'Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans': Cannes Review

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
A fascinating, if over-extended, look at Steve McQueen’s cinematic Waterloo.

This entirely unexpected Steve McQueen documentary has two considerable target audiences—fans of the late star and racing buffs.

Far more than almost anyone would want to know about a big star’s demoralizing dream project is served up by Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans, which nonetheless proves compelling for its impressively kaleidoscopic account of a torturous film shoot and insight into a failed attempt by a powerful actor to gain more control over his career. Making use of a treasure-trove of hitherto unknown behind-the-scenes footage as well as private tape recordings featuring the candid thoughts of McQueen himself, this entirely unexpected documentary has two considerable target audiences—fans of the late star and racing buffs—but would greatly benefit from one more editorial pass to eliminate its many repetitions.

“What was happening when we were shooting this movie should happen to no man,” laments Bob Rosen, an executive in charge of production on a film that imploded for reasons that are weighed by a host of participants here. The man he’s referring to is McQueen, Hollywood’s reigning “King of Cool” who, after the great successes of Bullitt and The Thomas Crown Affair, was in a position to do more or less anything he wanted.

His longtime dream was to make a film about his great passion, race car driving, a sport he had been pursuing seriously for a decade. No film had properly captured it, he felt, and he wanted to make “the ultimate racing picture” that would enable the audience feel and understand what it was like to compete at the highest level.

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Setting the production up at one of Hollywood’s new companies, Cinema Center Films, McQueen would produce, through his personal company Solar, and star in a film to be shot at the actual 24 Hours of Le Mans race in the summer of 1970. John Sturges, one of Hollywood’s savvy old pros who had guided the actor on two of his early breakthroughs, The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, would direct from a script by McQueen’s most trusted writer, Alan Trustman (very impressive in his interview segments). But he and the actor had a definitive falling out over the ending—McQueen wanted his character to lose—so even as the crew began to assemble for a June start, there was no script, which was the case basically throughout production and remains the main issue when watching the film today.

Directors John McKenna and Gabriel Clarke have rounded up a large and wonderfully varied roster of participants to tell the story, which lends many angles to sorrowful state of affairs during production. McQueen and his partner Peter Revson had finished a very close second at the 12 Hours of Sebring race in March and the star harbored hopes of actually racing in the Le Mans event, an idea he was fortunately persuaded to abandon. An enormous Solar Village was set up, many cars were brought in and McQueen was ensconced in a lavish chateau where he reportedly received multiple female visitors everyday. “We had everything,” remarks one participant, “except a script.”

The nominal female lead, Swedish actress Louise Edlind, relates the hitherto unknown story of how McQueen was speeding on a country road late one rainy night when he lost control and crashed. The car was a mess but, somehow, the passengers came out relatively unscathed, allowing the star to escape any embarrassment or scandal, as it was never revealed that Edlind was in the car.

However, the arrival of McQueen’s wife Neile became a problem when she chose that moment to reveal that, after years of quietly tolerating her husband’s innumerable indiscretions, she had had an affair of her own. This reportedly left the star “very wounded,” just as his discovery that he was at the top of Charles Manson’s death list freaked him out to the point where he started carrying a gun at all times (the star had been meant to join his close friend Jay Sebring at Sharon Tate’s house that fateful night the summer before). Neile McQueen’s lively presence here adds a lot to the portrait of her then-husband.

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Specially built camera cars and mounts provided exceptional coverage of the Le Mans race itself, which was followed by six weeks of shooting before it had to be acknowledged that the production was hopelessly out of control. Sturges quit out of total frustration, the star also fell out with producer and possibly closest friend, Robert Relyea and, with the film $1.6 million over budget, Cinema Center lowered the boom: McQueen was no longer in charge, just an actor for hire; he would forfeit any points; a new director from television, Lee H. Katzin, would take over, and a script would be hurriedly written during a two-week hiatus. The film was a creative and box-office disappointment upon its release the following year, although it retains a reputation, particularly among auto sport fans, for the documentary-like authenticity with which it catches the racing ethos and experience.

For McQueen, however, it marked a major turning point. He turned his back on racing, never pursuing it again. He went back to choosing sure-fire box-office properties—The Getaway, Papillon, The Towering Inferno—that kept him on top as a star. And he was gone within the decade. Although the film doesn’t pursue the comparisons, it’s instructive to contrast McQueen’s experience with those of other big stars who seized greater control of their careers via producing at around the same time—Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Paul Newman—in that they paid far greater attention to the writing of their personal projects.

McQueen’s son Chad, who became a racing nut during the Le Mans shoot--figures prominently here, as do several of the drivers who participated, most notably British racer David Piper, who lost a lower leg in a production accident.

But there is considerable redundant material here, the same information restated in slightly different ways, that could be excised during another week or two in the cutting room. Fascinating as the core material will be to McQueen fans and racing buffs, the film is leisurely when it should be punchy, relaxed rather than taut. The star tended to be terse and to the point, characteristics that would benefit the film itself.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Cannes Classics)
Production: The Man & Le Mans Limited
Cast: Chad McQueen, Neile Adams McQueen, Derek Bell, Jonathan Williams, David Piper, Siegfried Rauch, Louise Edlind, Hal Hamilton, Michael Keyser, Alan Trustman, John Klawitter, Peter Samuelson, Haig Altounian, Les Sheldon, Mario Iscovich, Craig Relyea, Bob Rosen
Directors: John McKenna, Gabriel Clarke
Screenwriter: Gabriel Clarke
Producer: John McKenna
Executive producers: Andrew Marriott, Bonamy Grimes, Barry Smith, David Green, David Reeder, Jamie Carmichael
Director of photography: Matt Smith
Editor: Matt Wyllie
Music: Jim Copperthwaite
112 minutes