In the comments to one of my recent posts there was a series of interesting comments on something of a tangent that I think should be brought to the front page and expanded on. Michael wrote:
That’s a study someone should do, or maybe has done, by the way: how have Hollywood tropes affected the self-image of individuals. The “emotionless, ruthlessly-focused male” was invented in the 1960’s with the spaghetti westerns, I suspect. The Duke was never that kind of character. That notion gained traction with Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson.
I’d be willing to bet that a huge number of men who had their formative experiences in the 60’s and 70’s latched onto this archetype. It’s been quite persistent I’d say in lit and movies, but sort of traveled down the food chain, becoming increasingly eye-rolling.
The new archetype is the Seth Rogan type. We’ll see more and more guys patterning themselves after that kind of character. It’ll be a long couple of decades.
to which sam responded:
I dunno. See, e.g., Kirk Douglas in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). Interestingly, that film was about Hollywood — an industry ruled, until the demise of the studio system, by probably the most ruthlessly-focused, but highly emotional, group of male homo sapiens to walk the earth since the Borgias.
Oh there were definitely earlier expressions of the type. But I think it rose to the status of a Hollywood go-to later with the iconic Clint. I suspect it had to do with the new role of women. The character type has an air of defensiveness about it, an armored emotionlessness that denies a capacity to cope and substitutes instead a blank emptiness, almost a catatonia.
The Duke, Bogie, Alan Ladd, they all expressed emotion, had feelings, and understood ambiguity. Clint and Bronson and that other guy whose name I forget and I’m too lazy to look up, all typified the new, unemotional, male. The male lead as almost a stick figure. Brittle.
Then came the brooding phase: Pacino, DeNiro on through DiCaprio. And now we’re well into the boy-man thing.
So, for those following along at home, that’d be complex man, comatose man, brooding man, and boy-man.
You might have something there. A Fistful of Dollars is based on Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, which itself was based on Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest. The “hero” of that book has no name, he’s just the Continental Op, he’s faceless, really. In Red Harvest he comes to this corrupt town and succeeds in cleaning it up by getting the rival gangs to bump each other off. I can’t recall that he expressed anything in the way of emotion as he set about the cleansing. Clint’s turn as the Man with No Name was pretty much the Continental Op in a serape.
There have been stoic heroes in American cinema for very nearly as long as there has been American cinema. William S. Hart began in Westerns at least as early as 1914. His characters were invariably stoic, forthright, and honest and they laid the foundation for Western heroes ever since. However, these heroes were not emotionless. Often quite to the contrary they were brimming over with emotions. Anger, love, outrage, revenge, jealousy. But they were carefully held in check because the world was a hard, dangerous place and, if you were to handle the challenges it presented, that is what you needed to do.
I think that sam is correct in looking to thrillers for antecedents to the crop of truly emotionless anti-heroes that began with the Clint Eastwood/Sergio Leone teamings, most notably the Man With No Name trilogy, a re-hashing of American westerns as dragged through Japanese samurai pictures and, as sam correctly points out, taking its theme material from Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op stories.
A more recent recurrence of this character is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator.
The earliest real antecedent to this character that I’ve been able to identify is Alan Ladd’s Phil Raven in 1942’s This Gun for Hire. Ladd, however, did not make a career of nerveless characters like Raven—generally his portrayals were more complex, more human. And that’s a critical difference between The Man With No Name or Harry Calahan and Phil Raven. In no way is Raven to be considered admirable. Raven is psychotic. The Terminator is a machine.
I can think of earlier representations of emotionless men. For example, Alfred Abel’s Joh Fredersen in Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece, Metropolis, is coldly rational, virtually devoid of emotion. And there are several representations of mechanical beings in that picture (mostly by Birgitte Helm in an eerie combination of sexuality and emotionlessness). But they are in no way heroes or protagonists. They are closer to being villains.
Over the years I think we have seen a transition in cinematic heroes from the stoic heroes of American westerns, hard men in a hard world, to Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine or Sam Spade, damaged and disillusioned men in a disappointing world, to Dirty Harry Callahan or Paul Kersey, psychotic men in a psychotic world, to DeNiro and Pacino’s brooding anti-heroes in a sad and self-absorbed world.
If Michael’s right and with the rise of actors like Will Farrell and Seth Rogan, the prevailing style of hero may well be childish incompetents, presumably in a childish and incompetent world. It will, indeed, be a long couple of decades. I think I’ll go watch a Douglas Fairbanks picture.