Rogue’s Gallery: Noir’s Unlikely Tough Guys

ROGUE’S GALLERY – Where three dedicated Noirheads discuss, argue and bat around topics on all things Film Noir.
With Jake Hinkson, Cullen Gallagher and Eric Beetner.

So here’s what I want to know this time around: Who is the most unlikely Noir actor to you? One that works as a Noir tough guy despite all evidence to the contrary.
I am always fascinated by the turns of guys like Gene Kelly and Mickey Rooney as they ventured into darker fare. For Kelly he didn’t spend much time on the dark side of the street and he never looks comfortable there in either The Black Hand or Christmas Holiday. For Rooney he found a certain groove over the many crime films he made, my favorite of which has to be Quicksand. I think that film works and I buy him much more than when he tried to play big time gangsters like in Baby Face Nelson or The Last Mile.

Can I call a guy like Fred MacMurray unlikely? I only ask because it is his post-Noir work that gave him the identity he is most associated with on My Three Sons. He is an excellent Noir hero in Double Indemnity though. And Borderline and the truly underrated Pushover.
Hugh Beaumont too had a thriving crime career before he became Ward Cleaver. He made some sleazy poverty row trash and seemed headed down a path to becoming a heavy until he became America’s favorite Dad (Sorry Fred).
I guess I’d have to go with John Payne for a guy whose early career gave no indication he would work so well in Noir, but boy did he ever. Is this seriously the same guy from Miracle on 34th Street one year later starring in Larceny? Awesome.
How about you guys? Any unliklies, guys you thought wouldn’t work as tough guys and did or even guys who you thought might work out and flopped?

You know, Gene Kelly was the first one to jump to mind for me. I actually really like him in Christmas Holiday, but maybe that’s because I really despise him in most of his musicals. Even in Singin’ in the Rain (the only musical of his I truly enjoy), he comes off as kind of a phony sleaze bag – it’s nothing in the script of his character, but something untrustworthy and unknown just emanates from his performance. So, I totally bought him as the husband-turned-psycho-killer in Christmas Holiday.

Dick Powell is another one. Who would have thought that the pretty face, naive romancer from those 30s Busby Berkeley musicals would someday play Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet? My favorite Powell noir character, though, is in Andre de Toth’s Pitfall, where he plays the archetypical middle-class insurance agent/father whose life takes a dark turn when he falls for femme fatale Lizabeth Scott.

And I think James Stewart would count for this discussion, too. In the 1930s, he was the all-American idealist in movies like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But after he returned from WWII, around the same time that the Noir anti-hero started to emerge, Stewart’s on-screen persona also took a dark turn. He certainly pulls off some of the darkest, most complex Western protagonists of the time, such as the psychotic bounty hunter in The Naked Spur, or the driven cowboy in Winchester 73. And even though one might not immediately classify Vertigo as Noir, Stewart’s character I think fits the bill.

Moving outside the classic Noir era, Bill Cosby and Robert Culp in Hickey & Boggs turn their comic personae 180-degrees as they portray two of the most down and out, rag-tag, depressing bunch of Private Eyes of all time.

Also, have y’all seen This World, Then the Fireworks from 1997? It’s one of the lesser known Jim Thompson adaptations, but – in my opinion – one of the best. Most surprising of all is Billy Zane’s performance as an incestuous journalist with a yen for his sister and a lot of unresolved mommy issues. Not many actors convincingly capture the happy-go-psychotic mood of Thompson’s character, but Zane pulls it off. And he’s a hell of a lot more convincing than Casey Affleck in The Killer Inside Me. Don’t ask me how the dude from Sniper and Titanic winds up being one of the most disturbing, and least compromising, Thompson anti-heros on screen, but he sure does it.

Cullen, I’m fascinated that you don’t like Gene Kelly. I am definitely a fan of his musicals—though I must say that in the movies he exerted a lot of control over the dance sequences tend to go on too long for my taste—and I’m amazed that you think he’s a sleaze. Gene Kelly!

What’s fascinating about this, though, is the way that your dislike of him works to his advantage in Christmas Holiday. I think his natural sunniness shows through too much and pretty much sinks the picture. The other song and dance men you guys mentioned—John Payne and Dick Powell—both managed to bring something new to the table. Payne morphed himself into to a one-man ass kicking machine and Powell became the embodiment of in-over-his-head smugness. Kelly didn’t bring much to the table in a film noir.

And, of course, you’re right about Jimmy Stewart. Jesus, has there ever been a better film actor than this guy? (Answer: no) To be Jefferson Smith, Elwood P. Dowd, George Bailey, Howard Kemp, and Scottie Ferguson—to have that many variations of you inside of yourself, to be so different and yet somehow always be “Jimmy Stewart”—is nothing short of amazing.

My vote for most effective off-beat casting, though, has to be Robert Young in They Won’t Believe Me. Here the guy who would go on to define squareness in television’s Father Knows Best is cast as a self-centered prick who cheats on his wife and ends up on trial for murder. The quality that would make Young famous as an all-knowing television dad—his airy self-assurance—is what makes him especially believable as a cad. The director of this picture was the underrated Irving Pichel, who directed Mickey Rooney to such great effect in Quicksand. In that flick, Pichel played off Rooney’s small-man bluster and watched it curdle into Rooney’s undoing. All this really underlines what for me is noir’s great strength, that ability to locate the quality (or qualities) in a performer that might best lead to their downfall.

I’m happy we got a reference to The ‘Cos in this column! A great choice too.
Dick Powell I think is the obvious choice I skipped over since most people knew as a song and dance man. His screen persona was so ingrained they had to change the name of Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely for fear people would think it was a musical.
And Jake, Robert Young is an inspired choice. I really enjoy They Won’t Believe Me. All these TV Dads who had a dark past! I guess it is a tribute to the actors that they could play such range.

How about you out there? Anyone we missed?

Jake Hinkson is the author of Hell On Church Street. He blogs at
Cullen Gallagher writes about all things pulp at
Eric Beetner is author of Dig Two Graves, Split Decision and co-author (with JB Kohl) of One Too Many Blows To The Head and Borrowed Trouble as well as appearing in the anthologies D*cked, Pulp Ink, Grimm Tales, Off The Record and Discount Noir. For more visit

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3 Replies to “Rogue’s Gallery: Noir’s Unlikely Tough Guys”

  1. Any actor with truly sad eyes and a plain American face makes a great noir actor. I’d say the only one you missed is Marilyn Monroe (the exception that proves my rule?).