Non-Expressionism: The Gift of Steve McQueen

I started going to the movies in the seventies and Steve McQueen was one of the first stars I got to know in current releases. When I saw his last film in the theatre, The Hunter, on opening weekend no less, so excited was I to see it, I felt I knew him well. I didn’t. Even though I loved movies like The Blob, The Great Escape, Bullitt, Papillon and, yes, The Hunter, mediocre as it may be, I didn’t fully understand Steve McQueen as an actor. I liked him and his movies but never felt he was doing the job I thought others were doing when it came to big screen acting. I certainly didn’t think he was bad, I just never gave him much thought as an actor overall. But then, very recently in fact, I watched The Towering Inferno for the first time since childhood. It was a revelation.

Steve McQueen as Fire Chief Michael O’Hallorhan has not one line of dialogue that hints at character depth or development of any kind. Not one. Every single line is technical:

“I need to know the businesses on each floor above the fire.”

“Why?”

“If they manufacture polyester, that releases cyanide gas at high temperatures.”

And so on. All of his lines are like that. And he’s brilliant! And I am being very serious here. Steve McQueen carries that entire film in a walk. He is utterly, completely and absolutely convincing as the fire chief. I did not doubt for a second he was one and if I were in a building on fire and he showed up and started talking like he does in this movie I would do whatever he told me to do. I would trust him implicitly. But more than that, he is compelling and the audience wants to return to him every time he exits the screen.

And that’s why Steve McQueen confused me at times as an actor: He was a star but he should’ve been the guy playing the technical expert in every action film ever made. The roles that McQueen excelled at, like the authority figure here in The Towering Inferno, are few and far between in the world of cinema. Fire chiefs just don’t get many starring roles.

In order to explain further I need to make a claim that will seem strange to some but I am betting my fellow actors out there will understand. There is a real talent to being non-expressive in a role. Most people confuse that with being wooden. It’s not the same thing. Being wooden is delivering your lines badly and flatly. Being non-expressive is delivering your lines convincingly but without flourish. And the casting in those types of roles usually misses the mark. Burt Lancaster was an actor who “acted” every word of dialogue (and I love him for that, by the way) and I imagine his role as the fire chief would have been as much of a disaster as Steve McQueen playing Elmer Gantry. Each actor had his strength and in the fire chief role, Lancaster’s strength would have worked against him. That’s because most actors, not just Lancaster, would have instinctively given that fire chief “character” when in real life, in a real fire, all the chief does is give orders. I think it’s a high compliment, and a sincere one, to say I can’t imagine another actor being smart enough to play the fire chief the way McQueen did. Steve McQueen knew straight-forward, quiet and convincing authority like most people know how to breathe. He used this same style in most of his roles whether it really fit or not. And being non-expressive, but not wooden, means he never came off looking ridiculous in a role because he was trying too hard to nail a moment with the perfect delivery. But it also means he was very misunderstood as an actor and still is.

When I finished watching The Towering Inferno I reassessed Steve McQueen as an actor. We associate great acting with great range but really, expertise in one specific area is quite an achievement. And few actors in movie history could do convincing non-expressive like McQueen. Turns out he was a damn good actor after all, I’d just been looking in the wrong direction the whole time.