Who Is the Most Heroic Character in Film Noir?

A few days, I published an essay distilling my thoughts about a hypothetical Film Noir Cinematic Universe (“FNCU”). In a tweet I wrote to make readers aware of this essay, I said, “While there are a ridiculous number of villains in #FilmNoir, I was genuinely surprised how many legitimate #heroes there are.”

***WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD***

When we think of film noir, be it proto, classic era or neo-noir, we envision a wide range of villains – rogue cops, femmes fatales, professional crooks, good-folks-gone wrong, etc. – as well as nominal protagonists that dwell in a kind of twilight morality, including sadistically-violent police officer Jim Wilson in On Dangerous Ground,[1] hapless cross-country driver Al Roberts in Detour, or drifter-on-the-make Eric Stanton in Fallen Angel. But, as I wrote in the prior FNCU essay, “genuine heroes – characters who continue to pursue the ‘right path, even at the expense of their own well-being or the lives of those closest to then – are few and far between.”

However, upon closer inspection – and an expansion of the films whose characters I analyzed from the 150 with at least 25.0 POINTS to the 273 with at least 19.0 POINTS – I realized they are not quite as “few and far between” as I had thought. In fact, just as I did with “the worst characters in neo-noir,” I was able to compile of list of 64 film noir heroes, which I then divided into four very loose categories of 16 characters each: Intrepid Investigator, Undercover Agent, Amateur Crime Fighter, Strong Woman.

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For the purpose of this exercise, this is what makes a film noir character a “hero.”

First, a hero maintains her/his compassion, honesty, integrity and/or “moral focus” in the dark and cynical world of these films. S/he pursues the truth and state-sanctioned justice, even if it means their lives or the lives of those they love. S/he does not back down or refuse to act in the face of violence or threats of violence – and they mostly (nobody is perfect) maintain a clear-eyed level-headedness.

Next, a hero undertakes an investigation, operation or other form of activity either against their will – because they are somehow convinced it is the right thing to do – or because they are required by their position to do it. And then sees that investigation, operation or other form of activity to its necessary conclusion.

Finally, a hero pursues “good” outcomes outside or beyond her/his immediate self-interest.

On a practical level, I limited “heroes” to characters in the top four in billing (sorry, Uncle Pio), and with the exception of Dr. Andrew Collins in The Dark Past, I excluded characters who nobly fight back against their own victimization, meaning I did not consider Roy Collins and Gilbert Bowen in The Hitch-Hiker or Helen Gordon in Beware, My Lovely.

There is a great deal of ambiguity and overlap in these criteria. You likely will not agree with every choice I made; to be honest, I added a few borderline cases to guarantee 16 characters in each of the four categories – even the most heroic of humans are, well, human. Still, every one of these 64 characters is heroic relative to the vast majority of characters in their particular movie – which in some cases (looking at you, The Phenix City Story and L.A. Confidential) is a very low bar to cross.

As I did when I set the brackets for the worst character in neo-noir, I used POINTS and LISTS to determine seeding within each category: the more POINTS, the higher the seeding. By this logic, Barton Keyes is the top overall seed, as Double Indemnity tops all films with 62.0 POINTS. Ties were broken by LISTS: higher LISTS meant higher seeding. In two instances films had the same number of POINTS and LISTS; I arbitrarily decided the film earlier in alphabetic order had the higher seeding: The Narrow Margin over The Street With No Name (29.5 POINTS, 24 LISTS) and On Dangerous Ground over Raw Deal (40.5 POINTS, 28 LISTS).

Only one film – Impact – had multiple heroes. Humphrey Bogart (The Enforcer, Key Largo, The Maltese Falcon) and Edmund O’Brien (D.O.A., The Killers, White Heat) portray three different heroes, while Dana Andrew, Lee J. Cobb, Ida Lupino, Victor Mature, Ray Milland, Ricardo Montalban, Dick Powell, Ella Raines, Edward G. Robinson and Richard Widmark each portray two heroes. I did not set out to create an all-female category, but because that was the cleanest fourth category, 22 of these 64 characters are women – femmes fatales, take notice. And with the exception of 1997’s L.A. Confidential, every film was released between 1940 (Stranger on the Third Floor) and 1958 (Touch of Evil). Perhaps neo-noir is even less populated with genuinely heroic characters than classic era films noir.

