Tag Archives: Steve McQueen

The Defender (1957, Robert Mulligan)

The Defender is exquisite. It’s a two-part courtroom drama from “Studio One,” so Reginald Rose’s teleplay has some major constraints. There’s budget, there’s content, there’s plotting, there’s pacing. Not to mention it’s two separate broadcasts. No matter how well the two parts of The Defender sit alongside, the reality of its broadcast has to figure in. Rose has got two rising actions set apart by approximately a half hour. He’s got commercial breaks to deal with.

So he works with all of it. The first part is the first day, the second part is the second day. Maybe the deftest thing Rose does in the teleplay is never commit fully to the location constraint. It all takes place in the courtroom. While the unseen world informs everything going on, it’s completely cut off from the characters and the audience. Like I said, exquisite. You sit and watch The Defender–especially in the first part, before the reminder it’s finite–and Rose’s narrative transitions actually please. His intentional foreshadowing works out, whether its something in the story or just something with the characters.

Defender is about a murder trial, but it’s about the trial. Not the case. As the courtroom fills, the film moves across its population. The reporters, the baliffs, the spectors. Never the jurors and rarely the husband of the victim. Also rarely the judge.

It’s about the lawyers. Not equally, but it’s about all of them. There’s assistant district attorney and general goober Arthur Storch. There’s district attorney Martin Balsam. There’s William Shatner. He’s second chair on the defense. Ralph Bellamy is the defense attorney. He’s, you know, The Defender.

Only Rose’s teleplay doesn’t give Bellamy the most striking material. In fact, it specifically doesn’t. He’s set back from the goings on, with politically ambitious Balsam and Storch having a slam dunk case. Balsam’s got no love of the capital L law like Bellamy does. Shatner’s also Bellamy’s son and wants to run the case his way, with some heart. Bellamy doesn’t like heart or sympathy or empathy. Turns out the capital L law is open to interpration.

And Rose sets up all these internal conflicts amid this trial, where defendant Steve McQueen gets his own major character arc. He’s got to break down as the trial goes worse and worse for him. The worse the trial goes, the more openly hostile Bellamy gets about having to defend a punk kid.

McQueen goes all out and then brings it in. He’s hysterical during character establishing, literally waving his arms around. The Defender has a lot of good, showy parts. It’s a credit to Storch he doesn’t break into song to get some of the attention. But when McQueen brings it in, he does so alongside the film itself contracting. It turns out there’s been a narrative focusing going on, so Rose can make it all about Bellamy and Shatner–which The Defender isn’t about–but all of a sudden it can be. More than can be, Rose shows it should be.

Turns out The Defender is a fifties variation on a backdoor pilot–it soon went to series as “The Defenders,” only without Bellamy and Shatner.

Anyway. The whole thing is intricately threaded, with Rose putting actors on layaway for their best scenes. Everyone gets a great scene, never with anyone else, yet they need to be patient. Bellamy’s about the only one who doesn’t get a big great scene. He and Shatner get some scenes, which quickly go from the trial to revealing their WASP angst. Class is a big thing in The Defender. Rose and director Mulligan have to establish people fast–those baliffs, those reporters, this witness, that witness–and class is part of the initial character establishing. It seems like it’s just providing grist, but then it turns out Bellamy’s all about class.

Only it takes Balsam to reveal it. Because Rose works the teleplay on a reward system. You tuned in, you sat through Westinghouse commercials, you get this moment. Seeing Balsam pay off is one of The Defender’s best scenes. It starts the big change in the third act. Or second half of the second episode. Again, even though The Defender is a split narrative, Rose and Mulligan keep the distance minimal. And they probably never thought the episodes would be seen “combined” or without commercials even.

Rose gets to do a lot of echoing in the script to keep things close, but Mulligan has a different approach. He never lets The Defender out of the courtroom constraint. He sets up the location limits–courtroom, an adjoining meeting room, the hallway outside–and he fills them with the same, familiar people. Everyone’s stuck together. So long as you buy into it, you’re stuck in the place, stuck in the procedure. Because The Defender has intro to law stuff; Storch and Shatner are very much in training. It’s great for exposition. But The Defender always makes sure to show the human side of it. Mulligan shoots those scenes beautifully; the humanity in these stock characters’ exposition. Mulligan never seems to force the actors, not to overact, not to underact. He seems like he’s just showing them the best boundaries. So while one part might be closer to melodrama than another, the actors get to determine their intensity as scenes progress.

The Defender is probably as good an example of classic anthology television as one can find, at least for showcasing the medium’s strengths. Good writing, good acting, good directing of acting. All within a lot of unartistic constraint.

