Steve McQueen vs. Paul Newman DVD reviews - Home Theater Forum and Systems -

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post #1 of 3 Old 07-23-08, 09:03 AM Thread Starter
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Steve McQueen vs. Paul Newman DVD reviews

One of the advantages of DVDs is that you can track the careers of
movie stars in their prime. Two of the top superstars of the sixties
were Steve McQueen and Paul Newman who had a friendly rivalry
going for the decade culminating in their sole co-starring feature,
"The Towering Inferno" in 1974.

Each actor had some similarities and selected the same types of
roles in this competition. There were also distinct differences between
their approaches to characters. Newman often depicted a defiantly
independent cynic (rancher, pool shark, con man) whereas McQueen
was usually an individualistic but skilled professional (flyer, gunman, mechanic).
Both came from the "Method" school of acting which meant that
they accessed past experiences to become the fictional person they
were playing on some emotional level. In other words when the character
was supposed to feel anger or frustration, they would re-live some experience
from their own past to feel it on set which would be conveyed on screen.
It's a somewhat dangerous type of acting since it could drive a
performer nuts in the long run and at least for some Method actors
like Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, that may account for their
bizarre, self-destructive behavior in their private life.

The 'classic' style of acting has the performer using a bag of tricks
acquired from years of experience to convey an emotional response
to the audience through vocal intonation, gestures or props. In this
case the actor may be thinking about what he or she is having for
dinner and not actually feeling the emotion of the character they're
playing but the audience doesn't know the difference. One type of
acting is not better than the other. Classic actors like Lawrence
Olivier gave superb performances without having to become the role
they were playing.

In any event, McQueen and Newman came from the Method tradition
and when the role was similar to their own background, they could
be superb. When it wasn't they often fell back on what I would call
"Method twitchiness" which meant all kinds of tics and strange
nuances to fill in the gaps in the character. McQueen was good with
props and had the tendency to play with them. Newman fell back
on his charm and smile whether it was appropriate for the character
or not. Others like Brando and James Dean tended to scratch, itch
and mumble their lines.

Both actors started in the fifties but didn't reach superstar status
until the following decade. McQueen was one of the few television
actors to make the transition to the big screen. He starred in "Wanted:
Dead or Alive" from 1958-1961. His first notable starring feature
role was in the sci-fi camp classic "The Blob" which is an entertaining
B movie providing you can accept him as a teenager. McQueen had a
tough childhood spending time in a reform school so he tended to
look at least a decade older than he was. Newman's first film was
in a sword and sandal flop called "The Silver Chalace" which almost
ended his career before it started.

The years 1960-1961 were major ones for both actors. McQueen starred
in "The Great Escape" which established his character as a defiant
loner who resents authority. Newman starred in "The Hustler", also
playing a defiant loner. Curiously, it also established Newman's
tendency to play rather nasty heels regarding women. It was followed
by "Hud" in 1963 where he is even more repellant. McQueen usually
kept his emotional distance from women in most films. He would
have affairs with them but never give himself fully to the relationship.

It was around this time that the two actors began competing with each
other in the industry which is what I'll focus on. Since Newman had
established himself somewhat in the late fifites, McQueen made it his
goal to surpass him in the superstar category. The rivalry began with
the release of "The Hustler" which is available in a fairy good condition DVD anamorphically enhanced with mono sound from Fox. The acting is excellent in
the film. Newman is intense and cynical but Piper Laurie is able to
capture his heart when he's down but loses him when he recovers.
She ends up committing suicide from his rejection. The climax
involves Newman's pool hustler going up against Jackie Gleason as
the real life Minesotta Fats. Fans of the "Honeymooners" will
be quite surprised how restrainted he is in one of his rare
dramatic roles. Director Robert Rossen was able to tone down
his natural hamminess into a very nuanced performance.
George C. Scott is also quite good as his ruthless manager.
Another attribute to this disc is the Panavision wide screen
black and white cinematography by Eugen Shufton which
conveys the gritty and grimy atmosphere of pool rooms.
It's an fine movie but be prepared for a very depressing
experience. Newman wins the game but loses everything he
cares about. This dark and moody film looked good projected
on my DLP.