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Now, as I did with the field of 64 candidates for the worst character in neo-noir, I analyze 32 first-round and 16 second-round matchups to produce a Twitter-friendly Sweet 16.

ROUND 1

Intrepid Investigator

1 vs. 16: With all due respect to Charles Coburn’s Sergeant Quincy in Impact, who doggedly works to clear the name of Brian Donlevy’s Walter Williams, claims investigator Keyes of the Pacific All-Risk Insurance Company not only rejected a potential wife because of his “little man,” he has to turn in his closest friend at the end of Double Indemnity.

Winner: Barton Keyes

8 vs. 9: This is a very close contest. Mature’s Lieutenant Vittorio Candella has to overcome the anti-authority attitudes of his neighborhood to bring in Richard Conte’s Martin Rome in Cry of the City. Robinson’s Mr. Wilson has to track down a former Nazi working in a New England college in The Stranger. While each man faces a modicum of personal danger, only Candella needs to confront his own past and loyalties. Thus, by the barest margin –

Winner: Lt. Vittorio Candella

5 vs. 12: It is actually Mike Vargas’ wife who is physically and emotionally menaced in Touch of Evil, though he still has to battle the local sheriff and anti-Mexican prejudice to prevail. John Dall’s rookie detective Andy Cullen “merely” has to hunt down his own brother, Lieutenant Ed Cullen, in The Man Who Cheated Himself. As problematic as the Caucasian Charlton Heston playing a Mexican police officer is, the odds against Vargas are far greater. Thus, with some chagrin –

Winner: Mike Vargas

4 vs. 13: This matchup is Dana Andrews vs. Dana Andrews. Det. Lt. Mark McPherson is a gruff cop who falls in love with the purported murder victim – Gene Tierney’s Laura Hunt – but still investigates with commendable thoroughness AND is willing to turn in Laura if she is proven to be the murderess. District Attorney Henry L. Harvey, meanwhile, has the unenviable task in Boomerang! of defending a man believed guilty of murdering a beloved local priest. This is a close call, though I think McPherson’s personal growth is slightly more heroic.

Winner: Det. Lt. Mark McPherson

6 vs. 11: It was perhaps inevitable that Bogart and O’Brien – two of film noir’s most prolific and talented performers – would face each other in a matchup. In this case it is O’Brien’s insurance investigator Jim Reardon from The Killers – who goes far beyond the call of duty in unraveling the life story of Ole “The Swede” Anderson – versus Bogart’s organized-crime battling District Attorney Martin Ferguson in The Enforcer. While both men face long odds – getting the full story and a looming court date – only Reardon faces physical danger, while Ferguson actually loses a key witness on his watch.

Winner: Jim Reardon

3 vs. 14: To me, Dick Powell is the definitive Philip Marlowe, and Murder, My Sweet is the definitive Marlowe film. Marlowe suffers the tortures of the damned in this film. so, as good a police officer as Montalban’s Lieutenant Pete Morales is in Mystery Street, this is really no contest.

Winner: Philip Marlowe

7 vs. 10: This matchup is also easy. Sheldon Leonard’s Sergeant Portugal is a very good homicide detective tracking down killers and stolen money in the delightfully bonkers Decoy. But young cop Jimmy Halloran has a wife and child, does magnificent detective work and is relentless in pursuit of Ted DeCorsia’s Willy Garzah in The Naked City.

Winner: Jimmy Halloran

2 vs. 15: And…we have our first major upset of the contest, in a battle of two of my all-time favorite films. Bogart’s Sam Spade, despite his shady reputation, does not pursue The Maltese Falcon for himself, resists all attempts at bribery and ultimately sends the woman he loves to prison. That said, he had an affair with his partner’s wife then fell in love with an active client. Meanwhile, Detective Lieutenant Edmund Exley, despite becoming “Shotgun Ed” and sleeping with Kim Basinger’s Lynn Bracken – nearly getting himself killed in consequence – takes on the entire corrupt establishment of the city of angels in L.A. Confidential. Yes, he does so for his own ambition, but he also acts with great integrity early in the film and faces far more physical danger than Spade does. In a decision that shocked even me –

Winner: Det. Lt. Edmund Exley.

