The appealing antiheroes of the “man’s picture.”

The ladies of The Scarlett Olive are hosting a “For the Boys” blogathon this weekend, and this is our late-in-the-game contribution. To see other posts, visit the Olive and check out what everyone has to say on this topic!

The idea of the “woman’s picture” as a genre of classic film–particularly a subset of woman-centric movies released throughout the 1930s, 40s, and 50s–has long been a source of interest for film critics. These types of films, deliberately targeted to female audiences, are rife with emotion and melodramatic plots, and can be quite over-the-top in their attempts to literally jerk tears from viewers. This is not to discount these movies, however; many of them are quite enjoyable, despite their tendency towards sentimental romance and pure pathos. And some actresses virtually made their careers in the woman’s picture genre–longtime rivals Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, for example, populate a number of these movies, many of which remain beloved by classic movie fans today. Who can forget Davis stoically lying down on her bed, willingly accepting her impending death in 1939’s Dark Victory? Or Crawford’s self-sacrificing, constantly striving mother in 1945’s Mildred Pierce (which also, interestingly enough, manages to believably cross genres as a stalwart of 40s film noir)? Filmgoers never could get enough of seeing these women struggle and find their dubious rewards and/or just desserts. And it seems they still can’t, for the woman’s picture still thrives in American film culture, having evolved in recent years into the broader “chick-flick” category, which generally attempts to replace pathos with broad comedy.

But in considering the notion of the “woman’s picture,” it might occur to one to think: what about a “man’s picture” genre?

Some might argue that the “man’s picture” encompasses the realms of Westerns and gangster flicks–stories of hard-charging, determined, uber-masculine men taking on the world, letting nothing or no one stand in their way while they go after what they want. Think of the most notable heroes and villains in the history of film. Most of the ones that immediately come to mind are male, aren’t they? James Bond. Atticus Finch. Robin Hood. Rooster Cogburn. Philip Marlowe. Spartacus. Darth Vader. Captain Bligh. Alex Delarge. Dracula. Captain Hook. Norman Bates. Sure, there are some notable female characters who fit the hero-villain mold, but our popular consciousness is generally conditioned to immediately fill these roles with men, and the majority of those figures come from action films, Westerns, crime and detective dramas, and other “guy-friendly” genres.

But it’s too simplistic to assume that, because these genres and their lead characters are dripping with testosterone, they are somehow unappealing to women. In fact, the male characters that populate these types of films are among the most appealing masculine leads in all of filmdom, to both male and female viewers. Of especial interest are the antiheroes, the “good guys” marked by distinct shades of gray, wherein the line between “good” and “bad” is blurred or, in a few cases, nonexistent.

Antiheroes are infinitely more intriguing than their more traditionally heroic counterparts. The antihero is complex and flawed, far from the often larger-than-life portrayal of the “good guy.” Often, these men cross moral and ethical boundaries for the sake of the greater good (or what they personally consider to be the “greater good”), and by and large, this flouting of socially-acceptable and/or legal behavior causes them few sleepless nights, for they are secure in the idea that their actions, however harsh or morally ambiguous, were appropriate. Their hard-boiled exteriors often hide deeper motivations–in many cases, the antihero acts out of love or compassion that has been twisted or misdirected somehow, and the real reason behind his behavior is revealed gradually throughout the course of the film. At the end of the movie, the antihero either finds some manner of redemption, or else resigns himself to maintaining the status quo that has become his natural way of life.

Here are four of my favorite examples of the male cinematic antihero, all chosen from movies that could arguably be classified as “men’s pictures” (though, obviously, these films encompass multiple genres). All of these characters are appealing to both men and women, albeit likely for different reasons (I, for one, get a great deal of enjoyment just from staring at those handsome mugs!).

Rick Blaine (Casablanca)

Rick (Humphrey Bogart) is perhaps the most romantic figure on this list, but there is little sentimentalism attached to the romance at the heart of his story. He’s utterly cynical, an attitude that comes not only from the bleakness of the war raging around him, but from a broken heart. He builds walls around himself, literally and figuratively: he owns a nightclub, Rick’s Cafe Americain, but manages to remain almost entirely unsocial in the midst of a bustling social environment, letting no one grow close to him. And he makes no pretense about being out for himself, unrepentantly explaining to Ilsa, “I’m the only cause I’m interested in.” Rick finds redemption in the end by accepting that he cannot be with the woman he loves and realizing that the interests of the “greater good” far outweigh his previously self-serving behavior.

