The Scariest Men in Film Noir: Part 1
So many scary dudes . . . so little space.
- Mark Dixon: Dana Andrews in Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950). There was no doubt that this police detective was passionate about cleaning up the crime-laden streets. But criminals beware: this hot-headed copper would just as soon break your arm as put on a pair of handcuffs. In fact, he’d probably prefer it.
- Neil Eichelberger: Ed Begley in The Turning Point (1952). A crime boss who ruled with a cast-iron fist, Eichelberger’s nature was best illustrated when he ordered the burning of a building becuase it contained an incriminating set of papers. Oh – I forgot to mention that people lived in the building. Eichelberger’s outlook was that the plan was so heinous even a jury wouldn’t believe he would do it.
- Jeff: William Bendix in The Glass Key (1942). We may not have known Jeff’s last name, but we sure knew that he liked to beat people up.
- Chester: Neville Brand in D.O.A. (1950). Another sadistic henchman with no last name. I’m starting to see a pattern here. But Chester was even scarier than Jeff – as his boss put it, Chester was “an unfortunate boy who is unhappy unless he gives pain. He likes to see blood.” Enough said?
- George Castleman: David Brian in The Damned Don’t Cry (1949). Castleman was a refined, well-heeled gangster, but beneath the tailored suit, he was brutal, cunning, and unforgiving. In a scene near the film’s end, he delivers a beating to girlfriend Joan Crawford that I will never forget, no matter how many movies I see.
- Al and Max: William Conrad and Charles McGraw in The Killers (1946). Their cold-blooded, methodical way of carrying out their job – while taking the time to belittle and terrorize diner customers – makes these two a scary pair.
- Cody Jarrett: James Cagney in White Heat (1949). The famed Cody Jarrett was a thoroughly conscienceless killer – but he always managed to punctuate his deadly deeds with a quip. In one scene, when a train engineer calls him by name, Jarrett responds, “You’ve got a good memory for names. Too good.” And then he plugs him. Later in the film, after locking a double-crossing hood in the trunk of his car, Jarrett – while gnawing on a chicken leg, mind you – asks him if he needs some air. And then he kindly helps out the hapless thug by firing several shots into the car.
- Rico Angelo: Lee J. Cobb in Party Girl (1958). Rico was a 1930s-era gangster who was typified by his hard-drinking and unpredictable brutality. You never knew who he was going to give it to – or when, or how. Like in the scene where he gifts an underling with a silver pool cue . . . and then proceeds to beat him to death with it. Given Rico’s penchant for violence, I’ve always felt that his demise is particularly fitting – he is shot by police, accidentally douses himself with acid, and then falls out of an upper-story window. I kinda love it.
- Mr. Brown: Richard Conte in The Big Combo (1955). Mr. Brown was nothing if not thorough. In order to conceal his role in the murder of his former boss, Mr. Brown left behind a trail of bodies like bread crumbs dropped by Hansel and Gretel.
- Nick Magellan: Richard Conte in New York Confidential (1955). Although he’s one of my favorite noir characters, I have to admit that Nick Magellan is pretty darn scary. He was not only an efficient and intelligent killer, but he was completely untouched by sentiment. If he has a job to do, he did it – no matter who the victim was.
- Smiley Coy: Wendell Corey in The Big Knife (1955). This guy’s name was definitely contrary to his personality. He was oily, untrustworthy, disingenuous, shallow, conniving, unsympathetic, and downright mean. And a smart aleck, to boot.
Honorable mention in my first round of scary men goes to Raymond Burr who – let’s face it – offered up scary characters in just about every noir he was in!! Here are my top Burr picks:
- Walt Radak: Desperate (1947). Here, Burr was a hood with a one-track mind – he was determined, at all costs, to exact revenge on the poor sucker that he blamed for the death of his kid brother. When Radak finally catches up to him, he offers his prey a last meal, telling him: “I’m sorry I can’t give you a choice of food, but . . . you’re not going to live long enough to get any nourishment out of it.”
- Rick Coyle: Raw Deal (1948). This brutish crime boss clearly reveals his persona in a scene when his mistress accidentally jostles against him, spilling champagne on his jacket. Coyle picks up a bucket of flaming cognac and flings it at her. “Take her away,” he says. “She shoulda been more careful.”
- Mack MacDonald: Pitfall (1948). A psychotic private detective, MacDonald was a creepy stalker, a relentless bully, and a would-be killer – and he had a license to carry a gun!
- Nick Cherney: Red Light (1950). Another revenge-seeker, Cherney was sent to prison for embezzling from his trucking magnate boss. To get even, Cherney arranges the murder of his boss’ younger brother – a priest!
- Nick Ferraro: His Kind of Woman (1951). Exiled crime boss Nick Ferraro hatched a brilliant scheme to regain his former glory by murdering and assuming the identity of a professional gambler. That’s not the scary part. Nick’s scariness reared its head as he prepared to shoot his semi-conscious victim, and beat him in the head to awaken him because, as he explained, “I want you to see it coming.”