Final Results for the Most Heroic Character in Film Noir

At midnight EST on February 6, 2022, I posted this poll on Twitter, using the handle @drnoir33:

Here is the Sweet 16 first round matchup between Intrepid Investigators.

Who was more heroic:

Barton Keyes in DOUBLE INDEMNITY

Det. Lt. Mark McPherson in LAURA

You decide!

#FilmNoirHeroes

The attached poll gave voters 24 hours to choose either Keyes or McPherson, with a reply tweet linking to an explanation of the tournament now underway. A few hours earlier, I had published this essay, setting out the characters, rules and matchups for the search for the Most Heroic Character in Film Noir. In two rounds of transparent – and often surprisingly difficult – decision-making, I had whittled the initial field of 64 film noir heroes down to 16, divided evenly across four loose categories: Intrepid Investigator, Amateur Crime Fighter, Undercover Agent, Strong Woman.

The previous May, I had curated a similar tournament, seeking the “Worst Character in Neo-Noir.” Allowing 36 hours per poll, the 15 total rounds of voting (8-4-2-1) yielded 373 total votes, or about 25 votes per poll. One cannot vote in one’s own Twitter poll, so I created a separate account for that purpose; in no poll did my vote make the difference. I also entreated my wife Nell to vote in every poll, but she decided on her choices independently.

**********

Voters were not as plentiful last month, however, as we will see as we proceed round by round, beginning with the Sweet 16.

Intrepid Investigator:

Keyes beats McPherson, 8-3.

I did not create a “ghost” account this time, but my vote for Keyes would have made it 9-3. This was not an especially surprising outcome given the iconic status of this character and film. Plus, McPherson actually falling in love with the titular Laura while investigating her murder is…dubious.

Det. Lt. Edmund Exley beats Jim Reardon, 6-2.

A quirk of the character selection process meant L.A. Confidential’s Exley was the only “neo-noir” character to make the tournament. Curiously, it was in this same round that Captain Dudley Smith of the same film faced off against Dr. Hannibal Lecter of The Silence of the Lambs, losing in a tiebreaker. This time, Exley – for whom I would have voted – easily survived against insurance investigator Reardon, even as I was becoming disappointed by the low turnout for these polls.

Amateur Crime Fighter

Lt. Commander Clinton Reed beats John Patterson, 8-5.

Two men with the safety of an entire city at stake, but the public health doctor fighting pneumonic plague edged out the attorney battling corruption. My vote – and that of a Twitter respondent who may not have actually voted in the poll – went to Dr. Reed.

P.J. McNeal beats Bill “Stoker” Thompson, 5-2.

This was getting ridiculous, and I almost invoked my “minimum votes rule”: I void any poll with fewer than 10 respondents then pick the winner. However, the trend was clear enough – and Nell voted for McNeal – so I let the vote stand. Both men “save” somebody – reporter McNeal frees a man wrongly convicted of murder while Thompson refuses to take a dive in his final boxing match, saving himself and his marriage. I would have voted for Thompson, given the dire consequences of his action, but McNeal is also a great choice.

Undercover Agent

Carol “Kansas” Richman beats Mrs. Frankie Neal, 8-3.

As courageous as “Mrs. Frankie Neal” is – and I urge you to watch The Narrow Margin to learn why – Richman is the clear choice as she works to clear her married boss from a death sentence. In fact, she was my choice to win the entire tournament.

Nick Bianco beats Pablo Rodriguez, 8-6.

Had Nell voted for Mexican federal officer Rodriguez as I had expected to her to do, this would have ended in a 7-7 tie, which I would have broken in favor of Rodriguez, citing this essay. Instead, the ex-convict infiltrating the criminal gang narrowly advanced to the Great 8.

Strong Woman

Mildred Pierce beats Helen, 28-8.

Through the first six polls, only 64 total votes – 11 votes per poll – had been cast. That changed dramatically when a large group of Joan Crawford lovers “invaded” the poll. The single-mother-turned-successful-restaurateur EASILY defeated the mute target of a serial killer, whose last name we never learn. My vote – and that of the Twitter respondent who wrote “Reed” earlier – would have been for Helen.

Rachel Cooper ties Irene Jansen 15-15; I choose Jansen to advance.

This was the first true barn-burner, and between it and the Pierce-Helen poll, votes-per-poll increased to 16 – better, though still not great; Nell voted for Jansen out of love for Lauren Bacall. Voters were clearly torn between the older, rifle-toting protector of children and the artist who voluntarily sheltered yet another man wrongly convicted of murder. I chose Jansen because she chose to put herself in legal jeopardy.

**********

Moving on to the Great 8, we learn who represented each category in the Final Four.

Keyes beats Exley, 15-11.

This was a shockingly-close vote, given the number of “purists” who could have disqualified Exley solely because his character’s film was released in 1997, not 1947 or 1957. Still, had it ended in a 13-13 tie, I would have voted for Keyes. As morally and physically courageous as Exley is – and acknowledging L.A. Confidential is my favorite film in any genre – he is primarily motivated by ambition, whereas Keyes simply wants to learn the truth, viewing the claims that come across his desk as reflecting real lives. Keyes has his blind spots, but his motives are unimpeachable.

Reed beats McNeal, 10-8.

In the third consecutive very close vote, the person for whom I would have voted won again. The voters narrowly decided, perhaps reflecting upon their own recent experience with the COVID-19 pandemic, that saving an entire city – at the very least – from a deadly and highly-contagious virus is more “heroic” than saving a single imprisoned person. The counter-argument is that Dr. Reed was “simply” doing his job, whereas McNeal could have walked away from his quest at any time. Both arguments are strong.

