“The King of Cool” doesn’t even begin to describe ‘60s leading man Steve McQueen. With his ruggedly handsome appearance, laid-back personality, and ability to transition between pluckish charm and quiet intensity, McQueen was a star the likes of which are rarely seen in the film industry.
An icon of the counterculture and yet somehow the ultimate action star of his era, McQueen had an on-screen presence capable of matching the likes of Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, or Paul Newman. His movies – though relatively few in number – are considered classics of ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s film, with McQueen himself obtaining fabled iconic status in the years since his death.
Like so many actors, some of McQueen’s films are seen as undeniably better than others. From ensemble WWII epics to Golden Age Hollywood Westerns, here are some of McQueen’s best films, ranked from best to worst.
The Great Escape
As the Second World War draws on, a group of captured Allied soldiers plot an ambitious escape attempt in their remote POW camp in Germany, digging a lengthy tunnel underground to reach the other side of the prison fences.
It says volumes about McQueen’s talents as an actor that he was able to hold his own against an ensemble cast made up of Richard Attenborough, James Garner, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, and James Coburn. Dominating every scene he appears in, the so-called “Cooler King” – the daredevil American pilot Hilts – is easily the best role of McQueen’s career, playing to all his greatest strengths as an actor.
The Magnificent Seven
With their food and supplies routinely stolen by a ruthless gang of bandits, the residents of a poor Mexican village hire a ragtag group of seven gunfighters to defend their town from any further raids.
As with The Great Escape, McQueen found himself in the midst of an ensemble cast with The Magnificent Seven. Not content to fade into the background, though, McQueen uses every scene his drifter Vin appears in to catch the viewer’s attention, complimenting his fellow cast members’ performances (especially star Yul Brynner) perfectly.
Assigned to watch over a former mobster (Felice Orlandi) who plans on turning in evidence against his gang, a San Francisco police lieutenant (McQueen) is pressured by an ambitious politician (Robert Vaughn) to protect the witness at all cost.
Without a doubt the best solo film of McQueen’s filmography, Bullitt was one of the many ‘70s police procedural films that came out as the Western genre began to wane in popularity. Like fellow leading man Clint Eastwood, McQueen effortlessly transitions from the Wild West to the contemporary world of San Francisco, swapping his trusty steed for a souped-up Ford Mustang.
Recently released from prison, an ex-con (McQueen) and his wife (Ali McGraw) team up to rob a bank in Texas on behalf of a corrupt businessman (Ben Johnson) who tries to drive a wedge in their relationship.
Judging from that premise, you might expect The Getaway to fall into the same general category as Bullitt or The Thomas Crown Affair. Halfway through the film, however, the entire plot undergoes a startling metamorphosis, with McQueen playing a decidedly different kind of character than any he’d played previously. Plagued by doubt, uncertainty, and deep-seated insecurity, the entire film hinges on his attempts to reconcile with his wife, forming a crime-oriented love story in the process.
The Sand Pebbles
As China undergoes revolutionary change in the 1920s, a cynical sailor (McQueen) is ordered to crew the U.S.S. Pablo – a naval gunboat tasked with patrolling the Yangtze River.
An impressive period piece that features McQueen at his most daring, The Sand Pebbles was the only movie that McQueen garnered a Best Actor nomination for at the 39th Academy Awards. An allegory of sorts for America’s complicated involvement in Vietnam at the time, it’s a wonderfully picturesque view of naval service and the Western world’s increasingly problematic influence in the East.
In the penal colony of French Guiana in the 1930s, an expert safecracker (McQueen) strikes up a friendship with an embezzler (Dustin Hoffman), the two soon planning a daring escape from their oppressive prison conditions.
The other prison escape movie McQueen is prominently known for, Papillon has a tendency of lapsing into self-serious monotony in more than a few places, lacking the same lightning-fast pace as The Great Escape. However, it’s impossible to take anything away from McQueen and Hoffman’s inspired performances, as well their magnetic chemistry together on-screen.
The Cincinnati Kid
In the Depression-era Southern U.S., a young gambler (McQueen) hones his skills in the hopes of becoming an expert card sharp, leading into conflict with a veteran poker player (Edward G. Robinson).
When it was released in 1965, The Cincinnati Kid seemed to be ushering in a new era of American film. Featuring noir heavyweight Edward G. Robinson in one of his final memorable performances, the movie acted almost an allegory for the film industry in general, Robinson judiciously passing the torch to McQueen, signifying the end of Hollywood’s Golden Age and the start of the New Hollywood movement.
The Thomas Crown Affair
Completing what he believes is the perfect heist, a respected businessman (McQueen) has his activities looked into by a determined insurance investigator (Faye Dunaway) whom he forms a romantic connection with.
Part thriller, part heist film, part romance, The Thomas Crown Affair can be described as an almost Hitchcockian movie, hinging heavily on the romantic/adversarial relationship that develops between McQueen and Dunaway’s characters. Some tend to view the movie as thinly-plotted, but even the most ardent critics have praised the two lead actor’s indelible chemistry.
The Towering Inferno
After a massive fire breaks out in a luxurious San Francisco high-rise building, a group of firefighters race against time to rescue the people trapped inside.
Yet another ensemble film, McQueen once again manages to headline an otherwise star-studded film. Opposite Paul Newman, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Susan Blakely, and Jennifer Jones, McQueen’s lead character (the burnt-out SFFD Chief O’Halloran) steals virtually every scene he’s in.
Witnessing the arrival of a gelatinous alien creature capable of consuming anything in its path, a group of teenagers try to warn the adults of their community about the creature’s existence, only to be met by disbelief wherever they go.
It seems almost comical when you realize one of McQueen’s earliest breakthrough performances came courtesy of the ‘50s B-horror movie, The Blob. While he doesn’t exactly make for the picture-perfect teen protagonist, he lends the film enough legitimacy to keep us watching.
Two longtime racing rivals (McQueen and Siegfried Rauch) meet at the most rigorous competitions of them all: the 24 Hours of Le Mans, an all-day race testing each driver’s endurance and focus.
As a competitive racer in his own right, it shouldn’t be surprising that McQueen combined his passion for cars with his vocation as an actor. The Rush of its day, Le Mans excels at constructing a stunning story around McQueen’s character – a hyper-competitive driver addicted to high-speeds, even if it means his potential demise on the race track.
Love with the Proper Stranger
Following a brief fling with small-time musician Rocky (McQueen), a Macy’s sales clerk (Natalie Wood) discovers she’s pregnant. When she confronts Rocky with the news, she’s surprised to find the musician barely remembers her, seemingly ignorant of their time together.
Romance films aren’t necessarily the first genre that people think of when they hear Steve McQueen’s name. However, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a gifted lead in the few romantic movies he did appear in, a quality you can spot in Love with the Proper Stranger. Wood’s addled clerk is the movie’s definitive star, but her scenes with McQueen are intimate, nuanced, and mired by their inner uncertainty regarding the future, making for some hauntingly beautiful moments.
Hired to protect a cattle ranch from would-be rustlers in the area, a former army scout (McQueen) is arrested and charged with murder when he accidentally guns down a young boy.
Returning to the genre that helped give him his start, McQueen again manages to channel the larger-than-life personality necessary to appear center-stage in a Western. The second-to-last film of his career before his death in 1980, McQueen manages to infuse his real-world popularity and charisma into his performance as Tom Horn, a once heroic cowboy bidding a melancholy goodbye to a world he no longer recognizes.