The “Emotionless Man” in American Cinema

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.

Michael rejoined:

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.

sam replied:

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.

30 comments… add one
  • john personna Link

    Gary Cooper was an early, internalized, hero.

    Cooper has tended toward that later in life … Grand Torino as High Noon?

  • PD Shaw Link

    To add on sam’s point, I think the emotionless man is somewhat of a pulp fiction trope.

    Robert E Howard’s “Vultures of Wahpeton” (1936) has a Texas gunslinger hired by the sheriff to keep the peace in a mining town ridden by conflicts between a gang and anti-gang vigilantis. The sheriff eventually tells his new deputy that he is secretly the leader of the gang and is playing one group off on the other in order to secret the gold out. The hero uses his skill to help his boss play the double game until his girl is caught in the cross-fire, then he coldly and calmly takes everybody out.

    The “hero” of Vultures is emotionless, yet appealing because he is surrounded by less savory types and one senses there are limits, but these limits seem to stem (like the Continental Op) from complete confidence in his skill. The Continental Op was Hammett’s ideal of a Pinkerton detective; the deputy in Vultures was the ideal gunslinger because he is said to have never needed to shoot a man in the back, he’s that good.

    Howard drew on his love of real events in the West, particularly his interest in Henry Newton Brown, a man who was both outlaw and lawman. Vultures is supposed to be coming out in film this year or shortly.

  • PD Shaw Link

    I think you might place Bogie roles on a continuum with Sam Spade on the rather emotionless side and on the other side is Rick blubbering into his drink amidst flashback to Paris .

  • michael reynolds Link

    You’d be blubbering too if you’d lost Ingrid Bergman.

  • I take Sam at his word: I think he’s actually in love with Brigid O’Shaughnessy. And his humor goes beyond sardonic wit so, as I say, certainly not emotionless. I think that Frank McCloud from Key Largo also fits in this continuum.


    That sounds very much like the plot line from one of William S. Hart’s early westerns. There are only so many plots. I’ve read some Howard western fiction (the Breckenridge Elkins stories) but not all of it. I think that like Edgar Rice Burroughs although the fantasy got the most attention the western fiction was some of their best work. So, for example, I think that Apache Devil is Edgar Rice Burroughs’s best novel bar none. Well, maybe The Mucker. There is a certain advantage in writing about something you know about.

  • michael reynolds Link

    Yeah, Spade has fallen for Brigid. He’s conflicted, not emotionless. It’s a tough guy act concealing raw emotions. Such a great movie.

  • sam Link

    I’m a great, great, great fan of Raymond Chandler. Philip Marlowe is one of the great creations of American Lit. Marlow’s not what you’d call completely emotionless, he does show some feeling. But in the books, whatever feelings he has are tangential to the story, he doesn’t really figure in the stories at all in terms of the action — he merely observes the action, never initiates it. (Chandler said he got the name from the English playwright Christopher Marlowe, but I’ve always heard echoes of Conrad’s Marlow.) I’ve never really liked any of the adaptations of Chandler’s books as adaptations. None of them quite got the pacing of the books, for one thing. Probably the most interesting one, vis-a- vis the subject of the emotionless man, was the adaptation of The Lady in the Lake with Robert Montgomery. The movie tried to capture the Marlowe-as-pure-observer aspect by shooting the entire movie was if through Marlowe’s eyes. The only time you ever see Montgomery as Marlowe is when you see his reflection in a mirror. All the characters speak directly to the camera, and you hear Montgomery as Marlowe in voiceover. Interesting movie, and as about as complete an attempt to present the emotionless, detached man as I’ve ever seen.

  • sam Link


    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 wonder if the transition away from that began with The Searchers. In the final scene, the reunion scene, Wayne’s Ethan Edwards doesn’t come into the house, he turns away. There’s no room for him in that world. It was left to Sam Peckinpah to write and film the elegies for Ethan Edwards in Ride the High Country, and, most forcefully, in The Wild Bunch.

  • michael reynolds Link


    I worship Chandler as a God. As a writer I know of no better introductory paragraph than the first graf of The Big Sleep. In a few sentences Chandler sets character, tone, starts the plot and best of all establishes a brand new and unique voice. In a paragraph.

  • On a related side note I think that Bogart was very fortunate that some of his movies featured performers whose mere presence in a movie elevated it. Ingrid Bergman, Mary Astor (Brigid O’Shaughnessy), and Claire Trevor (Eddie Robinson’s moll in Key Largo) were all performers of that caliber.

    Another side note: I find it fascinating that two of the screen’s great tough guys, Humphrey Bogart and Robert Montgomery (not only Lady in the Lake but also Ride the Pink Horse), were both members of New York’s small social set, born to riches.

    They contrast interestingly with other screen tough guys, Jimmy Cagney, Eddie Robinson, and Paul Muni. All three of the latter spoke fluent Yiddish. Bogart and Montgomery spoke fluent French. Bogart and I share a birthday, BTW. Different years, of course.

