Introduction to Tough Guys
Edward G. Robinson became an instant icon as a thinly-veiled Al Capone figure, Enrico Bandello, in Little Caesar, snarling his way to a bloody end with "Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?" as he dies in a gutter. It wasn't the end of mobster roles for Robinson. He was typecast in them for nearly a decade before he could show what else he could do. Cagney, though, dominated the genre, from his hair-trigger Tom Powers, who ended wrapped in a rug, dumped at his mother's tenement flat in Public Enemy. Cagney's energy and sizzle kept him on top of the lawless heap until he apotheosized the archetype with his crazed, mother-fixated Cody Jarrett in White Heat (1949), howling as he stood on top of a gas storage tank about to blow sky-high, "Made it, Ma. Top of the world!" Ka-boom! His tough guy here, who scared everybody around him by doing things like impulsively machine-gunning the trunk of a car with a snitch inside it, demanded a larger-than-life exit, and got the genre's most spectacular ever.
Humphrey Bogart got his day on the shady side of the street in The Petrified Forest (1936), repeating his role as gangster-on-the-lam Duke Mantee, holding hostages at gunpoint in an Arizona roadside diner, nimbly negotiating playwright Robert Sherwood's decision to give him a noble side. It was Bogie's breakthrough on Broadway and on film as well. Warners wanted Edward G. Robinson to play the gangster, but Leslie Howard, who starred alongside Bogart onstage as a world-weary drifter, refused to do the film unless it was with Bogart. When the film was released, Howard and Bette Davis got top billing, Davis as the waitress longing for a way out of the dusty nothingness of her life, Bogie seeing that she got one with a resourcefully devised squeeze of his trigger, and a big assist from Howard's lost soul.
Robert Mitchum, with his hooded eyes and unhurried moves, made toughness seem cool and coolness seem tough. Although he came on fast in the postwar years, he never seemed to be trying too hard. Remembered for his memorably scary dementos in The Night of the Hunter (1955) and Cape Fear (1962), he announced himself as a stand-up anti-hero in one of the great film noirs, Out of the Past (1947). In it, he looked the genre's fatalism in the eye and, throwing caution to the Mexican winds in a clinch with femme fatale Jane Greer, drawled: "Baby, I don't care" against a background of nets hung out to dry. No purer metaphor for the genre's core theme of entrapment is to be found on film, and as if that weren't enough, the film also boasts Kirk Douglas's breakout performance as the gambler who hired Mitchum to retrieve Greer, and is clearly a man you do not want to come back to empty-handed.
John Garfield's tough guys were the real thing. Born Julius Garfinkle, he grew up tough on Manhattan's Lower East Side and some less gentle precincts of The Bronx and was sent to a correctional school, which led to acting classes and, eventually, memorable roles as a morally tormented boxer in Body and Soul (1947) and a lawyer eaten by his compromises in Force of Evil (1948). His rugged looks and demeanor often got him cast as intransigent misfits, sometimes in offbeat ways, as in the tight, impactful Out of the Fog (1941), in which he's a waterfront gangster efficiently shaking down fishermen like Thomas Mitchell and John Qualen until he falls for the former's daughter, Ida Lupino. Robert Ryan, on the other hand, projected a brand of toughness that seemed to proceed from a haggard tenacity. Usually he embodied men of integrity. But he could work the dark side, too, nowhere more convincingly than his raging psychotic in Crossfire (1947), a film noir with a social conscience, attacking anti-Semitism.
Speaking of raging psychotics, Richard Widmark's film debut immediately vaulted him into a niche in the evil hall of fame. As Tommy Udo, the over-the-top death's head who pushed an old lady in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs in Kiss of Death (1947), and played the mad gleam in his eye against a maniacal giggle, he scared people for years, even when he played a hero. An experienced radio actor when he came to film, he did things with his voice that expressed startlingly unexpected eruptions of violence. Dana Andrews' toughness, on the other hand, went the opposite route - something Vesuvian we could sense boiling beneath a stolid exterior. He's at his most eruptive, spiraling bleakly downward in a vortex of anger with grim inevitability as a hair-trigger-tempered cop in Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950). Tall, rangy Sterling Hayden was at his best when playing characters with a palpable edge to them. He's one of the criminal players in The Asphalt Jungle (1950), a strong-arm man in a classic heist caper gone sourly wrong. But he makes us feel that part of the hardness of his exterior is to protect an interior softness, expressed in his wanting to go home to die.
In the 1960s, they didn't come tougher than tall, white-haired, sandpaper-voiced Lee Marvin, whose sadistic thug in The Big Heat (1953) unforgettably disfigured Gloria Grahame by throwing a pot full of hot coffee in her face. Marvin, a decorated Marine combat veteran, broke in convincingly in a string of war movies. After winning an Oscar; playing twin gunmen (the bad one wore a silver nose) opposite Jane Fonda in Cat Ballou (1965), he could write his own ticket, and did, in Point Blank (1967). Marvin developed the film, helped conceive and write it, and hired John Boorman to direct this revenge outing about a gunman shot and left for dead, then getting revenge against the mob behind the trigger. It's powered by brute force and Boorman's unsparing eye for '60s L.A. The decade's opposite extreme was delivered by a hard-edged but suave Steve McQueen in, and as, Bullitt (1968), in which his San Francisco cop unravels a convoluted plot involving a mob accountant seeking witness protection. Impenetrable as he seems, McQueen reinvented enough of the alienated cool of Brando and James Dean to become a Vietnam-era counterculture icon. His only onscreen competition was the 1968 Ford Mustang GT he drove in film's most iconic car chase. A real-life racing car and motorcycle enthusiast, and a handy man behind the wheel, McQueen wisely left most of the driving up, down and around San Francisco's streets to stuntmen.
