Steve McQueen’s Birthday: His 15 Best Movies Ranked

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Newsweek

The quintessential Hollywood man’s man, Steve McQueen was perhaps only rivaled by Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman or Robert Redford in his charismatic depiction of the blue-collar action anti-hero. An icon of 1960s counterculture, McQueen rose from difficult circumstances to become the biggest star in Hollywood.

Born in 1930 in Indiana, McQueen spent his childhood shuttling between his mother and his grandparents, dabbling in juvenile delinquency and spending time in reform school. He enlisted in the Marines in 1947 and was punished for going AWOL to spend time with a girlfriend. After an honorable discharge, he found himself bartending in New York, where he landed his unlikely first acting gig—”$40 a week to say only ‘Nothing will help’ in Yiddish,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

He moved to L.A. aged 25 to seek work in Hollywood. He got his first leading role three years later when he was cast in indie B-movie horror flick The Blob. He was subsequently cast in TV westerns, raising his profile and cementing his star persona as a rebellious tough guy.

He was cast in Never So Few and The Magnificent Seven before landing what was perhaps his most famous movie role—1963’s The Great Escape. McQueen played The Cooler King in the fictionalized account of a POW escape. The movie was an instant hit and made McQueen a bona fide star.

McQueen was modest about his talents: "I'm not a great actor—let's face it,” he once said. ”I don't have a great deal of scope. There are certain things I can do, but when I'm bad, I stink. There's something about my shaggy dog eyes that makes people think I'm good. I'm not all that good."

Hollywood disagreed. In 1966 he received an Oscar nomination for his work in The Sand Pebbles, a war film set in 1920s China. In 1968 he broke ground for his car chase scenes in action thriller Bullitt; a real-life racing fan, McQueen performed some of the iconic driving himself, and went on to make a film about the Le Mans 24-hour race.

By the early 70s he was the highest paid actor in the world, although he seemed more interested in motor racing and only acted sporadically. Sadly, the actor wasn’t able to enjoy the pinnacle of his success for long. In 1979 he was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma, a cancer linked to asbestos exposure. He died the following year aged just 50.

On what would have been The King of Cool’s 89th birthday, Newsweek looks back on his 15 best movies according to data from critical aggregation websites Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic and IMDb.

01 The Blob
Paramount Pictures

15. The Blob (1958). Total score: 60.41%. 
Directed by: Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr., Russell S. Doughten Jr. Starring: Steve McQueen, Aneta Corsaut, Earl Rowe. 
Plot summary: An alien lifeform consumes everything in its path as it grows and grows.
What the critics said: "Neither the acting nor direction is particularly creditable. McQueen, who’s handed star billing, makes with the old college try while Corseaut also struggles valiantly as his girlfriend." Variety

02 Nevada Smith
Paramount Pictures

14. Nevada Smith (1966). Total score: 61.01%. 
Directed by: Henry Hathaway. Starring: Steve McQueen, Karl Malden, Brian Keith, Suzanne Pleshette, Martin Landau. 
Plot summary: A teenager with native American blood evolves into a hardened killer as he tracks down his parents' murderers.
What the critics said: "The best thing that can be said about Nevada Smith is that it goes in, does what it needs to do, and gets out before it's too late." Wesley Lovell, Apollo Guide. 

03 Le Mans
National General Pictures

13. Le Mans (1971). Total score: 61.18%. 
Directed by: Lee H. Katzin. Starring: Steve McQueen, Siegfried Rauch, Elga Andersen. 
Plot summary: A  champion driver participating in the famed 24-hour race finds time to romance a widow.
What the critics said: "Le Mans is a class film in every way, attitude, realization, taste. It has visceral emotion but not heart." James Powers, Hollywood Reporter

