List o’ the Week: The Toughest Men and Women of Film Noir

Don't mess with this tough dame.

Don’t mess with this tough dame.

There are lots of ways to define the word “tough.” Strong and resilient. Physically hardy.  Hard to cut or chew!  But in the film noir realm, the “tough” description takes on a whole ‘nother meaning, giving us characters who are ruthlessly determined, relentlessly hard-boiled, fearless, callous, and willing to do whatever it takes to get whatever they want. It’s one of the things I love most about film noir.

This week’s list celebrates the toughest dames, dicks, gunsels and dolls of film noir. Read on and see if your favorites are here!

Ida Lupino:  Hard-boiled tough. It was all in her attitude . . . she could cut you down to size with a few choice words, and slap you with a smile on her face.  See Road House, While the City Sleeps

Dick Powell:  Smooth tough. Always cool, always unflappable.  See Johnny O’ClockCry Danger

Claire Trevor:  Refined tough. Like a lump of coal polished into a diamond, she glittered on the outside, but was rock-hard on the inside. See Murder, My Sweet, Born to Kill

Sterling Hayden. Nary a chuckle.

Sterling Hayden. Nary a chuckle.

Sterling Hayden:  Stoic tough. Life was serious business for this tough guy. (I mean, really – did he ever smile?)  See The Asphalt Jungle, Crime Wave

Marie Windsor:  Steely tough. She was as hard as nails and sharp as a razor.  See The Narrow Margin, The Killing

Robert Ryan:  Quietly tough. He didn’t have to raise his voice to make his intentions known or his expectations understood.  See The Racket, Act of Violence

Barbara Stanwyck:  Icy tough. With one chilly glance, she could reduce a man (or woman!) to a puddle.  See Double Indemnity, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

Charles McGraw:  Relentlessly tough. Never gave up, never gave in, never gave an inch.  See Loophole, The Narrow Margin

Is Audrey Totter tough, or what?

Is Audrey Totter tough, or what? (She’s tough!)

Audrey Totter:  Tough bitch. Her toughness was tinged with a surly sense of entitlement and disdain.  See Tension, The Unsuspected

Richard Widmark:  Psycho tough. Whether motivated by monetary greed or desire for a woman, he could be a more than a little wacky.  See Road House, Kiss of Death

Gloria Grahame:  Sultry tough. Using her sensuous means to justify the nefarious ends. See Human Desire, Sudden Fear

Dan Duryea:  Wily tough. Always thinking, scheming, maneuvering, and plotting.  See Scarlet Street, Too Late for Tears

Hope Emerson:  Imposing tough. Her inner fortitude was backed up by her massive size and her willingness to use it to her best advantage.  See Caged, Cry of the City

I admit it. I can't get enough of Richard Conte tough.

I admit it. I can’t get enough of Richard Conte tough.

Richard Conte:  Arrogant tough. Was there anyone who thought more of himself and his impact on others than a Conte character? (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)  See The Big Combo, New York Confidential

Helen Walker:  Sociopathic tough. Her motivations were a little on the socially deviant side.  See Impact, Nightmare Alley

Robert Mitchum:  Vulnerable tough. Like Kryptonite to Superman, his toughness could always (temporarily, at least) be weakened by a woman.   See Out of the Past, Angel Face

Lizabeth Scott:  Streetwise tough. Despite her veneer, she gave the impression that she was from the other side of the tracks.  See The Racket, I Walk Alone

Humphrey Bogart:  Morally tough. Displaying a set of principles that were often lacking in the tough.  See The Maltese Falcon, Dead Reckoning

Joanie Crawford tough: Savin' the best 'til last.

Joanie Crawford tough: Savin’ the best ’til last.

Joan Crawford:  Cultivated tough. She displayed a toughness that was initially dormant, but blossomed out of necessity. See The Damned Don’t Cry, Mildred Pierce

Lee J. Cobb:  Loud tough. His bellowing and blustering provided an exclamation point to his toughness.  See The Garment Jungle, Thieves’ Highway

So, that’s my list of noir’s toughest! Who’s on your list of favorite tough guys and gals?

~ by shadowsandsatin on March 21, 2013.

23 Responses to “List o’ the Week: The Toughest Men and Women of Film Noir”

  1. Your article gave me a great kick. Each description and choice of illustrative film had me nodding in appreciation and quoting favourite movie lines to my less than impressed cats.

    I might add Raymond Burr: intimidating tough. He’d go to the crazy, violent side because he liked it and he wanted to see what you’d do. See “Raw Deal”, “His Kind of Woman”

    • Thanks so much, CW! And I love the addition of Raymond Burr — Intimidating tough is a perfect description. His characters in Desperate and Pitfall would fit this, too!

  2. Love this, Karen! So many faves. 🙂

    Best wishes,

  3. That’s quite a list, Karen! I love how you were able to come up with a different tough for each of them. You’ve pretty much covered the noir lineup (and you got in Audrey Totter and Helen Walker, yay). The only one I might add would be Ann Savage. Only seen her in Detour but that’s enough tough to last a lifetime.


    • Love your additions, Muriel — Lawrence Tierney was defintely ruthless tough in Born to Kill and The Devil Thumbs a Ride. And for Neville Brand’s psychopathic tough, see DOA, for sure!!

  5. Dan Duryea certainly played his share of tough guys, but I’m not sure I would call his character in Too Late for Tears truly tough. He starts out that way, but he meets more than his match in Lizabeth Scott’s Jane Palmer who reduces him to a bewildered, frightened soggy mess by the end. But certainly Scott excels in Tears at the tough woman trying to cross the tracks to take her place in the affluent end of the middle class.

  6. Excellent list, so many great choices.

  7. Reblogged this on filmcamera999.

  8. Wonderful definitions of these favorite dynamic noiristos. I’d add JOHN Payne , angry tough.Watch him in 99 RIVER STREET, he’s angry all the way through.

    Vienna’s Classic Hollywood

  9. Wonderful – this is where I come to for noir-it-all!


  10. These are my faves too. So glad to see Lee J. Cobb made the list.

    I would also add John Dall, as per your fab review of “Gun Crazy”

  11. Love this list! I have just a couple to add:
    Glenn Ford – Smoldering Tough (re: The Big Heat)
    Steve Cochran – Smooth-Psycho Tough (re: The Chase)

    • Thanks, Brian! Those are great additions — I can also see Glenn Ford “smoldering tough” in Convicted and Gilda. And another smooth-psycho tough for Steven Cochran to go along with The Chase would definitely be The Damned Don’t Cry! Love these!

  12. This is completely spot-on.

  13. […]… […]

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