Not to be outdone in the high stakes gambling genre,
McQueen made "The Cincinatti Kid" in 1965. Rather than
playing a pool shark, he portrays a card shark.
This movie has an even more downbeat narrative. The player he has
to beat is Edward G. Robinson who has been around a long time.
The final game is a battle of wits between the two men. They toy
with each other verbally and try to keep their poker faces from
revealing what cards are in their hand. In this case, age wins out
and McQueen loses everything from the game to his dignity.
He has two romantic interests in this movie (Ann-Margret and
Tuesday Weld) but seems indifferent to both unlike Newman
who got emotionally involved with Piper Laurie then backed
away when he had to make a choice between the game or romance.
At least the rejection didn't result in a suicide this time around.
The MGM disc on this film is watchable in it's 16:9 anamorphically
enhanced mono sound version but the Metrocolor photography
is somewhat grainy, especiallly those awful opticals of the
era (fades and disolves). It will probably play better on a monitor
than projecting it on a DLP. Which film is better? I'm not sure.
I think they play as companion pieces to each other.

The next genre the two stars competed in was the detective
thriller. In 1966 Newman starred in "Harper". Released on
DVD by Warner in a very vibrant 16:9 mono color transfer.
The disc shows off the "Glorious Technicolor" look of the era
which were saturated psychedelic sixties colors. Newman
plays the role in a light hearted manner and it's a dated but
amusing picture full of sixties cultural references. His attempted
seduction of overweight, intoxicated Shelly Winters is hilarious
although it has a nasty edge to it. Newman turns on his natural
charm in this one and he's fun to watch but remember, this is a real time
capsule. He later revived the character in "The Drowning Pool"
but was much more down to earth and less flippant in that

McQueen certainly outdid Newman with "Bullitt" which became one
of his defining roles in 1969. It's available in both high defnition
and standard DVD from Warner Brothers. Both look pretty good
and although the film was released in Technicolor, they went
for a more subdued color scheme. The plot is a bit muddled and
confusing but McQueen makes the quintessential super cool
cop. As always, his character is a loner and defies authority
to solve the case. He also has one of his distant relationships
with the female lead, sexy Jacqueline Bisset. Although many
woman swooned over McQueen, I don't think one of his attributes
was charm. He's a fairly cold character compared to Newman
who could be a likeable rogue. This movie features one of the great car
chases of all time on the hilly streets of San Francisco with
the actors doing much of his own stunt driving. This
was one of the early pictures to actually attach
a camera to a car for live action driving rather than the pitiful
rear screen projection system used for most movies up to that
date. Even the Bond movies used it for their chases. Unlike
the tongue in cheek "Harper", McQueen's police procedural
kicks **** and is the better of the two films.

The psychological Western was another genre the two stars made similar
appearances in. In 1966 McQueen was in "Nevada Smith"
and in 1967 Newman made "Hombre". Both are very entertaining
episodic widescreen movies but you have to suspend your disbelief.
McQueen and Newman are supposed to be half breed Indians in
these movies. Indians who look very caucasian and have bright
blue eyes. Assuming you can get past the somewhat ludicrous
miscasting, they're good movies.

"Nevada Smith" was a Panavision movie shot in De Luxe color and
mono. The anamorpically enhanced mono transfer by Paramount is
acceptable although a bit grainy at times. It's a long and elaborate
revenge story with McQueen taking years to track down the men
who murdered his parents. He's supposed to be a youth in the beginning
of the movie but looks his real age which was thirties. The villains in
the film are all good including a vicious Karl Maldin, a somewhat sympathetic
Arthur Kennedy and a psycho played by Martin Landau. Since it was made
in 1966, the violence is more graphic and bloody than previous years. The
McQueen character goes to extreme measures to find these men, down to
getting himself sentenced to a hard labor prison. The story is based on one section
of Harold Robbin's entertaining trash book, "The Carpetbaggers", which I read
as an adolescent. I guess I have a fondness for films that take place over a
long period of time. I found it a good Western and recommend it.