Undercover Agent

1 vs. 16: With due respect to Burgess Meredith’s amnesia victim Frank Thompson, who wanders the Street of Chance to learn the truth about his possibly-criminal past, Carol “Kansas” Richman takes it upon herself to clear her boss of murdering his wife – long after the formal authorities had, mostly,[2] lost interest. She puts herself in mortal danger time and time again, displaying incredible tenacity and resourcefulness – all because she loves a man who may or may not love her back. By a landslide –

Winner: Carol “Kansas” Richman

8 vs. 9: This is basically a coin flip. Both Ingrid Bergman’s Alicia Huberman in Notorious and John Payne’s Joe Rolfe in Kansas City Confidential need to go undercover to, in essence, clear their names. Huberman is recruited because her father was a Nazi spy, and Rolfe is framed for murder. Both face certain death if discovered. Each has an ally of sorts, even if one proves to be the ringleader’s daughter. Facing Nazis and fighting to clear your father’s name may be just slightly more heroic than clearing your own name against garden-variety crooks – even if their leader is a former police officer. By a hair –

Winner: Alicia Huberman

5 vs. 12: This matchup features wildly different characters. Ray Milland’s George Stroud is charged in The Big Clock by the actual murderer – his boss Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton) – to find a man suspected to be the murderer. That man is Stroud himself – meaning Stroud has to unmask his own boss to clear his name. In The Narrow Margin, meanwhile, the policewoman posing as the wife of gangster Frankie Neal truly risks everything to make sure that the real Mrs. Frankie Neal makes it to Los Angeles by train to testify against her husband. Actually, this is not even close.

Winner: Mrs. Frankie Neal

4 vs. 13: This matchup pits two brave federal agents against each other. In T-Men, Dennis O’Keefe’s U.S. Treasury agent Dennis O’Brien goes undercover with a fellow agent to smash a counterfeiting ring. In The Street With No Name, Mark Stevens’ FBI agent Gene Cordell infiltrates a sophisticated cadre of gangsters. Both are helpless when fellow agents die. Both nearly lose their own lives before triumphing in the end. If there is one tiny difference, it is that O’Brien appears to enjoy the violence ever so slightly, whereas Cordell never does. So, by the thinnest of hairs –

Winner: Gene Cordell

6 vs. 11: With all due respect to William Eythe, his FBI agent Bill Dietrich in The House on 92nd Street is one of blandest, least interesting protagonist in film noir, even if he is up against the Nazis. By contrast, Mature’s ex-con Nick Bianco in Kiss of Death has to protect his young family from Widmark’s psychopathic Tommy Udo. This is an easy call – making the great Victor Mature the first actor to advance twice from the first round.

Winner: Nick Bianco

3 vs. 14: Widmark’s cynically apathetic pickpocket Skip McCoy – the “hero” of Pickup on South Street – is one of the most fascinating and well-written characters in film noir. His disdain for patriotic entreaties to help to fight the Communists is revelatory, though he ultimately agrees – and prevails, even though it nearly kills him. Alan Ladd’s political fixer Ed Beaumont from The Glass Key was created by Dashiell Hammett himself – the second such character after Spade. Beaumont plays a beautiful long game, pretending to betray his boss – and suffering one of the most sadistic beatings shown in any era of film. This is not an easy choice…but the stakes are simply higher for McCoy.

Winner: Skip McCoy

7 vs. 10: By contrast, this is a very easy matchup. June Vincent’s Catherine Bennett works with Dan Duryea’s Martin Blair as singer and accompanying pianist in Black Angel to get information to clear Bennett’s husband of murder, though she does face any genuine danger. Montalban’s Mexican border agent Pablo Rodriguez, however, goes deep undercover as a bracero to expose an illegal immigration ring in Border Incident – and is forced to watch helplessly as a fellow agent dies a horrific death. By a landslide –