  • I wonder if the transition away from that began with The Searchers. In the final scene, the reunion scene, Wayne’s Ethan Edwards doesn’t come into the house, he turns away.

    I think earlier. Consider Waco Johnnie Dean (Dan Duryea) in Winchester 73 or Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) in High Noon. The key differences are that a) they’re villains rather than heroes and b) they’re clearly psychotics—sadists. I think that the normalization, even admiration, of psychosis has been a very unfortunate development in American cinema.

  • sam Link


    Yeah. I’m reminded of what Chandler said about English mystery writers of his time: “They’re not the best writers in the world, but they’re the incomparably best dull writers in the world.” He certainly wasn’t going to let that happen to him. He loved the American language for its rhythm and power.

  • PD Shaw Link

    On Bogart: I guess Rick Blaine is the quintessential emotionless man, whose character arc (and flashbacks) allow us to see how he got that way and how he changed. Sam Spade appears to be more of an opportunist that wouldn’t stick his neck out for anybody and despite his attraction to Brigid, he just can’t trust her or himself to do anything about it.

    Contrast both with Marlowe in the Big Sleep (movie), where he is flirtatious and somewhat gallant in looking after the sisters and making sure the Bacall character avoids trouble. Definitely not emotionless here.

    (I notice Dave didn’t mention Bacall in his list of notable Bogart co-stars; I wouldn’t either)

  • sam Link

    “Sam Spade appears to be more of an opportunist that wouldn’t stick his neck out for anybody”

    PD, he tells Bridget he’s sending her over because she killed Miles, “and when somebody kills your partner, even if you didn’t particularly like him, you gotta do something.”

  • PD Shaw Link

    sam, opportunist might be the wrong word; I think he has a high regard for self-preservation and Bridget is dangerous. I don’t think he loves her, or at the very least, he is unwilling to ask himself whether he loves her. She’s never been straight with him and she’s used men before, and Sam won’t be a sap like them. It only after she can’t convince him to act on love that she asks whether he likes her more than his old partner, which seems a second or third tier argument. It would be bad for business if a detective didn’t do something about his partner’s murder.

    Here’s the transcript; I think looking over it I’m more convinced that the movie culminates in the importance of being unemotional. Probably the smart thing, but in his line of work, this dame may be as good as he gets.

  • I think that Lauren Bacall is a fine example of another unfortunate trend in American cinema: the predisposition to hire mannequins. Are the Bogart and Bacall movies good movies? Yes. Did they have chemistry on and off the screen? Yes. Was Lauren Bacall a good actress? Not in my opinion. I think she was a teenager who looked good when the director moved her around the set.

  • michael reynolds Link

    Am I the only one reading through this exchange who finds himself doing a bargain basement Bogie impersonation?

  • PD Shaw Link

    I agree about Bacall.

    Let me throw out another candidate, is Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch a type of emotionless man? There are a number of legal ethicists that complain about the profession’s worship of this character, because it tends to value his legal and technical skills, performed with a professional detachment from the greater moral issues taking place. (That may not be fair from an historical perspective; but it’s the continuing valuation of that perspective is what is under attack).

    If so, it might place the “emotionless man” in the context of their job, if they are employed to do something challenging or difficult, in which the viewer might feel more emotional weight is required by the overall context.

  • sam Link

    I don’t agree with your reading of Spade, PD.

    You’ll never understand me, but I’ll try once and then give it up.
    When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something.
    It makes no difference what you thought of him. He was your partner, and you’re supposed to do something about it…
    …and it happens we’re in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed, it’s…it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it…bad all around, bad for every detective everywhere.

    The fact that they’re in the detective business is subordinate to the main thought: You have to do something about it. That they’re in the detective business just shapes the parameters of what it is you have to do.

    BTW, does anyone else see the resemblance between Spade’s farewell speech to Brigid and Rick’s farewell speech to Ilsa? Maybe it was just Bogie, but there’s something in each speech that reminds me of the other. Some note of wistfulness, more prominent in Rick’s speech than in Spade’s, but there just the same.

  • PD Shaw Link

    sam, what about Spade’s gallow’s humour in that scene?

    “I hope they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck. . . .
    If they hang you, I’ll always remember you.”

    Or this one:

    B: “You know whether you love me or not.”
    S: “Maybe I do. I’ll have some rotten nights after I’ve sent you over, but that’ll pass.”

    He’s certainly not Mr. Sensitive; maybe he’s trying to make this easy for himself or her, but I still think he’s decided not to confront the emotional lure; he’s made his decision before this scene and the underlying theme to me appears to be self-preservation, she’s dangerous.

  • sam Link

    Oh, I’m not saying he’s Mr. Sensitive, only that he has a code that he lives by, “Down these mean streets…”. But the code is important to him, and it goes beyond a mere sense of self-preservation. (Though Brigid, when you think about her, sure as hell is someone you’d want far away from you. I agree there. The dame is dangerous, and all the more so for looking like a sexy librarian. I’d run, too.)

  • I’m doubtful of the idea that young men are going to look at incompetent child heroes as their role models. That strikes me as the most outlandish of all claim.

