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AS MARC ELIOT reminds us, Steve McQueen was just eight weeks older than Clint Eastwood. He might be alive still, as prominent, laconic, and anti-heroic a screen figure as Clint, and maybe even a notable producer and director. Eastwood has won just about every prize there is, and he has made the journey that probably appealed to him the most—from a working-class kid to a movie cowboy to one of the most esteemed figures and authentic stars remaining in American show business. Eastwood is an auteur and a respectable American. McQueen was none of those things.

Yet the two men were alike. They were wild kids (McQueen had reform school and forty-one days in the Marine brig to his credit), womanizers, and tough businessmen. They were also natural screen presences who hated to be caught acting—blunt beauties who trusted the audience to do all the imagining while they said as little as possible. There can be no doubt that McQueen’s Bullitt (1968) prompted Eastwood to make Dirty Harry (1971) and all the films in that franchise. They were two San Francisco cops operating with unyielding intensity and contempt for liberal conventions; they knew they were too solitary, too cool, and too immaculate for society, let alone for the compromises of law and order. It was a heady trip for two guys who liked to be regarded as down to earth.

Eastwood has attracted serious books—notably those by Richard Schickel and Patrick McGilligan (as well as one by Marc Eliot)—and there’s a lot to be said about the transformations he has been through, and the different personalities he has put before the public. This is by my count the fifth biography of McQueen, and the third I have read; and just as McQueen refused any trace of intellectualism (or searching analysis) in his own life, so he resists anything like a good book. He was street smart, but not thoughtful; he had abiding habits with sex and drugs and cars, but none of them seemed to require soul-searching. No book has made him seem pleasant or interesting, but of course that has nothing to do with his appeal. Ali McGraw knew just from seeing him in Bullitt that they were probably going to have an affair if they ever met. (That it led to marriage is another matter, or a sign of how the fantasy can consume its stars.) And to this day there are a few films of McQueen’s that simply do the trick. You can’t take your eyes off him. As an actor, he is more compelling and mysterious than Eastwood.      

Take Bullitt, a picture that is more expressive of McQueen than of its director, Peter Yates. A lot of us have seen the movie several times (it is always on television) without ever being able to follow the story. Marc Eliot makes it clear that McQueen re-shaped the material that it was based on. He made the cop younger, changed his name to Bullitt, and shifted the action from New York to San Francisco. Why San Francisco? Because it was a cuter race track, and McQueen was determined to have a ten-minute car chase to redefine that convention. He prepared the film in terms of its action sequences and hardly bothered with the story.            

But Frank Bullitt is irresistible: with short blond hair lying close to the head, clear blue eyes, a tight-mouthed smile, a black turtleneck under a gray tweed jacket, and a green Mustang, and Jacqueline Bisset as his girl. Her character has nothing to do in the film, except to let us know that Frank is sleeping with her, and that it is good. McQueen made few romances and filmed hardly any sex scenes (though they were available by the time of his glory), yet there are few actors of his time (and that includes Redford, Beatty, Pacino, and Nicholson) who can convey such a natural sense of sexual experience. You don’t have to read this book or track its sources to know that McQueen and Bisset were having an affair. It photographs as vividly as that chase where two cars lift off at the tops of San Francisco inclines and hub caps go spinning like craps. Of course, that is the sex scene in Bullitt, the money scene, and why the film endures.

Bullitt cost $5.5 million and may have grossed $35 million domestically. Since McQueen had taken the production on through his own company, he made a fortune. Yet he never played Bullitt again—so long as you don’t regard Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway as Bullitt in Texas in a drab suit, reducing Ali McGraw to mush but slapping her around a little so she won’t get silly ideas. For The Getaway, McQueen took Bogart’s High Sierra as a model, and Bogart was one of those American actors who saw that you could play a crook or a cop in exactly the same way. If you want to try McQueen as something different, there’s always The Thomas Crown Affair, a daft hit, in which he is a rich businessman who amuses himself by pulling art heists and Faye Dunaway is the insurance agent who comes after him. Lush in its look, and lusher still with its music, The Thomas Crown Affair has the reputation of being a sexy film. But if it’s sex you’re after, Bullitt and The Getaway are the real thing.            

He married Ali McGraw and went into a weird retirement until The Towering Inferno, and then another marriage, a film from Ibsen, a very intriguing Western called Tom Horn, and the cancer that drove him to Mexico in search of a cure. He was only fifty at his death. There are other films—The Magnificent Seven (where he coolly upstaged a furious Yul Brynner), The Great Escape (on which he wasn’t allowed to do the famous motorcycle stunts), and Le Mans, maybe the project that meant the most to him but a disaster. He was unexpectedly good as a half-crazed convict in Papillon. He did The Sand Pebbles and a few others. But he was unlike Eastwood in that in his forties he took to lazing around, letting his body go on junk food, and losing ambition.

To read a full life of the man is a strain on interest, but two minutes of Bullitt and you recall his coiled, lethal impact. He was beautiful one minute, but the face could turn nasty without him seeming to move a muscle. As the title suggested, he was a weapon. Bullitt is incoherent junk, except when it isn’t. All you need to know to get the film is how to drive a car, or to dream of it.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.