Steve McQueen is the counterculture-era star a lot of people still don't get, because he didn't have the raging intensity of his predecessors Marlon Brando and James Dean, or the lumpy realism of later stars like Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson. The special features spread across Warner Brothers' six-disc set The Essential Steve McQueen Collection try to explain him—particularly the documentary Steve McQueen: The Essence Of Cool, which presents McQueen as a hungry Hollywood player who gradually lost his appetite. McQueen was an infamous upstager early in his career, and he eventually became obnoxious about screen time, often complaining when co-stars pulled the same kind of fidgety guff he pioneered. He started edgy, but his acting style got softer and plainer as he became more popular. Audiences found they couldn't not watch him. Even his name sounds awesome.
The Essential Steve McQueen offers a handful of different views of the actor. In the 1959 World War II film Never So Few, McQueen is the brash scene-stealer, working alongside Frank Sinatra and a bunch of Burmese natives to repel Chinese rebels. In Papillon, he's the quirky '70s icon, putting his bad teeth against Dustin Hoffman's as the two play pensive convicts plotting an escape from Devil's Island. In the 1980 Western Tom Horn, he's the old pro looking for peace and quiet—a character that he never got to pursue fully, since he died the year the film was released. All three pictures are solid products of their time (and Tom Horn is a little better than that), but they mainly prove that McQueen's charisma often transcended the roles he played.
The heart of the set is in three of McQueen's biggest hits. The Cincinnati Kid initiates McQueen's low-key, brooding-but-slick persona, as he plays a young poker-stud challenging champ Edward G. Robinson (as well as a room full of big personalities like Karl Malden, Rip Torn, Joan Blondell, Tuesday Weld, Cab Calloway, and Ann-Margret). The 1965 drama resembles The Hustler, but with the lighter touch of screenwriters Ring Lardner Jr. and Terry Southern, as well as director Norman Jewison, who provides an informative, anecdote-filled DVD commentary track. On a second, abbreviated track, Celebrity Poker Showdown hosts Dave Foley and Phil Gordon critique the card-playing, with Gordon cracking that he'd "love to see Steve McQueen put on some sunglasses, try to cover up the tells." Meanwhile, Foley hails McQueen's acting, pointing to Humphrey Bogart's advice: "Really feel it, but don't show it." McQueen keeps his composure all the way to the final hand of five-card stud, when a single bead of sweat finally creases his face.
He shows a smidgen more passion in Sam Peckinpah's typically brutal but hugely entertaining 1972 action-romance The Getaway, which has McQueen brandishing a shotgun and slapping his unfaithful wife Ali MacGraw, even though she only cuckolded him to spring him from jail. Peckinpah kicks off the film with another one of his expressive opening-credits sequences, and between all the bank heists, chases, and shootouts, he takes time to show quiet scenes of normal life. The movie is as much about the seedy side of the American southwest in the early '70s as it is about stolen money or crumbling relationships. As the pack of Peckinpah experts on the DVD's commentary point out, The Getaway is sort of the flipside to Peckinpah and McQueen's other 1972 collaboration, the rodeo reverie Junior Bonner.
And then there's Bullitt, the Peter Yates-directed cop thriller that relies on McQueen's chiseled features to hold an audience's attention through what's essentially a 45-minute TV show stretched to two hours. "Action movie" meant something very different in 1968, and aside from the famous car chase through the streets of San Francisco, Bullitt is primarily watchable for McQueen's performance as a cop breaking the rules to break a case, as well as all the '68 cinema signifiers: lens flares, soft-focus foregrounds, a jazzy Lalo Schifrin score, and vivid location shooting. On his commentary track, Yates says that he saw Bullitt as a kind of Western, but he frames the action so that roads and cars are almost always in the background. It's the right way to present McQueen, a notorious auto-racing enthusiast who wore gasoline like cologne.
In addition to The Essence Of Cool, the Bullitt disc includes the feature-length documentary The Cutting Edge: The Magic Of Movie Editing, which provides a lively primer on the history and artistry of cutting together a film. The only McQueen footage in the doc comes from Bullitt's car chase, but the whole film is another way of explaining his special quality. With his flinty expressions and less-is-more emotive style, McQueen was the ideal superstar for the jump-cut era.