Bellamy’s great. Shatner’s good. McQueen’s good. Balsam’s great. Look fast for Ed Asner, who steals the show from the jury box. The Defender–intentionally–leaves the jury out; when the trial starts getting intense, Asner’s face expresses it. He’s always in the background, his face mirroring the viewer’s; those Ed Asner eyes looking at you. It’s neat and presumably unintentional (otherwise he’d be in it more in the first part).

The Defender’s excellent. Rose’s teleplay’s brilliant, Mulligan’s direction is good, the acting is superb. It’s the real thing.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Mulligan; written by Reginald Rose; produced by Herbert Brodkin; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Starring Ralph Bellamy (Walter Preston), William Shatner (Kenneth Preston), Martin Balsam (Francis Toohey), Steve McQueen (Joseph Gordon), Arthur Storch (Seymour Miller), David J. Stewart (Dr. Victor Wallach), Vivian Nathan (Mrs. Anna Gordon), Eileen Ryan (Betsy Fuller), Rosetta LeNoire (Mary Ellen Bailey), John McGovern (Dr. Horace Bell), Rudy Bond (Peter D’Agostino), Michael Higgins (Sergeant James Sheeley), Dolores Sutton (Norma Lane), and Ian Wolfe (Judge Marsala).


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Love with the Proper Stranger (1963, Robert Mulligan)

Love with the Proper Stranger has a lot to resolve in its third act. There’s a somewhat sizable supporting cast, the act two cliffhanger for leads Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen’s romance is precarious–there’s a lot. So it’s striking when Proper Stranger just doesn’t do a third act. Director Mulligan loves the New York location shooting and he just embraces it for the ending, doing a big crane shot but otherwise being very vérité.

Proper Stranger is a melodrama about Wood getting pregnant, McQueen being the daddy, them not being married, and McQueen not really remembering Wood anyway. It doesn’t want to be a melodrama. Mulligan and writer Arnold Schulman do everything they can to avoid traditional melodrama; long, fantastic portions of the film are just McQueen and Wood looking at each other, trying to figure out what to say. Milton R. Krasner’s photography holds the actors’ faces, Mulligan giving them time to deliberate on how to approach the other. It’s a shame this method is entirely gone by the lead-up to the end. McQueen will be furtive, then not, with Wood’s reaction expresses slow to catch up. They’re wonderful to watch together.

Shame the script doesn’t keep up with them.

Schulman gets easily distracted. He’s got a lot of depth in his scenes, which focus on Wood and McQueen, but make sure to provide a lot of activity around them. So when the film quiets that activity to spotlight Wood and McQueen, it’s affecting. Mulligan trains the viewer how to watch the stars, how to wait for them to act out.

Oops, I got distracted by something wonderful in Proper Stranger, which writer Schulman never does. Instead, he gets distracted by the Italian ethnic comedy subplot he’s got going with Wood’s family. When Wood moves out, mother Penny Santon goes into bedridden conniptions. It seems like a significant subplot, given how much time is spent with Wood’s family during the film, but maybe not. Because resolving it would be difficult and Proper Stranger eventually just wants to ride it out on Wood and McQueen’s charm and the lovely, rending Elmer Bernstein score.

Schulman and Mulligan try very hard to give Wood her agency and McQueen some unpredictability, but they don’t know after the character and actor have had that moment. Both actors have big character arcs, which the film first embraces, then ignores. Once Wood moves out, she’s no longer a protagonist, she becomes subject. Her embrace of agency reduces her part. It’s real unfortunate. Especially since it’s not like McQueen gets the extra space. It’s just wasted. Schulman and Mulligan bungle the finish without any clear motive, except it’s time for the movie to stop.

Nice support from Edie Adams, Tom Bosley (in a way too thin part in Schulman’s ethnic comedy plot line), and especially Herschel Bernardi as Wood’s most protective older brother. It’s not a great part, but Bernardi does a lot with it. Because Mulligan gives him time to react and process the plot as it unfolds. Love with the Proper Stranger goes from being patient and deliberate to dispassionately rushed.

McQueen’s good, Wood’s good. Both have some great moments, both have some not great ones. Wood’s are usually because of the script, while McQueen’s are his ambitions for the performance just not clearing. There’s a very occasional Italian accent thing he does and it never works. But their great moments more than make up for the rest.

Krasner’s photography, Bernstein’s score. Excellent. Aaron Stell’s editing, not excellent. Some bad cuts, but it might be because Mulligan’s trying different things in scenes. He’s trying to avoid the melodrama, like one more New York location shot will elevate the film. Except he just goes with Schulman’s depressing comic sequences for Wood’s family. It doesn’t make any sense.

