The Hunter (1980)

hunterSteve McQueen’s last movie.

Fate made it that- I believe that McQueen discovered he was seriously ill only after finishing shooting The Hunter, and sadly passed away in November 1980, at the age of just 50 years old; far too young, and a huge loss to American film. Not, perhaps, that you could tell that from the quality -or lack of- demonstrated in this mediocre action film, but anyone who knew of McQueen and was aware of his filmography, the roles that he had played, so many of them iconic, anyone could appreciate the loss. Most actors make good films, great films -if they are lucky- but most actors also make bad films, lousy films. Its just a bitter turn of fate that Steve McQueen, once the biggest star on the planet, made a pretty dire film for his last film.

The most shocking thing about The Hunter, to me, is just how much it looks like a tv movie, or the pilot of a tv series. Seriously, I wouldn’t have been surprised had I looked it up afterwards and learned that McQueen was dabbling with making a tv series and that this was a prospective pilot. And believe me, back in 1980, there was nothing good about that- the scale and ambition of HBO and Netflix etc were decades away, and television was really looked down upon as cheap and inferior, so a movie looking like an episode of The Fall Guy or Starsky and Hutch?  Featuring someone who was once the biggest male superstar in film? And it turns out to be his swansong, his last film, his farewell picture? Shocking, perhaps, is not strong enough a word.

True, The Hunter has its moments -very few of them, anyway- but mostly they are moments of nostalgia, from seeing familiar faces like Eli Wallach, Ben Johnson, and realising that yes, that’s Levar Burton (Star Trek :The Next Generation‘s Geordi La Forge) sharing scenes with Steve McQueen, by God! And sure, maybe there is some appeal in its simplistic, daft, easy going sense of very gentle fun. The film has an almost archaic, sweet sense of humour, and perhaps there are hints, in self-deprecating moments, of the approach and films that McQueen would have possibly made in later years, reflecting his age. But as a whole, it really doesn’t work, the screenplay appallingly predictable,  shamefully low-ambition, the film cheap and almost amateur in production, barring a few nice stunts/chase sequences in an era before green screen and CGI wire-removal made everything so safe and easy.

Had Steve McQueen not been involved, I am sure The Hunter would have been long forgotten. Maybe it has been, to a degree, other than being a pub-quiz question regarding what was McQueen’s last movie. There are far better films to remember Steve McQueen, the Hollywood icon, than what turned out to be his lamentable last film.


Steve McQueen: The Man and Le Mans

smcqSteve McQueen: The Man and Le Mans is a documentary film about the making of a movie- the 1971 misfire Le Mans, a passion project of Steve McQueen, the King of Cool who after the successes of his previous films could seemingly do no wrong, but proved ultimately undone by his obsession. Its one of those tales of ambition and excess and the folly of over-reaching that is so familiar to movie fans, tales the like of which can be an obsession of their own. Whether it be the disaster-turned-triumph of Apocalypse Now, or the grand what-if of films like The Magnificent Ambersons, the making of movies can be as fascinating as the films themselves. I have never seen Le Mans, but from what I have heard of it, I assume that this documentary is more entertaining than the film it chronicles- for all I know, the film may be a masterwork, but I doubt it.

McQueen of course needs no introduction, he is one of the great icons of Hollywood, hardly ‘real’ now at all- star of so many classics (The Great Escape, Bullitt, Papillon, and so many others) he’s become more a screen legend, the real person lost in the shadow of those changeless, classic films that play over and over. One of the chief rewards of this fascinating documentary is the glimpse of the ‘real’ man – the actor, the producer, the flawed and monumental ego. It is surprisingly candid, painting McQueen in at times a decidedly unfavourable light: it is claimed by one interviewee that McQueen, at the time married with children, was a serial adulterer on-set, bedding as many as twelve women a week during the shoot. His passion for racing cars off-set as well as on-set endangered the lives of others, and when he crashed a car with beautiful co-star Elga Andersen alongside him, he bullied his personal assistant to take the blame rather than risk losing control of the project. On the other hand, many of the racing drivers and colleagues appearing in the film talk of the star with great respect and affection.

