Steve McQueen was the Oscar-nominated performer who helped define the meaning of “cool” in just a handful of movies before his untimely death in 1980 at the age of 50. But how many of those titles remain classics? Let’s take a look back at 15 of his greatest films, ranked worst to best.
Born in 1930, McQueen first came to the attentions of movie audiences with his leading role in the sci-fi B-movie classic “The Blob” (1958). He quickly made a name for himself as an action star thanks to a series of hits through the 1960s and early 1970s, including “The Magnificent Seven” (1960), “The Great Escape” (1963), “Bullitt” (1968), “The Thomas Crown Affair” (1968), “The Getaway” (1972), and “The Towering Inferno” (1974). Known as “The Kind of Cool,” his onscreen persona as a reluctant antihero made him a favorite of both men who wanted to be him and women who wanted to be with him.
His sole Oscar nomination as Best Actor came for the Robert Wise-directed World War II epic “The Sand Pebbles” (1966), in which he played a rebellious sailor aboard a U.S. gunboat patrolling the Yangtze River in China. The role also brought him a Golden Globe bid, and he additionally competed at that group for “Love with the Proper Stranger” (1963), “The Reivers” (1969), and “Papillon” (1973). He twice won their now-defunct prize as Favorite Film Star – Male (once in 1967, again in 1970).
Tour our photo gallery of McQueen’s 15 greatest films, including a few for which he should’ve received Oscar nominations.
15. TOM HORN (1980)
Directed by William Wiard. Screenplay by Thomas McGuane and Bud Shrake, based on the autobiography by Tom Horn. Starring Linda Evans, Richard Farnsworth, Billy Green Bush, Slim Pickens, Peter Canon, Elisha Cook, Jr.
McQueen’s career ended in 1980 with two critical and commercial duds: “The Hunter” and “Tom Horn.” While “The Hunter,” the last film released before his untimely death that same year, has all but faded from memory, “Tom Horn” has been rediscovered as an underrated gem. Based on a true story, the film casts him as a legendary bounty hunter hoping to settle down in his waning days. He’s hired by some local ranchers to track down cattle rustlers, but finds himself in trouble with the law when a young boy ends up dead.
14. LOVE WITH THE PROPER STRANGER (1963)
Directed by Robert Mulligan. Written by Arnold Schulman. Starring Natalie Wood, Edie Adams, Herschel Bernardi, Harvey Lembeck, Tom Bosley.
McQueen tried his hand at teen heartthrob with this moving romantic drama. Natalie Wood stars as an Italian American salesclerk who discovers she’s pregnant after a passionate fling with a musician (McQueen). He agrees to help her pay for an abortion, but he soon finds himself falling in love with her. The melodramatic material works thanks to strong performances and subdued direction by Robert Mulligan. Both McQueen and Wood earned lead acting Golden Globe nominations, though only Wood competed at the Oscars.
13. THE REIVERS (1969)
Directed by Mark Rydell. Screenplay by Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch, based on the novel by William Faulkner. Starring Sharon Farrell, Mitch Vogel, Rupert Crosse, Burgess Meredith, Will Geer.
Adapted from one of William Faulkner’s more accessible novels, “The Reivers” follows a road trip in turn-of-the-century Mississippi between an 11-year-old boy (Mitch Vogel), his black cousin (Best Supporting Actor nominee Rupert Crosse), and a lackadaisical farm hand (McQueen). Several colorful adventures follow, mostly involving the possession of the 1905 Winston Flyer that transports them on their journey. McQueen earned a Golden Globe nomination as Best Comedy/Musical Actor, yet was overlooked at the Academy.
12. THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974)
Directed by John Guillermin. Screenplay by Stirling Silliphant, based on the novels ‘The Tower’ by Richard Martin Stern and ‘The Glass Inferno’ by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson. Starring Paul Newman, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Susan Blakely, Richard Chamberlain, Jennifer Jones, O. J. Simpson, Robert Vaughn, Robert Wagner.
The disaster movies that plagued the box office throughout the 1970s hit their zenith with “The Towering Inferno,” a big-budget, all-star spectacle that managed to score an Oscar nomination as Best Picture. Paul Newman stars as an architect whose 135-story skyscraper catches fire on the eve of its opening, threatening the lives of everyone inside. He teams up with a gruff fire chief (McQueen) to save the A-listers trapped inside. Silly? Absolutely. But it’s also overblown (and at 165 minutes, overlong) fun. The film took home prizes for cinematography, film editing, and the song “We May Never Love Like This Again.”