Kind of like how it doesn’t make sense the movie doesn’t have a third act. What Proper Stranger does get done is good, but should be better. Wood and McQueen deserve better. Their performances deserve a film wholly worthy of them.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Mulligan; written by Arnold Schulman; director of photography, Milton R. Krasner; edited by Aaron Stell; music by Elmer Bernstein; produced by Alan J. Pakula; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Natalie Wood (Angie Rossini), Steve McQueen (Rocky Papasano), Herschel Bernardi (Dominick Rossini), Tom Bosley (Anthony Columbo), Edie Adams (Barbie), and Penny Santon (Mama Rossini).


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The Great Escape (1963, John Sturges)

While The Great Escape runs nearly three hours, director Sturges and screenwriters James Clavell and W.R. Burnett never let it feel too long. Part of the quick pace comes from the first half hour being told in something like real time and another big part of it is the aftermath of the escape taking up the last hour. So for ninety minutes, the audience is getting to know and like the characters. It gives the escape aftermath a breakneck pace, even though Sturges doesn't do much different.

The Elmer Bernstein score also plays a large part. It's frequently upbeat and congratulatory to the characters (and sometimes the audience), but Bernstein also bakes in the possibility of tragedy. The music can go from light to dark in a second and the film trains the audience to prepare for such moves.

Also contributing to the film's relative brevity is how the script pairs characters up. Usually it's a strong personage with a weaker one, but the actors do such a good job–and Sturges often sticks with scenes of characters' frailties until they're uncomfortable–the pairings are never hollow. Even Steve McQueen, who gets a huge solo set piece at the end, starts off with a sidekick or two.

Most of the acting is spectacular. Richard Attenborough might give the best performance; him or James Donald. They both have the most responsibility and it clearly weighs on them. But James Garner, McQueen, Donald Pleasence, Gordon Jackson, Hannes Messemer–also all excellent.

It's an outstanding picture.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by John Sturges; screenplay by James Clavell and W.R. Burnett, based on the book by Paul Brickhill; director of photography, Daniel L. Fapp; edited by Ferris Webster; music by Elmer Bernstein; released by United Artists.

Starring Steve McQueen (Hilts), James Garner (Hendley), Richard Attenborough (Bartlett), James Donald (Ramsey), Charles Bronson (Danny), Donald Pleasence (Blythe), James Coburn (Sedgwick), Hannes Messemer (Von Luger), David McCallum (Ashley-Pitt), Gordon Jackson (MacDonald), John Leyton (Willie), Angus Lennie (Ives), Nigel Stock (Cavendish), Jud Taylor (Goff) and Robert Graf (Werner).


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The Getaway (1972, Sam Peckinpah)

From the lengthy opening credits to the big action finale, it's always clear sound is important in The Getaway. Editor Robert L. Wolfe does some wonderful transitions with sound foreshadowing the cut and the next scene, but there's something more to it. That something more is the isolation theme running through the film–Steve McQueen starts in prison, surrounded by these loud, garish, yet hollow sounds. The action finale, at a nearly deserted hotel, also has loud, hollow sounds. They amplify Peckinpah's composition–particularly for the finish–and reinforce the film's dreamlike quality.

The Getaway is a few things at once. It's a heist picture, it's a revenge picture, it's a seventies relationship drama. That relationship aspect to it, with recently released from prison McQueen and wife Ali McGraw having some big problems, is the film's quietest plot line… if only because there's so much noise around it. But Peckinpah, McQueen, McGraw and screenwriter Walter Hill always keep it present. McGraw's timid, nervous performance works wonders–she's apparently inscrutable, but not really.

She and McQueen have fantastic chemistry, which they need to give their story more gravitas than Al Lettieri's subplot. Lettieri is a opportunist thief who kidnaps Sally Struthers and Jack Dodson in his pursuit of McQueen. Lettieri runs away with a bunch of the film. He's spellbinding; no other word for it. Struthers is rather good as well.

Technically, the film's a marvel. The Lucien Ballard photography is phenomenal, day or night, action or drama.

The Getaway is a fantastic motion picture.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sam Peckinpah; screenplay by Walter Hill, based on the novel by Jim Thompson; director of photography, Lucien Ballard; edited by Robert L. Wolfe; music by Quincy Jones; produced by David Foster and Mitchell Brower; released by National General Pictures.

Starring Steve McQueen (Doc McCoy), Ali MacGraw (Carol McCoy), Ben Johnson (Jack Beynon), Al Lettieri (Rudy Butler), Slim Pickens (Cowboy), Richard Bright (The Thief), Jack Dodson (Harold Clinton), Dub Taylor (Laughlin), Bo Hopkins (Frank Jackson), Roy Jenson (Cully), John Bryson (The Accountant) and Sally Struthers (Fran Clinton).


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