Ethan Edwards (The Searchers)

Edwards (John Wayne) is the very definition of a “man on a mission.” His family has been slaughtered in a Comanche raid, his two young nieces have been kidnapped, and Ethan takes it upon himself to track them down, rescue the girls, and avenge those who were killed. Though he’s partnered with his adopted nephew, Martin (against his wishes), Ethan remains at heart a solitary gunman, intent with purpose and reluctant to deviate from his preconceived prejudices. When his hatred leads him to declare that he’ll kill Debbie when they find her–because he’d rather see her dead than “mated” to a Native American–it causes the viewer to question Ethan’s heroism. Is he really heroic, or is he just as bad as those who destroyed his family? This question is answered in the end, when Ethan delivers Debbie back to her rightful home before wandering away into the sunset, the lonesome gunslinger once more.

Michael Corleone (The Godfather)

Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) fits the anti-heroic mold more so in the first film of The Godfather trilogy than the sequels. He begins the first movie as a nonparticipant in the Corleone family business; he’s a college man and a veteran of World War II, determined to make a life outside of the Mafia. It’s only when his father is attacked that Michael allows himself to be pulled deeper into the darker side of his family, so as to protect his father and brothers. Michael tells his second wife, Kay, that he intends to legitimize the family business, but through a startling series of events ends up becoming the most powerful don of the most powerful family in the Mafia. Once he decides to take on the mantle of Don Corleone after his father’s death, Michael moves largely into villainous territory, as he knowingly pursues the expansion of his crime syndicate. Still, this does not preclude the audience’s sympathy or even a level of understanding, as we eventually see the lengths that Michael goes to in his quest for power and witness the degradation he initially fought so hard against.

T.R. Devlin (Notorious)

Devlin (Cary Grant) is suave, smooth, and utterly debonair. He’s an agent of the United States government, tasked with hunting down and eventually capturing a group of Nazi officers who escaped to South America after the war. He’s also a bit of a bastard. He falls in love with Alicia, the daughter of a convicted Nazi who has agreed to spy on her father’s former compatriots. But he allows her to be used as a pawn by the government, and becomes angry when her feminine wiles work a charm over powerful Nazi ringleader Sebastian. His stubbornness and pride almost lead to her death, though he redeems himself by rescuing a poisoned Alicia in the end. It’s strange seeing Grant as such an unsympathetic character (he really is a prat, regardless of the reasoning behind his behavior), but it’s also a revelation to see an actor who had generally been shunted into good guy roles throughout the majority of his career embrace his anti-heroic side so convincingly.

Now that I’ve had my say … who’s your favorite cinematic antihero?

11 thoughts on “The appealing antiheroes of the “man’s picture.”

  1. Pingback: For the Boys Blogathon | The Scarlett Olive

  2. Great list! I definitely agree about the women’s picture being more of a “genre” (although I usually think “women’s picture” and “melodrama” are interchangeable, and hey, I love melodrama) whereas the “men’s picture” is more ambiguous. My favorite anti-hero is and always will be Rhett Butler, even though Gone with the Wind is the mother of all women’s pictures 🙂

  3. Brandie, you did a great job with your detailed, thought-provoking, and thoroughly entertaining discussion of “men’s pictures”! Frankly, I’ve often found men’s pictures more interesting because way too many “women’s pictures” tend to be weepies or romances (be they funny or serious) in which the characters act like ninnies to one degree or another. And I’m so glad to hear I’m not the only one who thinks T.R. Devlin in NOTORIOUS crosses the line from antihero to outright cruel; I always feel like punching him out for being, as Dev himself says, “a fat-headed guy”! Sure, he redeems himself at the end, but sheesh, Dev and Alicia need some serious couples counseling — but then, that’s often the case with Hitchcock characters, isn’t it? 🙂 Either way, though, the characters definitely make an impact on me. Terrific post!

  4. I’ve never really thought of Casablanca as a “man’s picture” before, because it incorporates a lot of elements I associate with melodrama, but it is much more Rick’s story than Ilsa’s. Interesting approach!