Winner: Pablo Rodriguez

2 vs. 15: This matchup is equally not close. Evelyn Keyes’ Linda James briefly serves as a decoy to help Payne’s Eddie Driscoll prove he did not murder his wife in 99 River Street. And while she is legitimately in physical danger with no payoff to herself, this is not in the same league as O’Brien’s policeman Hank Fallon going undercover to infiltrate the gang of James Cagney’s dangerously unbalanced Cody Jarrett in White Heat. By a similar landslide –

Winner: Hank Fallon

Amateur Crime Fighter

1 vs. 16: This is an unusual matchup. O’Brien’s Frank Bigelow literally has to solve his own murder in D.O.A. – the ultimate example of being thrust into a life-threatening situation not of your own choosing. Cobb’s Collins, meanwhile, spends an evening using a form of psychoanalysis to unravel the childhood trauma of William Holden’s Al Walker – who led the invasion of Collins’ home in The Dark Past. While Bigelow naturally has a strong emotional reaction to being murdered, Collins remains cool and calm. And both men face a ticking clock. In the end, however, Bigelow’s journey through the stages of grief is simply more poignant.

Winner: Frank Bigelow

8 vs. 9: Powell’s Laurence Gerard is on a mission to avenge his murdered wife in Cornered, battling a post-Nazi fascist organization on two continents. Meanwhile, Widmark’s Lieutenant Commander Clinton Reed of the U.S. Public Health Service has only 48 hours to locate a few New Orleans criminals infected with pneumonic plague in Panic in the Streets. With due respect to Gerard’s wife – plague is far more terrifying than a ragtag group of Nazi sympathizers. This is an easy call.

Winner: Lieutenant Commander Clinton Reed

5 vs. 12: Years of study lead me to conclude the release of Stranger on the Third Floor on August 16, 1940 marks the beginning of the classic era of film noir, even if it took until 1944 to shift into high gear. In this compact, 64-minute-long film, John McGuire’s Michael Ward is a journalist who gives evidence that helps to convict an innocent man of murder. Ward later has a pang of conscience – and helps to locate the actual killer. In 1949’s Too Late For Tears, meanwhile, Don DeFore’s Don Blake seeks to avenge the murder of his brother. Both men engaged in a noble quest, but Ward’s transformation of conscience gives him the edge.

Winner: Michael Ward

4 vs. 13: Two men return to their small hometowns – and are lured into a desperate attempt to save the town from freedom-stifling corruption. In The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Van Heflin’s Sam Masterson must confront his married childhood friends – who now run Iverstown – and a long-secret childhood murder. Richard Kiley’s John Patterson returns to real-life Phenix City, AL in The Phenix City Story to help his father, John McIntire’s Albert Patterson, fight the organized crime that had dominated the city for decades. Both men are ultimately successful, but Patterson faces by far the longer odds and more brutal violence.

Winner: John Patterson

6 vs. 11: This is a matchup between two of my favorite – if less well-known – films noir. After he did Call Northside 777, Jimmy Stewart’s reporter P.J. McNeal works tirelessly to clear the name of Conte’s Frank Wiecek, falsely convicted and imprisoned for murdering a policeman. He ultimately succeeds, despite facing nearly impossible odds – and one particularly ornery witness. Susan Hayward’s dime-a-dancer June Goffe has a Deadline at Dawn to clear a sailor she just met – Bill Williams’ Alex Winkler – of murder. Easily the smartest person in the film, Goffe faces similarly impossible odds. Curiously, McNeal never finds the true killer, instead relying on a burst of genius inspiration to prove Wiecek’s innocence. Goffe does find the killer – primarily because he confesses. Thus, on a technicality…

Winner: P. J. McNeal

3 vs. 14: We have two more men thrust into battle against corrupt forces. Conte’s Nick Garcos seeks to revenge the crippling of his truck-driving father by the goons of Cobb’s corrupt produce dealer Mike Giglia in Thieves’ Highway. Milland’s Stephen Neale, after spending two years in a mental hospital, is drawn into the fight against Nazi spies after collecting the wrong cake in a carnival in Ministry of Fear. Both men face physical danger and emotional trauma, but Neale is sort of thrust into the battle while Garcos seeks it out willingly. Thus…

Winner: Nick Garcos

7 vs. 10: This is a relatively easy choice. Joseph Cotten’s mystery writer Holly Martins does his best to investigate the supposed murder of his friend – Orson Welles’ Harry Lyme – in The Third Man, but he seems overmatched at every turn. Frank McCloud, Bogart’s war veteran forced to defend himself and others from Robinson’s gangster boss Johnny Rocco and his goons in Key Largo, may be unwilling to fight at first, but when he does, he proves himself exceptionally skilled and resourceful.

