Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans

I liked this classy, somewhat serious dip into the archive to delve behind the mythology of Steve McQueen’s making of Le Mans over the summer (and autumn) of 1970.

The doc, by Gabriel Clarke (son of Alan Clarke, and still visible as ITV’s touchline reporter at football matches) and John McKenna, is very handsomely stitched together and geared to make it look like the obsession with Le Mans was partly to blame for its hero’s slow decline.

“He was never the same after it,” seems the general opinion. And it did appear to cost the Cooler King of The Great Escape his friendship with director John Sturges who eventually quit  McQueen and the race track saying “I’m too old and too rich for this shit.”

It also cost McQueen his marriage to Neile who forms a key part of the cast here (and even does us few numbers from her one-woman stage show).

Basically, the doc, which played at Cannes in the Cannes Classics sidebar, is Steve McQueen and a lot of racing drivers (Derek Bell and David Piper are the two leading British lights), hanging around in overalls and shooting some realistically captured footage. Granted, this is previously unseen footage, but I admit I was disappointed to learn that the movie Le Mans was actually made and wasn’t all that bad. It would have been a better story had the project been abandoned entirely, and only wreckage left behind.

The fact that McQueen went on to make The Getaway and The Towering Inferno shows his career wasn’t quite ruined over it either. But his health, and his enthusiasm appear diminished.

What’s glorious here is that it makes much of our hero’s maverick Hollywood iconography and they certainly don’t make them like that anymore – `Steve is a star (The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, The Thomas Crown Affair and Bullitt has secured his status) and he sports great sheepskins and duffle coats, orange roll necks, a great black leather hat, dark glasses and looks most of the time like he’s just been stung in the mouth by a nettle.

There’s a great anecdote about how, piqued that James Garner had made Grand Prix with John Frankenheimer and got over the finish line with a racing movie first, McQueen rented the flat above Garner and would regularly urinate on the balcony below.

There’s not quite enough of this Hollywood gossip, in truth, probably because McQueen took things very seriously. In sympathy, the doc is occasionally over-concerned with its own importance, but it is certainly exhilarating for anyone interested in movies or cars, or both.