04 Hell is for Heroes
Paramount Pictures

12. Hell Is for Heroes (1962). Total score: 64.02%. 
Directed by: Don Siegel. Starring: Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Bob Newhart, Bobby Darin, Fess Parker. 
Plot summary: A small squad of soldiers must hold off a German attack.
What the critics said: "McQueen plays the central role with hard-bitten businesslike reserve and an almost animal intensity, permitting just the right degree of humanity to project through a war-weary-and-wise veneer." Variety

05 The Getaway
National General Pictures

11. The Getaway (1972). Total score: 65.31%. 
Directed by: Sam Peckinpah. Starring: Steve McQueen, Ali MacGraw, Ben Johnson, Sally Struthers. 
Plot summary: A recently released ex-con and his loyal wife go on the run after a heist goes awry.
What the critics said: "It might be hard to take all this seriously, but it's entertaining as a modern Western and might be just dandy for the viewer who wants to take a break from thinking." Dennis Schwartz, Ozus' World. 

06 The Thomas Crown Affair
United Artists

10. The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). Total score: 67.18%. 
Directed by: Norman Jewison. Starring: Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, Paul Burke. 
Plot summary: A debonair, adventuresome bank executive believes he has pulled off the perfect multi-million dollar heist, only to match wits with a sexy insurance investigator who will do anything to get her man.
What the critics said: "It's worth noting that 30 years and dozens of caper films later, the closing twist isn't nearly as startling as it once was, but it still makes for an effective conclusion." James Berardinelli, ReelViews. 

07 The Towering Inferno
Twentieth Century Fox

9. The Towering Inferno (1974). Total score: 67.39%. 
Directed by: John Guillermin. Starring: Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire. 
Plot summary: At the opening party of a colossal, but poorly constructed, office building, a massive fire breaks out that threatens to destroy the tower and everyone in it.
What the critics said: "A brawny blockbuster of a movie, by far the best of the mid-1970s wave of disaster films." Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

08 Love with the Proper Stranger 2
Paramount Pictures

8. Love with the Proper Stranger (1963). Total score: 68.8%. 
Directed by: Robert Mulligan. Starring: Steve McQueen, Natalie Wood, Edie Adams. 
Plot summary: A Macy's sales girl finds herself pregnant after a one-night stand with a musician. In the process of arranging an abortion, they fall in love. 
What the critics said: "Familiar in theme, but given a delightfully fresh flavour by Mulligan's atmospherically low-key direction, excellent performances from Wood and McQueen, and vivid location shooting in New York's Little Italy." Tom Milne, Time Out

09 Junior Bonner
Cinerama Releasing Corporation

7. Junior Bonner (1972). Total score: 70%. 
Directed by: Sam Peckinpah. Starring: Steve McQueen, Robert Preston, Ida Lupino, Ben Johnson, Joe Don Baker. 
Plot summary: Ace Bonner returns to Arizona several years after he abandoned his family, Junior Bonner is a wild young man. Against the typical rodeo championship, family drama erupts.
What the critics said: "A film filled to overflowing with small, subtle beauties." Don Druker, Chicago Reader

10 Papillon
Allied Artists Pictures

6. Papillon (1973). Total score: 70.15%. 
Directed by: Franklin J. Schaffner. Starring: Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, Victor Jory. 
Plot summary: A man befriends a fellow criminal as the two of them begin serving their sentence on a dreadful prison island, which inspires the man to plot his escape.
What the critics said: "McQueen works hard and al most manages to triumph over his star presence, while Hoffman submerges himself eccentrically and amusingly in his coward's role." Richard Schickel, TIME Magazine. 

11 The Sand Pebbles
Twentieth Century Fox

5. The Sand Pebbles (1966). Total score: 70.16%. 
Directed by: Robert Wise. Starring: Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna, Candice Bergen. 
Plot summary: In 1926, a U.S. Naval engineer gets assigned to a gunboat on a rescue mission in war-torn China.
What the critics said: "Steve McQueen gives a dominant performance in Robert Wise's ambitious but flawed period drama, which offers interesting parallels to the US involvement in Vietnam." Emanuel Levy.