Newman's answer was "Hombre" in 1967. It's a much shorter but decent
Western. A variation on John Ford's "Stagecoach", Newman and other passengers
are held up by sadistic Richard Boone playing the opposite type of character he
portrayed in his excellent TV Western, "Have Gun Will Travel". Since this was
a mid-sixties film, they lay on the anti-racist message
in a heavy handed manner. The passengers all look down on Newman's half
breed until they are left stranded in the desert and turn to his 'Indian know how'
to survive. They want him to 'lead them to the promised land' as he cynically tells
them. It's a tense story with some plot twists even though most of the action
takes place in an isolated area. Both pictures are worth watching
despite the implausible premise of the two stars as native Americans.

The Prison drama was another one they took their crack at. In 1967 Newman
starred in "Cool Hand Luke" which became one of his defining roles. He plays
a loner who gets drunk and trashes some parking meters. They implausibly sentence him to a chain gang for this minor crime run by sadistic warden, Strother Martin. The famous line "We got a failure to communicate" comes from this picture.
Newman is very likeable in the story and gradually becomes a hero to his fellow
inmates until an escape leads to a tragic showdown with Martin. It reminded me
a bit of the wiseguy Nicholson character in "One Flew Over the Cukoo's Nest" who
also defied authority and had to be sacrificed. It's available in a good anamorphically enhanced mono version from Warners. There are some dust spots on the image but in general it resembles the original Technicolor prints from that year. While you root for the Luke character, he's pretty much a loser which negates the anti-authority message. Luke's rebellian is against authority as a concept rather
than an authority that's oppressing innocent people. After all, the rest of the
prisoners of the story commited serious crimes making them less sympathetic than the inmates in the Nicholson film.

McQueen's response was "Papillon" in 1973. It's a well acted but
considerably grimmer prison story. In this case, it's based on a real life individual
condemned to Devil's Island for allegedly killing a pimp. Naturally he claimed he
was innocent and I guess it didn't matter in that this place is so brutal and
inhumane, no one should be subject to that treatment. It was filmed in Panavision
and Technicolor although unlike "Luke" the color scheme is very dreary and ugly.
It's available in an anamorphically enhanced 5.1 DVD from Warners. It's okay but
not a pretty picture visually to begin with and some print defects are still on the image.
The stereo is adequate but I didn't see the film in four track magnetic stereo when
it was released so I can't compare it to the current remix to determine how accurate it is.
In this picture the 'hero' prisoner only has one follower played by Dustin Hoffman
who is almost unrecognizable in his coke bottles spectacles. Like the Newman
film, there is a daring escape and recapture with horrific results. McQueen gives
another good 'loner' performance although I don't believe it's one of his defining
roles as Luke was for Newman. Unlike Luke, Papillon survives and finally escapes
to write a book about his experience which I read prior to screening the film in
theaters. This movie is extremelly depressing to sit through so be warned that
you're going to see scenes with the character eating bugs from the cell floor to
survive. I'm not a fan of prison films in general so make sure you're in the right
frame of mind before watching this one. If you're going to compare the two
actors in this genre, see "Luke" second.

McQueen and Newman were racing enthisiasts. The producers of "Grand Prix"
wanted McQueen for the film but he turned them down. James Garner got the
role. The film had sensational racing sequences but was otherwise a stiff with
poor character development. However, the Cinerama movie was a success so
Paul Newman made his own racing film called "Winning" in 1969. It's a letterboxed
DVD from Paramount. Newman is very restrained and laid back in this movie. The
racing footage is okay but not as spectacular as "Grand Prix". I thought it was mediocre.

McQueen followed this with "Le Mans" in 1971. Perhaps in deferance to the Newman
film, McQueen is also rather restrained in this picture. It's almost as
if McQueen thought, "I can be even more low key and remote than him". I guess the
trouble with both films is I didn't get the sense of the passion that real drivers
have for the sport. Other people like these pictures (especially racing enthusiasts
who are less critical of the dramatics) so you'll have to decide for
yourself. It's available from Paramount in an anamorphically enhanced mono version
which looks okay. Again, good racing footage but not up to "Grand Prix" Cinerama
'you are there' experience. Naturally there's a notable sharpness and resolution
difference between 65mm and 35mm anamorphic.