Tough guys Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood ruled the '70s. But not entirely. It also was the decade the color line was broken in a high-impact way by the arrival of Richard Roundtree's black private eye, John Shaft. He ever so coolly strode out of the blaxploitation ghetto and kicked open the door to mainstream popularity in Gordon Parks's Shaft (1971), its two sequels, Shaft's Big Score! (1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973), and a Shaft TV series. He even appeared as his aged self in the Shaft (2000) remake starring Samuel L. Jackson as the original Shaft's nephew. In short order followed Ron O'Neal in Super Fly (1972), Fred Williamson in Hammer (1972) and Pam Grier in Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974). All spent a busy decade cleaning the streets of riff-raff and worse. Roundtree, Williamson and Grier are working still. "It put me on the map," Roundtree has said of Shaft. Ernest Tidyman, the white newspaperman who invented the Shaft character, died in 1984.
Still, Eastwood and Bronson ruled the fully-armed vigilante roost in hugely popular breakout films, each giving rise to four sequels; Eastwood with a badge in Dirty Harry (1971), Bronson without one in Death Wish (1974). Neither was an overnight success, Bronson coming by his ruggedness via western Pennsylvania's coal mines to a film career that began in the 1950s, Eastwood coming from TV's Rawhide and a string of now iconic Sergio Leone spaghetti Westerns - A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). That each had a chance to mature before they became icons made a difference. Each was comfortable with whom he was, and it permeated their acting. Bronson's gravel voice fed his persona. Well into his 50s when the Death Wish steamroller started rolling, with Bronson as a politically liberal architect who goes ballistic after his wife was killed and his daughter was raped, Bronson said of himself, "I look like a rock quarry that someone has dynamited."
It was a simile that came naturally to him, given his upbringing. His quintessential role, however, is in a film in which he never touches a gun: Walter Hill's Hard Times (1975), a little gem of a period piece in which he plays a street fighter who takes on all comers in boxing matches arranged by fast-talking promoter James Coburn in and around Depression-era New Orleans. Coburn delivers the spiel (and loses the purses gambling); an almost wordless Bronson delivers the punches, often simply outlasting his opponents. Hard as the times may be -- and we're utterly convinced they're tough, and mean -- he's harder. Eastwood, whose raspy whisper bespeaks an undentable knack for setting a course and sticking to it, once said: "I don't talk real well. I glare well." In Pale Rider (1985) he gets to glare a lot as an enigmatic preacher who rides into a California gold mining settlement and stands up to a land baron trying to drive the miners out. With its title an allegorical reference to death, it plays as a sort of a study for Unforgiven (1992). Two of its dedicatees are Leone and Don Siegel (who directed Dirty Harry).
Not that American film has had a monopoly on tough guys. From the 1920s on, there has been a steady procession of them from elsewhere. Two who have imprinted themselves most indelibly are France's Jean Gabin and China's Chow Yun-Fat. Stylistically as well as geographically and temporally worlds apart, they are nevertheless brothers in fatalism. Both are headlong as they hurl themselves at danger. Both are fearless, or at least stoical. But both also hear death whispering in their ears. Gabin, with his doughy face, cool, clear eyes and working-class sturdiness, was the face of French film for several decades, cementing his Gallic icon status in five films from 1937 to 1939 that pushed a longing to escape squalid circumstances into violence, as if dignity could only be snatched from a shabby, punishing universe by death.
His reputation for insisting on death scenes seemed to proceed as much from logic and a sense of dramatic inevitability as from a star actor's ego. After Julien Duvivier launched him, taking the gangster film to new heights and presaging film noir in Pepe le Moko (1937), his working-class characters escaped death only once, in Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion (1937), where his commoner outlasts soon-to-be-extinct aristocrats in Renoir's hopeful vision of classes uniting across nationalistic divides during WW I. The other films and his characters in them are permeated with a sense of unarticulated dread at the approaching dislocations of WWII. His locomotive engineer in Renoir's La bete humaine (1938) and his military deserter in Marcel Carne's Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows) (1938) meet bleak ends. Gabin capped them in Carne's Le jour se leve (Daybreak) (1939) with his factory worker who shot a man for chivalric reasons sitting in his seedy furnished room reliving events in flashback as the police close in.
Chow Yun-Fat, with his round face and early career trademark of blazing guns in each hand, seems an unlikely choice as the tragic icon of Hong Kong's supercharged gangster films. But he became just that in John Woo's A Better Tomorrow (1986). Nobody ever accused Woo's films of being deficient in shootouts, least of all this one. Its take on two brothers, one a cop, the other a criminal, in conflict, reinvented the crime caper in hyperkinetic ways and made international figures of Woo and Chow. As the crooked sibling's right-hand man, crippled in a treacherous ambush, and debased in the bargain, he has enough firepower left to make us feel the molecules in the genre changing during a restaurant shootout where Chow, pulling guns from flower pots and other hiding places, helps his old boss get even. Soon afterward, Chinese kids began wearing long coats to match Chow's in the movie. Sequels and international stardom followed. As Pauline Kael put it: Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. Add Biff! Bam! Pow! And from time to time, a bit of soul. The tough guy isn't going away any time soon.
By Jay Carr