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"A lot of people go through life doing things badly. Racing's important to men who do it well. When you're racing, it's life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting."
- Steve McQueen, Le Mans
During Steve McQueen's brief but impressive acting career he was known as a Hollywood bad boy. His early life was difficult and the scars it left on McQueen never fully healed. He was hard to control, short-tempered and moody, which occasionally made him difficult to work with. McQueen often seemed most comfortable when he was riding a motorcycle or racing cars. It may have been an inner desire to escape his past that fueled his apparent "need for speed" or maybe the actor just enjoyed the control that he felt when he was on a motorbike or behind the wheel of a car. Whatever the reason, Steve McQueen's fascination with motor racing often took precedence over his interest in acting.
Throughout the '60s McQueen expressed the desire to make a film that would showcase the motor sport that he loved and highlight the skills of the drivers he admired. He finally got the opportunity in 1970 when he was at the peak of his stardom. The success of films like Bullitt (1968) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) had turned Steve McQueen into a bona fide "superstar" with a lot of clout in Hollywood and he used his newfound influence to make one of the greatest racing films ever produced; Le Mans (1971).
Le Mans explores the intense and thrilling world of endurance racing as seen through the eyes of Michael Delaney (Steve McQueen) who is participating in the 24 Heures du Mans, a yearly event in France. The race is commonly referred to as the Grand Prix of Endurance and it's the oldest endurance race in motor sports. Due to the high speeds and length of the race some of the deadliest crashes in motor history have taken place during this annual event. Le Mans examines how a deadly accident has affected driver Michael Delaney and impairs his budding relationship with the widow (Elga Andersen) of another racer. Yet, the film's slim script leaves little room for story or character development; instead, the real focus is on the race itself and how it's experienced by the men who participate in it and the women who support them.
"I've got a feeling I'm leaving stardom behind, you know. I'm gradually becoming more of a filmmaker, acquiring a different kind of dignity from which you achieve in acting. After all, I'm no matinee idol, and I'm getting older. I don't think I can be doing my kind of thing in the seventies; I want to be on more of the creative side of business."
Steve McQueen before making Le Mans.
Although Steve McQueen is usually only credited with starring in Le Mans and doing his own driving in the film, he also co-produced the movie with his company Solar Productions and oversaw every aspect of the production including the script, photography, stunts, casting and the hiring of the crew. Before Lee H. Katzin took over directing responsibilities McQueen had asked respected director and friend John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven; 1960, The Great Escape; 1963) to work on Le Mans with him, but the two men couldn't agree on how to construct the movie. Sturges wanted to make a film with a more conventional script that focused on the relationships of the racers and concluded in typical Hollywood fashion with an upbeat ending. McQueen was more interested in making a racing documentary and he insisted on using very little dialogue in the film, making the cars the stars of the picture. He also expressed a desire to emulate some of the art house dramas being released in Europe at the time and told Motor Trend magazine that he had been inspired by French director Claude Lelouch's award-winning film A Man and a Woman (1966). Sturges' traditional approach to the material would lead to a giant riff in the production as well as signal the end of his working relationship with McQueen and he left the movie before filming began.
McQueen's personal problems also caused many complications on the set. During the filming of Le Mans Steve McQueen's marriage to his first wife Neile Adams was falling apart and his heavy drinking and drug use were starting to catch up with him. The high cost of making the film along with his strained relationship with many of the crewmembers and constant fighting with high-profiled studio executives made filming extremely difficult. No one involved with the movie seemed to understand what Steve McQueen was trying to do with this film and he had to fight every step of the way to get Le Mans made. The film was finally finished when McQueen made a deal with Cinema Centre to give up his salary as well as his percentage of future profits in an effort to complete the movie.
"This is the toughest picture I've ever made. We spent 5 months breaking our backs to get exactly what we wanted on film. I felt it was important to show truthfully what is probably one of the last honest competitive sports left in the world. There's no gambling or betting in motor racing, no dishonesty anywhere. The cars, the tracks, and the stopwatches separate the men from the boys and that's where it's at."
- Steve McQueen on the making of Le Mans.
Unfortunately the film didn't excite many viewers when it was initially released in the summer of 1971. Le Mans was unlike any racing film that had come before it and the lack of dialogue and vague ending left audiences and critics feeling frustrated and confused. The film's apparent failure bankrupted Solar Productions and caused Steve McQueen to put aside his directing ambitions, but the film did manage to garner composer Michel Legrand (The Thomas Crown Affair) a Golden Globe nomination thanks to his impressive score for Le Mans.
Steve McQueen was a man of few words and his best acting was often done with his eyes and expressive body language. In Le Mans his stripped down approach to acting works perfectly within the context of the film; the film is brilliantly photographed by cinematographers Robert B. Hauser and Rene Guissart, Jr. and the movie's bold attempt to forgo a written script and use visual clues to tell its story almost seems revolutionary now. It gives Le Mans an incredibly modern look and feel.
Producer: Jack N. Reddish
Director: Lee H. Katzin
Screenplay: Harry Kleiner
Cinematography: Ren Guissart, Jr., Robert B. Hauser
Music: Michel Legrand
Film Editing: Ghislaine Desjonqures, Donald W. Ernst, John M. Woodcock
Cast: Steve McQueen (Michael Delaney), Siegfried Rauch (Erich Stahler), Elga Andersen (Lisa Belgetti), Ronald Leigh-Hunt (David Townsend), Fred Haltiner (Johann Ritter), Luc Merenda (Claude Aurac), Christopher Waite (Larry Wilson), Louise Edlind (Mrs. Anna Ritter), Angelo Infanti (Lugo Abratte), Jean-Claude Bercq (Paul-Jacques Dion).
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