smcq2The film’s main problem was that it was being shot without a script, filming at Le Mans both during the 1970 24-hour race (McQueen intended to take part in the actual race, but the films insurers put a stop to such daring ambition) and then spending months at the track recreating the race with professional racing drivers, one of whom lost half a leg after a bad crash. The films biggest problem was that no-one, it seemed, could crack the script, measure it up to McQueen’s ambition to create the definitive, ultimate racing movie. Alan Trussman, screenwriter of McQueen’s earlier triumphs Bullitt and The Thomas Crown Affair, described a bruising meeting with the star, after which he never worked again in Hollywood: “I was the highest-paid screenwriter in town when I went to that meeting,” Trussman recalled, “and after that meeting, the phone never rang again.” McQueen’s role as producer caused increasing friction with the film’s director, John Sturges (of The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven) who walked away from the project. Finally the panicked studio took control of the movie and diluted of its star’s grander ambitions, finally cobbled together a releasable movie from the millions of feet of film, which was released to poor commercial and critical response. It was a bitter experience for McQueen.

Its one of those stories of the corrupting power of huge success and wealth, someone reaching the top of the mountain and finding the only next step is down, and the all-too familiar tale of a film running out of control. Its a surprisingly affecting film, in which the candid treatment of the actor (part Coolest Man Alive, part Total Asshole) allows us a fascinating glimpse of, as one interviewee puts it, McQueen as Icarus, over-reaching and too close to the sun. Ultimately, regardless of the Silver Screen dreams he now appears in forever, he was only human, living as so few of us could ever dream of.

Steve McQueen: The Man and Le Mans is currently available on the BBC iPlayer, and also on DVD and Blu-ray 

The Great Escape Pt 2: Papillon (1973)

pap1Ladies and gentlemen: the Randomness of the Universe. Its a terrifying thing; Lovecraft wrote about a universe of chaos, of a mindless cosmos utterly ignorant of us, and our place so insignificant within it that the stark reality of it was enough to drive men mad. Patterns within it, a sense of meaning, well, that’s all just constructs of our minds, it’s just the way our brains work. Its why we ‘see’ recognisable shapes and objects in clouds. We discern patterns that aren’t really there- we see ‘God’, we see ‘meaning’ in our lives, some rational explanation for existence. We are good storytellers too.

How does any of this relate to Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1973 prison epic Papillon?

Well, here goes: several weeks ago I stumbled upon the film Papillon airing on BBC that evening. This in itself was something of unusual good fortune, as I watch very little (network) tv and seldom look at the tv listings or digital guide. Papillon has always been a minor-favourite film of mine. I remember first seeing it one Christmas, decades ago now, back when films were an important part of the Christmas holidays and staying up late to watch a movie something of a treat. Thinking about it, maybe that’s how I fell in love with movies. I must have been maybe twelve at the time, something like that, and the film made quite an impression. I’ve seen it several times since, but not for some years now- possibly it was back in the VHS era when I last saw it. Yeah, thats going back some, when you think about it.

So anyway, I set the tivo to record it, thinking it would be good to see it again, in HD now and widescreen too. Maybe I would eventually get around to it, maybe I wouldn’t- quite often I record films on a whim and wind up deleting them to make room for other, more pressing, stuff. I have seasons of tv shows on that tivo hard-drive (latest casualty of the delete button, the Legion tv series).

papostMidway through last week I received an email from Quartet Records, a French label who released a 2-disc set of Jerry Goldsmith’s Total Recall soundtrack awhile back. In itself this wasn’t unusual, once you are on someone’s mailing list in this email age you are guaranteed occasional news of releases, and I have had a few from them time to time. This time though the email referred to an imminent release of theirs which caught my attention- they were releasing a new edition of Jerry Goldsmith’s Papillon soundtrack, expanded from newly-discovered master tapes featuring music not used in the film. I’d always been as fond of the score as I was the movie, but had never bought any of its previous incarnations on vinyl or CD… not sure why- but in anycase, here was an opportunity to finally rectify that with a definitive edition. And hey, no double or treble-dipping involved, for once- and so soon after the release of Goldsmith’s Thriller scores on disc (as I wrote on the FSM forums, how weird that life can still surprise with new Goldsmith releases after so many years).

So anyway, although I was coming off (another) twelve-hour stint at work in another long week of them, I took ten minutes to log-in to the Quartet website and preorder the disc. Just as well I did, as it turned out- this edition was limited to 1000 copies and sold out within a few days of being announced, indeed the very next day after I put my order in (apologies if I’ve just spoiled your day).