Winner: Frank McCloud

2 vs. 15: This is a battle between two aging performers who find the inner strength and fortitude necessary to battle criminal forces. But there the similarities end. Vincent Price’s charming swashbuckling actor Mark Cardigan is genuinely heroic helping Robert Mitchum’s Dan Milner defeat gangster boss Nick Ferraro (Raymond Burr) in His Kind of Woman. But the movie has a sly, tongue-in-cheek air – it is a bit too over the top to take seriously. By contrast, the story of Robert Ryan’s over-the-hill boxer Bill “Stoker” Thompson in The Set-Up is a literal gut punch. He wins a fight he is supposed to lose, incurring the wrath of a criminal gang – who then savagely end his boxing career – while winning greater self-respect and the renewed admiration of his wife Julie (Audrey Totter). I adore Price’s Cardigan, but this is not close.

Winner: Bill “Stoker” Thompson

Strong Woman

1 vs. 16: I will be honest: I do not love the 1945 Mildred Pierce. That said, I reconsidered after watching the marvelous 2011 miniseries – and understanding just how much Joan Crawford’s/Kate Winslet’s Pierce endures and achieves to support herself and her daughters, including the selfish and narcissistic Veda. Thus, while Grace Kelly’s Lisa Fremont willingly risks her life to help Stewart’s L.B. Jefferies catch Burr’s wife-murdering Lars Thorwald in Rear Window, Pierce lives her self-sacrifice for years.

Winner: Mildred Pierce

8 vs. 9: Like Mildred Pierce, Joan Bennett’s Lucia Harper goes to extraordinary lengths to protect her daughter in The Reckless Moment, staring down both the police and a pair of ruthless blackmailers…well, one ruthless blackmailer, anyway. But Theresa Wright’s teenaged Charlie Newton fights a more existential battle in Shadow of a Doubt. Her slow realization that her beloved Uncle Charlie Oakley (Cotten, in possibly his best performance) – for whom she is named, and with whom she believes she shares a psychic bond – is a serial killer is existentially unsettling to watch. And the fact she bravely confronts her older and stronger psychopathic namesake…well, that clinches it, if barely.

Winner: Charlie Newton

5 vs. 12: This is the matchup of characters with no surnames. Coleen Gray’s circus performer Molly – despite dallying with Tyrone Power’s amoral mentalist-in-training Stanton Carlisle while dating Mike Mazurki’s Bruno – is the moral conscience of the otherwise bleakly cynical Nightmare Alley. Even after Carlisle betrays and abandons her to become an alcoholic willing to perform ANY job in a circus, she offers him her sincere, unquestioning, possibly redemptive love. Dorothy McGuire’s Helen, meanwhile, is the psychosomatically-mute nursemaid in The Spiral Staircase who must overcome this disability to capture a serial killer. She puts herself in genuine physical danger in the process, whereas Molly never does. For this reason alone:

Winner: Helen

4 vs. 13: This matchup pits two initially-unwilling redeemers of men against each other – in movies starring O’Keefe. After being kidnapped by O’Keefe’s escaped convict Joe Sullivan in Raw Deal, Marsha Hunt’s legal caseworker Ann Martin slowly tries to make Sullivan – with whom she has fallen in love – give up his plans for revenge. It is Ann Sheridan’s Eleanor Johnson’s estranged husband Frank who needs saving after he inadvertently witnesses a murder in Woman on the Run. Eleanor ultimately puts herself in mortal danger to rescue her husband – which, unlike Martin, she does. By a narrow margin…

Winner: Eleanor Johnson

6 vs. 11: Ida Lupino’s dancer Marie Garson has a similar trajectory to Martin in High Sierra. Unwillingly ensnared in a criminal enterprise, Garson also eventually redeems Bogart’s Frank “Mad Dog” Earle – then fails to save him. In The Night of the Hunter, meanwhile, it is the elderly Rachel Cooper – played with steely determination by the legendary Lillian Gish[3] – who takes rifle in hand against Mitchum’s insane and violent preacher Harry Powell. As wonderful as Lupino is, Cooper’s fortitude seals the deal.

