The Scariest Men in Film Noir: Part 4
So many scary dudes . . . so little space.
- Steve Morgan: Lawrence Tierney in The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947). When we first meet Steve, he is robbing and killing a bank night manager. His next move involves his transformation into the title role – picked up by a hapless traveling salesman while making his getaway, Steve not only runs down a motorcycle cop on the road, he talks the salesman into giving a ride to two women, convinces him to stop off at his beachhouse, slashes the guy’s tires, disables the telephone, and kills one of the women. Let’s just say it was a busy night.
- Waldo Lydecker: Clifton Webb in Laura (1944). Who would have ever thought that this elegant, urbane, caustically droll writer could be capable of shooting a woman in the face with a shotgun?
- Hardy Cathcart: Clifton Webb in The Dark Corner (1946). Another sophisticated gent with an ascerbic wit and a memorably fancy name. Oh, and also a conscienceless killer.
- Harry Lime: Orson Welles in The Third Man (1949). After we learn that Harry faked his own death, we discover why – he was the mastermind of a reprehensible plot to steal shipments of penicillin, dilute it to increase its volume, and then sell it to patients who later suffered tragic consequences. Not a nice guy. But a scary one.
- Tommy Udo: Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death (1947). He pushed a wheelchair-bound woman down a flight of steps. Enough said?
- Jefty Robbins: Richard Widmark in Road House (1948). Jefty was the proprietor of the film’s title establishment. He was not a guy you wanted to cross. When Jefty’s club manager announced his plans to marry the singer with whom Jefty was madly in love, he first framed the luckless fellow for theft and then planned an elaborate trip to a remote cabin, where he planned to murder them both. To his credit, he did have a cute name.
Honorable mention in this final round of scary noir fellas goes to Robert Ryan, who demonstrated his scary skills in a whole slew of noirs!
Montgomery: Crossfire (1947). In this three-Robert starrer (Ryan, Mitchum, and Young), our guy was truly frightening as a bigoted psychopath who kills a Jewish war veteran, along with an Army pal who had the bad luck to be present when the murder took place. A silver-tongued liar capable of glibly masking his racist philosophies, Montgomery also possessed a hair-trigger, chillingly violent temper and a menacing demeanor – Ryan’s portrayal was rightly labeled by the critic for Time as “the scariest of the season.”
Joe Parkson: Act of Violence (1949). A disabled veteran, Parkson stalked an ex-war buddy across the country, determined to fulfill an unflagging, deadly vendetta stemming from a horrific incident that took place in a prisoner of war camp. “Did he tell you that I’m a cripple because of him?” Parkson asks the man’s wife. “Did he tell you about the men that are dead because of him? Did he tell you what happened to them before he died? I was in the hospital, but I didn’t go crazy . . . I kept saying to myself, ‘Joe, you’re the only one alive that knows what he did. You’re the one that’s got find him, Joe.’”
Smith Ohrlig: Caught (1949). This peculiarly named chap was not scary because of a murderous bent or mercenary tendencies, but because of a deep-seated hatred of women, callous and obsessive personality, and tendency to suffer psychosomatic heart attacks when, according to his psychiatrist, he “doesn’t get what he wants.”
Nick Scanlon: The Racket (1951). Here, Ryan portrayed a brutal, unforgiving gangster whose crimes included a series of killings, including a police informant and an upstanding young patrolman.
Howard Wilkins: Beware, My Lovely (1952). Wilkins, an itinerant handyman, was a killer. What made him extra scary was that he didn’t know it. “There are days when I pick up the newspaper and I see that somebody’s been murdered and I wonder, could I have done that?” he says in one scene.
Earl Slater: Odds Against Tomorrow (1959). Slater was a bigoted ex-con who teamed with a black singer to knock over a bank – with cataclysmic results. Ryan was universally praised for his performance – one reviewer wrote that the actor “makes the flesh crawl as the fanatical bigot,” and another described him as “a menace who can look bullets and smile sulphuric acid.”