So here we are with the randomness of the universe deceiving us with some apparent reason. I stumble upon the film airing on BBC 2, I record the film on my tivo, the score suddenly turns up out of the blue in some definitive edition… its like I’m being told to rewatch the film again. It’d be rude not to, right?

Papillon was directed by  Franklin J. Schaffner during a spell of great movies that included the original Planet of the Apes, Patton and Papillon, and would go on to include Islands in the Stream and The Boys From Brazil– all of these films also being scored by Jerry Goldsmith. Its quite a run of films. And the scores are greats too, with Goldsmith in his prime. Actually, this was likely why I first paid attention to the film so many years back- I would always watch films that I knew Goldsmith had scored for. Yeah, I was a pretty weird kid back then- most people watch films because of who stars in them, and here was I watching films because of who had scored the music (I should have gotten out more, clearly, but the ‘seventies could be pretty dismal).

PapillonPapillon dates from 1973. Films were different then, even prison epics like Papillon. It has a slow, steady pace that is quite deceptive in how it establishes character and place. It seems very low-key, surprisingly lacking any Jerry Goldsmith score for almost half of its two and a half-hour running time. The film pulls you in with its brutal sense of reality, of time and place. Have I mentioned that this is one of the greatest prison-break movies ever made? Well, it is possibly second only to The Shawshank Redemption… and watching Papillon again I have to note that it must have been an inspiration for Stephen King when he wrote the original story that The Shawshank Redemption was based on. The sense of male-bonding, the passage of many years of trials and adversity, the inhumanity of jailers and inmates, the life-affirming message of friendship and freedom. Its like a cinematic guide to how to write/shoot a prison movie: shady characters, noble inmates, betrayal, loyalty, cruelty, harrowing ordeals such as periods of solitary confinement.

The difference between the two is clearly that Papillon is based on an (allegedly) true story from the best-selling memoirs of Henri Charrière, a burglar arrested for the murder of a pimp (which he always denied) and sent to the brutal penal colony in French Guiana; Devils Island and the St. Laurent du Maroni prison camp from which escape was deemed impossible. Back when prisons were, well, prisons, with no pretence of rehabilitation or mercy. While some doubt has since been placed upon Charrière’s story, its nonetheless a great story and makes for a great movie. The actors are pretty epic too, to be honest. Steve McQueen is hugely charismatic with a great presence onscreen ( a ‘natural’ actor I guess, who, like actors such as Charlton Heston or even John Wayne brought a huge sense of personna to every role, regardless of their actual acting talent). Dustin Hoffman is particularly impressive too, and the kinship and bond these two actors demonstrate clearly prefigures that of Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman years later.

pap4One observation- there’s a sequence in the film during Papillon’s escape attempt that he wears a loose-fitting shirt and slacks and a crumpled hat, and he looks like the clearest prototype for Indiana Jones. Its so like he’s wearing the same outfit, I had to do a doubletake. Don’t know if this was simply accidental or something indicative of Spielberg or Lucas loving movies- I seem to remember James Steranko doing pre-production art for Raiders, maybe he was a fan of Papillon. Or maybe its just more of that random universe slipping cosmic tiles into place. In anycase, Steve McQueen looks like he could have been a pretty cool Indy. He would have liked doing his own stunts, for one thing…

Very often as I’ve gotten older, revisiting ‘old’ movies can be rather disappointing, but not so here- this film is more impressive than I remembered. There is something fascinating in the widescreen framing, the steady, long-held establishing shots that don’t try to amaze you in the way so many current films do with fancy camera moves and effects work. The cinematography of course is all in-camera, with none of modern film-makings tinkering in post; it looks very authentic and real. There’s just something ‘classy’ and confident about it. Yeah, films were rather different back then. Less ‘wow’, and all the better for it.

Familiar faces of actors from that 1960s/1970s period grace the film leaving a warm, fuzzy feeling of reacquaintance, memories of other films, other tv shows. A nostalgia for the period. The Goldsmith score when it finally takes hold is wonderfully indicative of his scores of the time and movie music in general back then. Its clearly a film of its time. Its a genuine great, and oddly not available here in the UK on Blu-ray yet. What gives? This film so deserves a good HD presentation on disc with a commentary track or two- odd how some films have still somehow slipped through the net.

Its a great prison-break movie and a great reminder of just how good a star Steve McQueen was. Hmm. Maybe its time I rewatched The Great Escape again…