11. JUNIOR BONNER (1972)
Directed by Sam Peckinpah. Written by Jeb Rosebrook. Starring Robert Preston, Ida Lupino, Joe Don Baker, Barbara Leigh, Ben Johnson.
By far the gentlest entry in Sam Peckinpah’s filmography, “Junior Bonner” casts McQueen as an aging rodeo performer who returns to his home to Prescott, Arizona, to find his family falling apart. His father, Ace (Robert Preston), has left his mother, Elvira (Ida Lupino), and his brother, Curly (Joe Don Baker), is selling the family land to a real estate developer so he can build a trailer park over it. A victim of a curious surge in rodeo-related movies in the early 1970s, this one bombed at the box office when it was released, perhaps because audiences were hoping for another Peckinpah shoot-em-up instead of a charming comedic drama.
10. THE BLOB (1958)
Directed by Irvin Yeaworth. Written by Kay Linaker and Theodore Simonson. Starring Aneta Corsaut, Earl Rowe, Olin Howland.
McQueen kicked off his career as a leading man with this B-movie classic about a gelatinous alien life-form terrorizing a small town. 28-year-old McQueen plays a rebellious teenager trying to convince his friends and neighbors of the impending danger posed by the big pink blob. While not a good movie necessarily, it’s quite entertaining in its tackiness, thanks to some inventive (albeit cheap) special effects and a star-making turn by its lead. The gold standard for 1950s sci-fi junk. Burt Bacharach composed the catchy title song.
9. LE MANS (1971)
Directed by Lee H. Katzin. Written by Harry Kleiner. Starring Siegfried Rauch, Elga Andersen, Ronald Leigh-Hunt.
“Le Mans” was a passion project for McQueen, a racing enthusiast who was determined to capture the visceral intensity of the world’s more daunting course. He famously clashed with original director John Sturges, who wanted to make a more traditional adventure film, while McQueen hoped to emulate a sort of documentary realism. (Sturges was replaced by Lee H. Katzin.) The star won out in the end, creating an expressionistic drama about a grueling 24-hour race in Le Mans, France. A documentary, “Steve McQueen: The Man and Le Mans” (2015), detailed the movie’s journey to the screen.
8. THE SAND PEBBLES (1966)
Directed by Robert Wise. Screenplay by Robert Woodruff Anderson, based on the novel by Richard McKenna. Starring Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna, Candice Bergen, Marayat Adriane, Mako, Simon Oakland, Charles Know Robinson III.
McQueen earned his sole Oscar nomination as Best Actor for this epic adaptation of Richard McKenna’s bestseller. “The Sand Pebbles” casts him as a rebellious sailor aboard a U.S. gunboat patrolling the Yangtze River in China. Director Robert Wise proves to be a maestro of mixing action, romance, and social commentary within the three-hour runtime. Although it takes place in 1926, “The Sand Pebbles” draws unmistakable parallels to the growing conflict in Vietnam, especially in it’s criticisms of American imperialism. The film earned 8 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, but went home empty-handed (McQueen lost to Paul Scofield in “A Man for All Seasons”).
7. THE CINCINNATI KID (1965)
Directed by Norman Jewison. Screenplay by Ring Lardner Jr. and Terry Southern, based on the novel by Richard Jessup. Starring Edward G. Robinson, Ann-Margret, Karl Malden, Tuesday Weld.
It’s easy to dismiss “The Cincinnati Kid” as a sort of “Hustler” knock-off with card players instead of pool sharks, but that would only diminish the unique charms of this highly entertaining drama. McQueen stars as the title character, an up-and-coming poker player who must face off against a master card-smith (an excellent Edward G. Robinson). Director Norman Jewison pulls off the nifty hat trick of making card games riveting to watch, thanks to some nimble editing by future director Hal Ashby. Joan Blondell earned a Golden Globe nomination as Best Supporting Actress for playing poker expert Lady Fingers.
6. PAPILLON (1973)
Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner. Screenplay by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr., based on the book by Henri Charriere. Starring Dustin Hoffman, Victor Jory, Don Gordon, Anthony Zerbe, Robert Deman.
“Papillon” is a big, ambitious film that nearly buckles under the weight of its own importance. At two-and-a-half hours, this biographical drama presents Henri Charriere’s — aka the “Butterfly” — (McQueen) escape from Devil’s Island as an epic written on the sands of time, so much so that the gargantuan scope almost diminishes the drama’s excitement and tension. Thankfully, McQueen is always compelling to watch, as is Dustin Hoffman as an eccentric, brilliant inmate who agrees to help him break free. McQueen earned a Golden Globe nomination as Best Actor, though the Academy ignored him; in fact, its lone nomination came for Jerry Goldsmith’s rousing score.
5. THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR (1968)
Directed by Norman Jewison. Written by Alan Trustman. Starring Faye Dunaway, Paul Burke, Jack Weston, Gordon Pinsent.
“The Thomas Crown Affair” is one of the great movie entertainments, a slick, sexy thriller that’s low on substance but high on style. McQueen plays a suave bank executive who believes he’s pulled off the perfect heist. That is, until, he comes across a beautiful insurance investigator (Faye Dunaway). Their super sensual chess game remains a highlight (and was even parodied in “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me”). Director Norman Jewison keeps things glossy and fun, experimenting with different filmmaking techniques alongside cinematographer Haskell Wexler and editor Hal Ashby. The song “The Windmills of Your Mind” won the Oscar.
4. THE GETAWAY (1972)
Directed by Sam Peckinpah. Screenplay by Walter Hill, based on the novel by Jim Thompson. Starring Ali MacGraw, Ben Johnson, Al Lettieri, Sally Struthers.
Critics scorned “The Getaway” when it was first released, calling it a hyper-violent exercise in flash over substance. And it’s true, there’s not much more to this chase drama about an ex-con (McQueen) and his wife (Ali MacGraw) going on the run after a botched heist than what’s on the surface. Yet Sam Peckinpah directs with such efficiency and energy that there’s little time to worry about the film’s lack of underlying themes, much less care. Ben Johnson is a standout as a corrupt businessman, as is Slim Pickens as a helpful cowboy. Quincy Jones earned a Golden Globe nomination for his score. (Incidentally, a real-life romance between McQueen and MacGraw blossomed during filming which led to her divorcing Paramount Pictures head Robert Evans.)
3. THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960)
Directed by John Sturges. Screenplay by William Roberts, based on ‘Seven Samurai’ by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni. Starring Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, Brad Dexter, James Coburn, Horst Buchholtz.
From the opening notes of Elmer Bernstein’s iconic score, “The Magnificent Seven” lets us know we’re in for a rollicking good time. An unofficial remake of Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” (1954), this John Sturges western epic centers on a gang of gunslingers (McQueen, Yul Brynner, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, Brad Dexter, and Horst Buchholtz) who agree to protect a poor Mexican village from a ruthless bandit (Eli Wallach). Like its predecessor, this is both an exhilarating adventure yarn and a surprisingly complex study in masculinity. Three sequels and a 2016 remake followed, none that can hold a candle to the original (well, the original remake, that is).
2. BULLITT (1968)
Directed by Peter Yates. Screenplay by Alan R. Trustman and Harry Kleiner, based on the novel ‘Mute Witness’ by Robert L. Fish. Starring Robert Vaughn, Jacqueline Bisset, Don Gordon, Simon Oakland, Robert Duvall.
“Bullitt” is an exercise in pure action filmmaking, with McQueen at his most iconically cool. Directed by Peter Yates, it casts McQueen as a police detective assigned to protect a mafia informant. When the star witness turns up dead, he’ll stop at nothing to find out who’s responsible. His hunt leads to one of the greatest car chases of all time, a bouncing, nerve-wracking pursuit through the hilly streets of San Francisco. There’s nary a wasted moment in the taut two-hour runtime, thanks to some expert, Oscar-winning film editing. And of course, there’s the ever-watchable McQueen, creating a captivating anti-hero that inspired several action stars to come.
1. THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963)
Directed by John Sturges. Screenplay by James Clavell and W. R. Burnett, based on the novel by Paul Brickhill. Starring James Garner, Richard Attenborough, James Donald, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn, Hannes Messemer.
The definitive prison break movie, featuring perhaps the best performance of McQueen’s career. Directed by John Sturges, “The Great Escape” details the true story of a group of Allied prisoners in WWII who plan to tunnel out of a German POW camp. McQueen is their leader as Virgil Hilts, aka “The Cooler King,” who bounces a ball against the wall every time he’s thrown in solitary confinement. Featuring lush cinematography, a beautiful score by Elmer Bernstein, and a large cast of A-listers including James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, and James Coburn, this is first-class entertainment on an epic scale (it runs nearly three hours but you’d never guess it). A box office smash, the film earned an Oscar nomination for its film editing, though it deserved much more.