  • Steve, not as people to aspire to, but as people that it’s perfectly okay to slump into becoming. Reinforcing the level that accomplishment doesn’t matter as long as you’re lovable. Bettering yourself is hard. Being a schlub is easy. And acceptable.

  • Reinforcing the notion, rather.

  • Trumwill,

    That notion alone, that you can just slump into being something less than you can be is the real problem. That they glomb on to a guy on the movie screen is but the symptom, and I doubt that any period in the movies had only awesome guys on the screen. That strikes me as the same old conservative canard that life back x years ago was a golden era.

  • michael reynolds Link


    It’s not a good old days thing. It’s just changing fashions. Within the various media you can always find all varying types. But at different times you’ll see the spotlight shine brighter on one type or another. Even a type most of us love — a Raymond Chandler creation — we wouldn’t want to see replicated ad nauseam in reality. It’s hard to build a society out of Marlowes. There aren’t enough prisons for all the beautiful but rotten dames.

    The schlub is definitely in at the moment. But the good news is that by the time we notice a thing is “in” it’s usually already on its way “out.”

    It does affect people’s world view and behavior, though. It’s embarrassing to admit but I grew up sort of thinking WWJWD? (What Would John Wayne Do?) Not that I got into the cowboying business, but that formed a part of my notion of what a man was. A man didn’t whine, a man didn’t make excuses, a man worked, a man stood up for the defenseless — and for women whether defenseless or not — and if he picked a fight it was as a last resort and only against someone who really had it coming.

    Fiction does inform our world view. Whether it’s more cause or effect is something one can debate. More likely it’s a sort of feedback loop.

    Anyway, yeah, we’re probably most of the way through the Seth Rogan, Will Farrell, bed-head man-boy thing. I happen to be in Hollywood at the moment and within a couple miles of here are a couple hundred screenwriters and directors trying to figure out what you should want to be next, Verdon. I’m going into one of the big agencies tomorrow for a meeting: I will attempt to spy out the situation and come back with appropriate warnings.

  • sam Link

    “It does affect people’s world view and behavior, though. It’s embarrassing to admit but I grew up sort of thinking WWJWD?”

    Yeah, I once had this imaginary conversation with the Duke about the Vietnam war:

    Wayne: How come you’re so opposed to the war?

    Me: I grew up watching your movies!

  • sam Link

    About the Duke. I think I told this story at OTB, but it’s great story and, like all great stories, bears retelling.

    Wayne had heart problems and came to Boston for open-heart surgery (at Mass General, I recall). Before he left, the Harvard student body asked him to come back to speak. He agreed. Now, this was in the 70s, and the political passions were running pretty high (like always, huh?). So I think it took some balls for him to come to Leftwing Central stick his head in the lion’s mouth.

    On the day he was to speak, at Memorial Hall, he was transported to the Hall through Harvard Square riding –standing up, actually — in an armored personnel carrier on loan from the Mass National Guard.

    He sat on the stage by himself for over an hour and answered every question the kids threw at him. Answered with humor and the Duke warmth.

    When it was over, all those left-wing, hippie kids stood up and gave him a long standing ovation. They’d grown up with his movies, too.

    He was almost impossible to dislike. He and Henry Fonda had had a falling out over some political thing. In a Playboy interview, Fonda was asked about that falling out. Ward Bond had dumped on Fonda, too. Bond, Fonda said, never spoke to him again. How about Wayne. “Ah, hell no,” said Fonda, “Duke was too good-natured to stay angry with you for long.”

  • Michael,

    I find your take on movies and the male leads a bit simplistic. To argue that movies in various time periods only had leading men of type X strikes me as absurd. That these guys would be who even the schlubs look to as a role model strikes me as needing at least some level of empirical support.

    I think many young men look to the male closest to them, their fathers, as their role model. I’d bet that if Dad is a schlub, Junior is probably going to be a schlub too. If Dad gets up every day and goes to work (weekends exempted for many), encourages Junior to study hard in school, encourages and shows up/participates in/etc. for other activities that can build character (sports, hobbies, etc.). Doesn’t engage in behavior that is schlub-like himself then the kid will be less likely to turn out like a schlub.

    The idea that television and movies make us think who or what we want to be like strikes me as over-reach. I’d like some sort of evidence other than directors and screen writers thinking they can tell me what I want to be. Now the idea that they have some influence is more reasonable, but to reduce various time periods down to such simplified terms regarding movies, and then from there say, “And that is why men of that era turned out the way they did,” strikes me as unsupported baloney.

    For God’s sake have you ever seen a Will Farrell movie? He invariably plays a complete boob. I can’t imagine too many young men saying, “I really want to be Ricky Bobby!” Might as well just say, “I want to be a moron.”

  • michael reynolds Link

    I can’t imagine too many young men saying, “I really want to be Ricky Bobby!” Might as well just say, “I want to be a moron.”

    I’m not sure how anyone can follow American politics and come to any other conclusion. I’m pretty sure there’s a House bill calling for “I want to be a moron,” to be the new motto.

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