    Others…maybe T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia? That certainly couldn’t be confused for a woman’s picture! And he’s definitely ambiguous. One of my favorite characters in cinema.

  5. Brandie,
    Fab choices! I haven’t seen The Searchers (Sure my Western loving father would be sad to hear that) Of course I was tickled to see Cary on the list. I just hate to see Cary in a role where he’s the bad guy (supposedly).

    You know I was watching The Uninvited a couple of nights ago and I kept thinking to myself that Cary would have been perfect in the Ray Milland role but I was quite delighted to see Ray’s humor coming through.

    As you stated, it’s nice to see our favorite actors stepping out of their usual genre to shine in something different.

    A for Bogart, I also watched him in The Two Mrs. Carroll’s recently and I found it blissfully entertaining, seeing him play a psychotic killer for a change.

    A fun read!

  6. “He’s also a bit of a bastard.”

    Love it. Devlin is definitely my favorite anti-hero. He’s my favorite…everything. 😉 And Notorious is my favorite film. Ever.

    I really wish Grant had done more roles like Devlin. Hitchcock had quite the influence over him. He was also a bastard in Suspicion and we all know how that fantastic movie was ruined in the end. Gah, I wish we had that ending.

  7. Brandie – You’ve chosen four of my very favorite anti-heroes of all movie-time. Bogart as Rick in “Casablanca” is so iconic it almost hurts – the bruised and jaded tough guy who will never get over Ilsa, but can give her up for the war effort (!). And Cary G. as T.R. Devlin, who’s seen enough of the dark side of life to trust no one – but Alicia Huberman makes her way into his heart (much to his dismay) and he’s puts through an emotional meat-grinder because of it (Ingrid had the distinction of cracking the hearts of both Bogie and Cary – no minor accomplishment).

    I’ve always been ambivalent about John Wayne. Those (damn) politics of his! But all I have to do is watch “Stagecoach,” “The Quiet Man,” “The Searchers” or “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and he reduces me to mush…

    And then, from the more modern era, there’s (then-gorgeous) Al Pacino as Michael Corleone. My one-time husband once commented that my infatuation with Michael’s character was ‘masochistic’ – really? I think someone was jealous…

    Wonderful post ‘for the boys’…

  8. Brandie! What a fantastic post. In our interview with Dr. Gates, she chalks the ambiguity of the male genres up to societal expectations; a girl isn’t frowned upon for liking westerns or Star Wars, yet a man is criticized for enjoying “Now, Voyager”. The anti-hero is a perfect example of someone going against the grain of society. Great post and thank you for thinking about this on a level that went above and beyond our expectations for this blogathon! 🙂

  9. Excellent piece of writing and assessment of this genre, Brandie! You managed to boil down important movies to one paragraph each that was not only a synopsis of the movie, but an explanation of your opinion of the men involved. That is hard to do, and you deserve kudos for that!

    I particularly liked your description…”Of especial interest are the antiheroes, the “good guys” marked by distinct shades of gray, wherein the line between “good” and “bad” is blurred or, in a few cases, nonexistent.” One movie I always think of for a very sad and flawed character is Bogart’s In A Lonely Place. It is such a different role for him — he is downright scary, yet you feel such sadness for his inability to function in society and relationships. Very interesting movie.

    Another character I think of is Citizen Kane. He begins life as a happy young boy, continues with ideals and the wish to make the world a better place, but turns into a tyrannical mogul. He is also a sad and troubled man.

    Wonderful work, Brandie.

  10. Bogart as Rick is the only Bogart I have genuine affection for, and you have touched on why. “Rick finds redemption in the end by accepting that he cannot be with the woman he loves and realizing that the interests of the ‘greater good’ far outweigh his previously self-serving behavior.” Ah yes, the problems of those three little people that don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. The thing of it is, Rick *wants* to be redeemed. His yearning to be whole and decent is palpable, and even greater than his yearning for Ilsa. In that way, he’s not unlike Wayne’s Searchers hero. It’s that lack of self-awareness that leaves Michael Corleone so sad and confused, especially in Godfather II. He doesn’t get what’s up with Kay and Connie and Fredo. Why are they all so pissy when he’s only acting like the old Don they all loved? He doesn’t seem to realize that his soul is gone, gone, gone. How ironic that Pacino played Satan in The Devil’s Advocate!

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