Winner: Rachel Cooper

3 vs. 14: We again encounter the versatile and multi-faceted Lupino in On Dangerous Ground, this time playing Mary Malden, the blind sister of Sumner Williams’ Danny, who is being hunted in a snowy mountainous area for a murder he barely understands. Sent from the city to assist the police – and literally to cool off – is hotheaded and brutal policeman Jim Wilson, portrayed with hulking menace by Ryan. In The Blue Gardenia, meanwhile, Anne Baxter’s Norah Larkin is hunted for a murder she did not commit – unless she did so in a drunken stupor and does not remember. Her journey is ultimately one of trust, mostly in the predatory-turned-sympathetic journalist played by Conte. Still, she is essentially an unwitting victim, whereas Malden is the emotional core of her film.

Winner: Mary Malden

7 vs. 10: This is a matchup of women who love narcissistic and obsessive men. Susan Harrison’s Susan Hunsecker is the younger sister of Burt Lancaster’s powerful columnist J. J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success. In an effort to control her life – he is weirdly attached to her – she tries to have Tony Curtis’ publicist Sidney Falco break up her latest romance. Showing surprising strength, she ultimately turns the tables on her domineering brother. In Vertigo, by contrast, Barbara Bel Geddes’ Marjorie “Midge” Wood tries her best to save John “Scottie” Ferguson (Stewart, in one of his greatest performances) from both his debilitating vertigo and his obsession with Kim Novak’s character. She ultimately fails, while there is at least a chance Hunsecker succeeds in healing her brother.

Winner: Susan Hunsecker

2 vs. 15: Rarely did Philadelphia’s “poet of the losers” David Goodis create a truly heroic female character – or of any gender, really. The screen adaptation of Dark Passage stars Lauren Bacall as Irene Jansen, an artist who risks her own freedom to take escaped convict Vince Parry (Bogart, in the last of his four collaborations with his now-wife) into her apartment, allowing falsely-convicted Parry to heal from plastic surgery. Raines’ Marsha Peters also helps a falsely-accused man in Impact. However, because Williams first enters her life without knowing who he is, or what he is supposed to have done, Peters’ actions, heroic as they are, never put her own safety in jeopardy.

Winner: Irene Jansen

And with that, the field of 64 candidates for most heroic character in film noir is reduced to 32.

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ROUND 2

Intrepid Investigator

Keyes vs. Candella: These are two men of great integrity who must turn over old friends to the criminal justice system, but Keyes’ relationship with Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff is closer and more intimate. Never has lighting a match conveyed such meaning.

Winner: Barton Keyes

McPherson vs. Vargas: This is a close race between two men protecting the women they love – but whereas Vargas (again, a white actor playing a Mexican man) battles corruption, McPherson battles himself.

Winner: Det. Lt. Mark McPherson

Marlowe vs. Reardon: This would be an easy choice, but for the extraordinary physical pain Marlowe endures. The difference, though, is that Marlowe accepts this as part of his job, whereas Reardon goes beyond the call of duty AND endures physical violence. It is close, but…

Winner: Jim Reardon

Halloran vs. Exley: Halloran is one of the most endearing characters in film noir – a genial hard-working family man and consummate professional. But James Cromwell’s Captain Dudley Smith is one of the most dangerous, powerful and deadly antagonists in all of film noir – making this an easy choice.

Winner: Det. Lt. Edmund Exley

Undercover Agent

Richman vs. Huberman: This proved tougher than I expected. Still, whereas Huberman goes undercover in a single, albeit longer-term, instance, Richman does so repeatedly – and with zero expectation of success, either in clearing her boss or in winning his love. That she does both is remarkable.

Winner: Carol “Kansas” Richman

Neal vs. Cordell: Both undercover agents assume an equal risk of death. Both are successful in their mission. The difference is that one actually sacrifices her life and one does not.

