Saturday, August 18, 2007


Steve McQueen was a dashing anti-hero leading man of the 60's who to this day epitomizes the essence of "cool." I've only seen a couple of his films (the "cool" GREAT ESCAPE and the much later, deliberately "uncool" ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE) so I decided to rent this one which was recently released as part of a boxed DVD set. The story is basically warmed-over Tennessee Williams, set in windy Texas grasslands instead of steamy New Orleans neighborhoods. Lee Remick is a woman with a young daughter taking a bus trip to Columbus, Texas. She's hoping to settle there and wait for her husband (McQueen) who has been in jail since before their daughter was born. She's befriended by a local cop (Don Murray) who helps her get a job and to rent a small house. Remick is surprised to discover that McQueen has been free on parole for some time and didn't send for her. The reason is another woman, not a mistress, but his foster mother, the nasty Miss Kate, who abused him when he was young and now insists that he go to night school instead of singing and playing guitar in a rockabilly "string band," which is what he wants to do, and what he thinks will lead to fame and success. Miss Kate, an invalid whom we only glimpse briefly near the end of the film, threatens to have him jailed in violation of his parole if he doesn't follow her wishes. McQueen is glad to see his family but is still trying to hash out his future and, as one can predict from early on, he makes mostly wrong choices (involving drinking, violence, and dealing with Miss Kate) leading to a sad (though not tragic) ending.

McQueen is good as a man who, thanks to an ultra-masculine exterior, seems strong, but who is actually a wounded neurotic with lots of demons swirling around inside him. Creepy harpsichord music plays in scenes which evoke memories of McQueen's past. I think Miss Kate's house looks a little like Mother Bates' home in PSYCHO, and that may be intentional--though McQueen's not a killer (and probably not a cross-dresser). Murray is very good as an example of the other side of the masculine stereotype: if McQueen is a rowdy and restless misfit, Murray is a quiet, sturdy, settled type (he was much more like McQueen in his debut film role in BUS STOP). I was rooting for Murray to sweep Remick off her feet, but this isn't that kind of movie. Things drag a bit in the middle, but the climactic action, triggered by the death of Miss Kate, is compelling, and a scene toward the end of McQueen running desperately after a speeding truck in a last stab at escape (from his past, from the law, from his obligations) is quite effective. The stark black and white cinematography sets the mood nicely. Remick was always an underrated actor and she's especially fine here. One thing that doesn't work is McQueen's singing; he is obviously lip-synching to someone else's voice, and he does a bad job of it. To make it worse, the director, Robert Mulligan, shoots his songs in close-up which just accentuates the artifice. This is not exactly the "cool" McQueen on display in this film, but he generally does a fine job and this is worth seeing. (IMDb says Glen Campbell plays a band member). The title song is catchy little number. [DVD]

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