Richman beats Bianco, 12-3.

Not only was Richman my choice to win the entire tournament, this lopsided vote guaranteed two women and two men in the Final Four – and a woman and a man in the Finals. If I had to guess at the reasoning, whereas Bianco was somewhat coerced by the authorities into working undercover, Richman did so voluntarily – and for a boss she loved who may not have loved her back.

Jansen beats Pierce, 8-2.

What happened to all of those Crawford lovers on Twitter?!? I have no idea, nor do I know why after five consecutive polls averaging 25 voters, only 10 voters participated in this poll. Still, as hard as Pierce works and as fiercely as she protects her family, she never willingly puts herself in legal jeopardy. I think voters were correct to make Jansen the final member of the Final Four.

Speaking of which:

Keyes beats Reed, 15-3.

While the outcome was less surprising for reasons noted above, the margin by which Keyes beat Dr. Reed 5-1 was very surprising. And it put the clear early frontrunner into the Finals. For the record, I would have voted for Dr. Reed, again in light of recent events.

Jansen beats Richman, 5-1.

Forget the Crawford voters on Twitter – what happened to my voters, period? I expected this to be another barn-burner along the lines of Cooper vs. Jansen, but instead only six people voted. I wrestled with my conscience over nullifying these six votes – and putting Richman into the finals by fiat – but my better judgment, the clear trend and Nell’s arguments kept me from doing that.

This also meant fellow Californians Keyes and Jansen – representing Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively – would face off against each other in the Finals for the title of “Most Heroic Character in Film Noir.”

And, after 15 rounds and 243 official votes (including my tie-breaker):

Keyes beats Jansen, 11-7!

Considering that my vote for Jansen – who, again, deliberately put herself in harm’s way to protect a man she did not know – would have made this 11-8, this was a remarkably close and exciting vote. In the end, however, the clear frontrunner – and known commodity – prevailed, suggesting the process as a whole was valid. That greatly mitigates my mild disappointment an average of only 16 votes were cast in each poll.

Table 1 summarizes the Film Noir Heroes tournament; values in parentheses are votes either I would have cast or were not recorded as such while each round’s winners are in boldface.

Table 1: Voting for Most Heroic Character in Film Noir by round:

CharacterRound 1Round 2Round 3Round 4TOTAL
Barton Keyes8(1)15(1)151149(2)
Mark McPherson33
Edmund Exley6(1)1117(1)
Jim Reardon22
Clinton Reed8(2)10(1)3(1)21(4)
John Patterson55
P.J. McNeal5813
Bill “Stoker” Thompson2(1)2(1)
Carol “Kansas” Richman8(1)12(1)1(1)21(3)
Mrs. Frankie Neal33
Nick Bianco8311
Pablo Rodriguez6(1)6(1)
Mildred Pierce28230
Helen8(2)8(2)
Rachel Cooper1515
Irene Jansen169(1)57(1)37(2)
TOTALS131(9)70(4)24(2)18(1)243(16)

Including the votes not cast, the top eight “heroes” – and the characters to receive at least 10 total votes – were:

8. P.J. McNeal, 13 (5.0%)

7. Rachel Cooper, 15 (5.8%)

6. Det. Lt. Edmund Exley, 18 (6.9%)

5. Carol “Kansas” Richman, 24 (9.3%)

4. Lt. Cmdr. Clinton Reed, 25 (9.7%)

3. Mildred Pierce, 30 (11.6%)

2. Irene Jansen, 39 (15.1%)

1. Barton Keyes, 51 (19.7%)

When Cross won the “Worst Character in Neo-Noir” tournament, he earned 98 total votes, or 26.3% of all 373 votes cast. Moreover, what I dubbed the “Villainy Four” combined for 243 total votes – identical to the official vote tally from the entire Film Noir Heroes  tournament) – or  65.1%. Keyes “only” won 19.7% of all votes cast for Most Heroic Character in Film Noir, and the top four accounted for “only” 56.0% of all votes cast; adding Richman increases the total to 65.3%. This was not only a lower-turnout tournament, it was a much tighter tournament: the heroism was more widely dispersed than the villainy. Moreover, the top eight vote-getters were evenly split between men and women; all the top eight “worst characters” were male.

I offer no explanation for either shift, other than to repeat what I have said elsewhere: the electorate – especially that portion of it that frequents Twitter – is going through something akin to a clinical depressive episode. Having experienced many such episodes personally, I am aware how difficult it is in that state to accept “good” news, to recognize that heroes even exist. Indeed, shortly after I tweeted the first poll – Keyes vs. McPherson – someone responded, “What is this ‘heroic’ word you are using?” Now, it could simply be devotees of film noir are not used to thinking of “heroism” in connection with these films – even the “good” characters often appear to operate in a kind of moral twilight. Villains, meanwhile, are possibly just more entertaining – which is we why often prefer our heroes to arrive at that state only after a long character arc carries them there from a less-heroic state. Finally, the difference may be nothing more than temporal: 36 hours for each poll in the neo-noir villain tournament versus 24 hours in the film noir heroes tournament; adding 50% to 243 gives you 364.5 votes, just below the 373 votes cast in the earlier tournament.

Whatever the reason for the lower turnout and narrower vote distribution, however, this tournament still demonstrates that even in these darkest of films, light still exists. It has to, in fact, given that I glibly characterize these films at time as “shadowy people doing shadowy things in shadowy places.” Without light, there are no shadows.

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.

3 thoughts on “Final Results for the Most Heroic Character in Film Noir

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