In 1969 there was the proposed pairing of Newman and McQueen in "Butch
Cassidy and the Sundance Kid". Unfortunately it never came to be. There
was the predictable dispute about billing (whose name was first was always
a thorny point for super stars) and the probability that the two men wouldn't
get along on set. Aside from ther competition in genres, Newman had become
a rather staunch leftwing activist. McQueen was apathetic about politics and
didn't trust parties which many fans could relate to over Newman's
liberal posturing. The lesser know Robert Redford was hired and the team
worked since the men complimented each other and this actor shared Newman's
political affiliations. I like "Butch" which is available on blu ray and standard DVD
although it's still fun to imagine what the Newman/McQueen duo might
have been like. Perhaps the tension between the two might have given the
story another dimension.

At the near end of McQueens life and career, the two stars finally appeared
together for the first and last time in Irwin Allen's disaster epic, "The Towering
Inferno". It's my favorite of the genre and is much more plausible and
suspenseful than cliched titles like "The Poseidon Adventure" or "Airport".
Curiously, they only appear together in the climax of the film and talk by
telephone for the rest of it. Newman plays a charming architect trapped
on the top floor of the biggest skyscraper on earth and McQueen is the
fireman trying to stop the blaze and save as many people as he can.
Newman is given a romantic subplot with Faye Dunnaway whom McQueen
co-starred with in "The Thomas Crown Affair" years earlier which is an
interesting coincidense. They didn't bother to give McQueen any female companionship in this picture. Alas, if you're expecting 'fireworks' between the
two superstars in the film, it never happens. They just needle each other a bit by phone and have to team together to blow up the water coolers in the spectacular ending. That aside, they're both in top form (despite their obvious middle age) and the picture has tremendous narrative momentum and good special effects. When I first saw it in 1974 I really how no idea how they were going to survive. Reportedly the two stars got along okay on set and were very professional. The stereotyped
supporting characters were kept to a minimum and it's one of the most entertaining
action films from the seventies. Many shots and sequences influenced "Die
Hard" in the eighties. It's available in a very good anamorphically enhanced
5.1 special edition from Fox that is pretty close to the 70mm Roadshow back
then in terms of visual and audio impact. The superb John Williams score
is also enhanced by the presentation. I highly recommend it.

You're probably wondering how they resolved the billing problem in the film.
The put McQueen's name first but Newman's name higher in the credits as an accomodation. The fact that McQueen was listed first does indicate
he finally surpassed his rival in terms of boxoffice appeal.

Unfortunately, there was no further pairings or even competition between the two
actors. McQueen went into semi-retirement for a while after this movie and only
appeared in a few more films, none of them up to par with his classic performances.
He died very young at age 50 in 1980 from cancer which some believe was a
combination of the asbestos clothing he wore for racing and smoking.

Newman's career continue to flourish a while longer although he eventually
lost his superstar status and finally retired when he reached 80. His smoking
habit gave him a gravely voice as he got older. He's apparently in poor health now.

As a footnote to this survey, I would say that McQueen's defining role
was in "The Sand Pebbles" in 1966 which I reviewed elsewhere and is
now available on Blu ray. I just purchased the disc yesterday and ordered
the Samsung BD P1400 from Amazon and will watch it once the machine

Newman's other defining roles include "Hud" and the conman in "The Sting",
both available on DVD with the latter also in HD.

Here's an easy reference for comparison and review:

Steve McQueen defining roles: "Sand Pebbles", "The Great Escape", "Bullitt",
"The Magnificent Seven"

Paul Newman defining roles: "Hud", "Cool Hand Luke", "Butch Cassidy and the
Sundance Kid", "The Sting"

Newman vs. McQueen competing roles in genres:

Hustlers: "The Hustler", "Cincinatti Kid"
Detectives: "Harper", "Bullitt"
Indians in Westerns: "Hombre", "Nevada Smith"
Racers: "Winning", "Le Mans"
Prisoners: "Cool Hand Luke", "Papillon"

Last edited by Richard W. Haines; 08-07-08 at 11:56 AM.
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post #2 of 3 Old 07-23-08, 10:01 AM
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Re: Steve McQueen vs. Paul Newman DVD reviews

Good stuff Richard... a couple of my old time favorites.

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post #3 of 3 Old 07-23-08, 10:09 AM Thread Starter
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Re: Steve McQueen vs. Paul Newman DVD reviews

Many thanks. If anyone would like to check out these 'competing' movies from the
two stars and give their take on it (differences, similarities), I'm sure everyone would
find it quite interesting.
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