Winner: Mrs. Frankie Neal

McCoy vs. Bianco: Neither man wants to undertake the mission they face. Both men succeed despite facing a psychopathic antagonist willing to kill even frail old women to get their way. The slight difference is that while McCoy presumably returns to his light-fingered ways, Bianco goes straight and returns to his young family. And…he defeated Tommy Udo.

Winner: Nick Bianco

Rodriguez vs. Fallon: Going up against vicious gangs – one smuggling workers into California, one robbing payrolls – both men maintain their cool and their assumed identity almost to the end. Ultimately, both men succeed. But whereas Cody Jarrett would likely have been taken down by his own gang and/or imbalance, it took Rodriguez and George Murphy’s Jack Bearnes to stop the worker smuggling.

Winner: Pablo Rodriguez

Amateur Crime Fighter

Bigelow vs. Reed: Bigelow, for all of his bravery and determination to learn the truth, cannot save himself from dying. Reed saves all of New Orleans – and perhaps the nation – from pneumonic plague. This is not close.

Winner: Lt. Cmdr. Clinton Reed

Ward vs. Patterson: Ward shows personal courage in reversing himself and saving an innocent man from the death penalty. Patterson loses his father and still persists in cleaning up Phenix City against impossible odds. This is also not close.

Winner: John Patterson

Garcos vs. McNeal: This proved to be much closer than I expected. Garcos takes on the corrupt produce markets of San Francisco to avenge his father, growing stronger in the process. McNeal essentially takes on an entire justice system to save a man he barely knows. Both are admirable, but McNeal faces longer odds.

Winner: P. J. McNeal

Thompson vs. McCloud: This one is very close – because both men made my group of six FNCU “Phase One” heroes. Thompson shows tremendous personal integrity and a willingness to lose his livelihood – all while earning great respect. McCloud shows tremendous courage and resourcefulness in battling vicious gangsters on an isolated Florida Key – and winning. If there is the tiniest edge for Thompson, it is in his fundamental integrity. McCloud may emerge the victor, but Thompson emerges stronger.

Winner: Bill “Stoker” Thompson

Strong Woman

Pierce vs. Newton: The more I ponder Pierce’s journey, the more impressed I am by it – even if she never faced any physical danger. Her inner strength and fortitude are impressive. Young Charlie triumphing over older Charlie is also impressive, but whereas Mildred was almost alone, Charlie has an entire family and town supporting her.

Winner: Mildred Pierce

Helen vs. Johnson: Helen is actually in mortal danger the entire film – and has to overcome her psychosomatic muteness. Johnson is in physical danger only at the very end of the film, though she does revive her flagging marriage. This is actually not close.

Winner: Helen

Malden vs. Cooper: I had decided to give this slot to Malden because of her blindness and ability to heal Wilson’s psyche. But then I thought more carefully about Cooper’s age and role at the end of The Night of the Hunter – and decided to award this slot to her and her rifle.

Winner: Rachel Cooper

Jansen vs. Hunsecker: This is no contest. While Hunsecker may fear her brother’s wrath after leaving him, Jansen literally harbors a fugitive in her apartment – one she deliberately picked up from the side of the road for that purpose.

Winner: Irene Jansen

And with that, I present the Sweet 16 group of candidates for the most heroic candidate in film noir:

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Now it is up to you to decide who advances to the Great Eight, the Final Four, the Finals – and, ultimately, is named Most Heroic Character in Film Noir. Simply check @drnoir33 and #FilmNoirHeroes ever midnight for a new matchup poll – then vote and get other fans of film noir to vote as well.

May the best – literally – candidate win!

[Updated March 5, 2022: You may find all of the results, with running commentary here.]

Until next time…please wear a mask as necessary to protect yourself and others – and if you have not already done so, get vaccinated against COVID-19! And if you like what you read on this website, please consider making a donation. Thank you.


[1] As this is essentially a sequel to the FNCU essay, I am not linking to any films to which I linked in the prior essay.

[2] Much credit is due here to Thomas Gomez’s Inspector Burgess for also never losing interest.

[3] Gish was a silent film star who made her film debut at the age of 18 in 1912, appearing in 12 short films that year, including The Musketeers of Pig Alley, the oldest film in my film noir database. 

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