he went from there into the Merchant Marine, and then the Marines. He was in the brig twice after going AWOL to pursue chicks. That might have continued had he not found a tank to drive and tinker with. He was now set up as a guy who liked chicks and engines, with a deep fear and loathing of women, and who preferred to hang out with the boys, drive motor bikes and fast cars and keep gangs of eager groupies on call. He was also a lout with a nasty temper, a needler, a mean spirit, as well as a charmer who could switch from forbidding frown to happy-go-lucky lopsided grin in a split second.

It isn't a pretty story, but you feel its emotional authenticity. A lot of male movie stars live on the aura of toughness while hardly being on nodding terms with it in real life. By nature or early upbringing, McQueen was a hard, ungenerous spirit, a man who trusted no one and used anyone. From the beginning of his movie career, some of this hardness glared through the glamorizing light and could not be explained away. In his early work, the business seemed uncertain whether to cast McQueen as a possible hero, or as a loner, psychotic or villainous. Yet somehow, over the years, enough women nursed the notion on screen and off that they might soften and civilize him. No one ever did.

McQueen passed much of the 1950s as a would-be actor in New York. He studied with Uta Hagen (a respected teacher), which astonished everyone because his instinct was to rebuff advice or direction, and do as little as possible - just to be there, glowering and menacing. He was in the Dean and Brando tradition, except that he rejected their self-pity and neediness. Like many people psychically damaged, McQueen hated to show weakness. He married Neile, a beautiful half-Filipino dancer, in 1956, and they had two children.

He did some work on TV, and he took over from Ben Gazzara playing the junkie in Michael V Gazzo's play A Hatful of Rain. He had a tiny role in the Paul Newman film Somebody Up There Likes Me, and the lead in a cheap sci-fi picture, The Blob. But it was TV that made him: in 1958, he was cast as Josh Randall, the bounty hunter, in the series Wanted: Dead or Alive. He made Randall a laconic, self-sufficient cross between hero and outlaw, a man with only one friend - his sawn-off carbine. The show ran three seasons, and it got him the crucial role of second-in-command to Yul Brynner in the hit Western The Magnificent Seven, derived from the Japanese movie Seven Samurai.

Every film that followed helped: he was at his best as a lone soldier dedicated to combat in Hell is for Heroes, directed by Don Siegel; he was an American pilot stationed in England in The War Lover; and then came The Great Escape, directed by John Sturges, the man who had made The Magnificent Seven. It was a story of English and Americans in a German prisoner-of-war camp. It was based on fact and had several harsh realities - not least, German reprisals after the escape. But McQueen was like someone from a different film: a cocksure maverick who conquers all, and who is obsessed with motor bikes. For the first time, McQueen was allowed to act out his love of machines on screen.

Then, some canny influence urged a series of tough romances in which he was lured out of self-sufficiency and into love. In Love with the Proper Stranger, he was with Natalie Wood, who could not mask her infatuation; in Soldier in the Rain, he played with Tuesday Weld; and in Baby, The Rain Must Fall, his partner was Lee Remick. Though not one of those films was a great hit, by the mid-Sixties he was universally popular. This status was marked by his rather bored poker-player in The Cincinnati Kid and his ordinary seaman in The Sand Pebbles, a film for which he was Oscar- nominated - the statuette went to Paul Scofield in A Man for All Seasons.

Ninety-sixty-eight was his peak year, producing not just The Thomas Crown Affair but Bullitt. The former is flimsy fantasy, truth be told, what with a fashion-plate Faye Dunaway pretending to be a claims investigator and Michel Legrand's dreamy "Windmills of My Mind" like a silk scarf floating in balmy air. As usual, McQueen acted with mere twitches of the lip and half-feinting arches in an eyebrow. But he had become Crown in his own mind, and afterwards he used the alias to dodge celebrity attention just as he reclined on the film's "sophistication" to hide his own brutality.

Bullitt was another matter. Directed by the Englishman Peter Yates, it is a sultry entertainment with a prolonged car chase through San Francisco that is still a model for such daft things. A few years later, in San Francisco again, Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood made Dirty Harry in which a police detective is so disgusted by the constraints on his job that he ends by throwing his badge away. To McQueen, that was self-indulgence. Bullitt never gives up. But he despises the job and the local politician (Robert Vaughn) he has to appease. Bullitt's lack of team spirit is actually far truer to life than Harry's prima donna-ish huff. And Bullitt was sexy in ways Eastwood didn't encourage. Jacqueline Bisset was his girlfriend in the film, and he didn't have too much time for her. But you knew why she waited, and you felt a kind of crushed gentleness in McQueen.

Some whim made him do The Reivers, an adaptation from William Faulkner, and it flopped. But obsession had been waiting years for Le Mans, a tribute to cars and those who drove them. As boss on the venture, he hired his old chum, John Sturges, and then so goaded and humiliated him that the veteran walked off the set. That flopped, too, but McQueen was not damaged. Boys will be boys, his fans concluded, and in Sam Peckinpah's Junior Bonner he was a seasoned rodeo rider who can't quite grow up. But that led to another Peckinpah film, crucial in so many ways, The Getaway.

His character, Doc McCoy, is a convict who gets freed so that he can participate in a bank hold-up. Strings have been pulled somewhere in Texas. He guesses that his wife (Ali McGraw) has slept around to win his freedom. So when they're reunited he beats her up a little - McQueen had a real history of violence towards women. He and McGraw filmed that scene, and onlookers reported an alarming charge on the set. They went straight to a hotel and launched what would be a scandalous affair. Neile McQueen was already seeking a divorce - there had been so many affairs - bur Ali was married to a powerful producer, Robert Evans. McGraw was never a subtle actress, but you can feel the toxic chemistry between them all through the film - and guess the disaster that would be their actual marriage.

He then made two films as a super-star: The Towering Inferno and Papillon. In the latter, his co-star was Dustin Hoffman, someone McQueen disdained for his runty physique and his very actorly ways. Papillon was not a success in its day, but it's worth watching again to see how Hoffman acts his head off while a dour, dogged McQueen simply steals the picture.

Then he let his hair grow long and his waistline bulge. He lost the lean, hard look. Some say he was ill already; others believe his drug habit was building. It was not that he was just happy with Ali. His arrogance now aspired to something uplifting, and so he made a strange, hollow film of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People. Then cancer set in, and he went to Mexico in search of novel treatments. He married for a third time, to a young model, Barbara Minty, and he made two more forlorn pictures, I, Tom Horn and The Hunter. He boasted that he was going to beat cancer, but it took him apart.

The legend has not diminished. And the audience remains for Bullitt, The Getaway and Thomas Crown. Pierce Brosnan is all very well, until you get a look at McQueen and you know that this is a guy who could head-butt you and the camera and the world. The bleak childhood, the early death, the real unpleasantness, the sexual exploitation - somehow they don't detract from the charm. Steve McQueen makes even Clint Eastwood feel just a touch fussy or self-protective. The danger is real, and Ali McGraw was only the unlucky spokesperson for all those who felt the itch.

`The Thomas Crown Affair' opens on 20 August

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