“War Scarred” Antiheroes in Film Noir: A Socio-Historical Review from Bogart in The Big Sleep to Brando in The Godfather

Sheri Chinen Biesen

In many contemporary Hollywood films, masculine stars and crime antiheroes (or “super” heroes) are often portrayed as younger “tough guys” sparring in a violent urban jungle where growing old is a liability. This was even the case in many 1930s gangster films. In The Roaring Twenties (1939), for instance, James Cagney is gunned down and written off as an aging World War I-veteran-turned-hoodlum who “used to be a big shot.” Yet, these crime antiheroes were affected by their experience in the war, and by the 1940s, as World War II escalated, toughened, mature antiheroes and stars like Humphrey Bogart (an actual World War I veteran) would take center stage in film noir. I will examine “war scarred” antiheroes in 1940s noir films, including “tough guy” screen icon Bogart, who starred in Casablanca (1942), To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), and Dark Passage (1947), and Edward G. Robinson in Double Indemnity (1944), Woman in the Window (1944), Scarlet Street (1945), The Stranger (1946), and their legacy in later films The Godfather (1972), an historical “period” crime epic set in 1945. Wartime Hollywood production conditions contributed to enduring cinematic portrayals of war-hardened antiheroes as played by actors such as Bogart and Robinson in 1940s films noir. These portrayals were influenced by an array of factors such as cultural and industrial changes, including war-related rationing and shortages at home, which also affected the motion picture industry’s talent pool and the home front viewing audience.

The onset of World War II created a shortage of younger male stars in the Hollywood “studio system” motion picture industry—a severe “manpower” scarcity as young men went overseas to serve in the conflict—that provided opportunity for older men (as well as expatriate talent and women), [i] which is reflected in more mature antiheroes being featured in wartime films noir, such as Bogart in To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep[ii] and Robinson in Double Indemnity, Woman in the Window, and Scarlet Street. Aging screen stars Robinson, Cagney, and Bogart were recognizable crime antiheroes from earlier 1930s gangster films whose tough guy personas endured in 1940s noir films. After the war, Cagney’s older noir antihero Cody Jarrett perishes in a blaze of glory in White Heat (1949). The legacy of these images of aging antiheroes in 1940s films noir influenced mature protagonists in later neo-noir films such as Marlon Brando’s elderly mob boss who embodies the end of an era in The Godfather.

Like Rosie the Riveter working women, [iii] older hard-boiled antiheroes coincided with a wartime labor market in Hollywood. These aging masculine noir antiheroes were distinctive. They were not young, invincible “pretty boy” heroes. Rather, they were seasoned veterans who had survived and weathered harsh life (and combat) experiences, which resonated with the brutal realities people were facing during the violence, casualties and loss of life of the war after enduring the Great Depression and the challenges, shortages and restrictions of everyday experiences on the home front as the war raged abroad. [iv] In striking contrast to superheroes in contemporary summer blockbuster movies (based on comic books with child-like cartoon appeal to an adolescent [or even a pre-teen male] youth market), aging 1940s film noir cinematic heroes of the ‘Golden Age’ of Hollywood were older, more mature, portrayed flaws and human vulnerability. In fact, classic noir protagonists were typically antiheroes who were beleaguered and visually struggled with their own psychological demons on screen, as Bogart does when his antihero Rick hits the bottle and collapses in the dark of his nightclub, the “Café Américain,” in Casablanca. They were far from invincible, often beaten in a dark alley (as Bogart’s detective Philip Marlowe is in film noir The Big Sleep) or sometimes dying by the end of the movie (like Bogart’s fugitive patriot in Passage to Marseille, 1944).

In 1946, French critics coined the term “film noir,” literally “black film” or “dark cinema,” to describe shadowy, atmospheric Hollywood crime films featuring tormented, self-destructive antiheroes coming to terms with an ominous, mysterious setting where corruption and death lurk at every turn. [v] Despite their human frailties, aging antiheroes in film noir were fighters who battled the odds and were courageous. For example, Warner Bros. promoted Bogart as “The Most Dangerous Man in the World’s Most Dangerous City!” [vi]

Many crime cinema antiheroes were reformulated from cynical loners into reluctant patriots throughout World War II as in Rick’s (Bogart’s) transformation from an “isolationist” neutral observer in Casablanca to more of an “interventionist” in the war effort who assists the Allies fleeing the Gestapo by the end of the film. As America shifted from isolationism to interventionism abroad and men fought, killed and died in the real life conflict, older screen bad guys became hard-boiled heroic good guys grappling with moral dilemmas to do the right thing. For instance, despite Hollywood Production Code censorship and Washington’s Office of War Information propaganda restrictions on film content, onscreen crimes and even murder committed by patriotic noir antiheroes could be forgiven if they fought the enemy and aided the war effort. [vii] The motion picture industry and audience toughened and aged.

As the war raged, Bogart grew famous as a hard-boiled tough guy in the 1940s. He was already well known for playing supporting roles such as heavies in 1930s Warner Bros. crime films earlier in his career with maturing hoodlum Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and The Roaring Twenties, and aging mobster Robinson in Brother Orchid (1940). Classic early 1930s gangster films and their antiheroic stars—such as Robinson as kingpin, Rico, in Little Caesar (1930, based on Al Capone) and wise guy Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931)—were hardened by war and getting older as the crime cycle itself seemed to ebb by the end of the 1930s decade. Cagney’s reformed gangster battles rival friend Bogart in 1938’s Angels with Dirty Faces (in which he has a shootout with police and is executed, sent to the electric chair) and 1939’s The Roaring Twenties (in which he is riddled with bullets in broad daylight) and dies a washed up, aging antihero in both films. As the demise of Eddie Bartlett (Cagney) in The Roaring Twenties suggested the swansong of the gangster film genre and its aging crime antiheroes, gangster John Sarto (Robinson) is also reformed and gives up crime to retire (and become a monk) in 1940’s Brother Orchid after killing rival Jack Buck (Bogart) who had tried to knock him off.

Bogart’s stardom exploded in the early 1940s when he portrayed a self-destructive criminal who dies in a mountaintop showdown with the cops at the end of High Sierra (1941, opposite a younger Ida Lupino); a tough older hard-boiled detective Sam Spade in noir film The Maltese Falcon (1941); and an aging, cynical, weathered (and, reluctantly, patriotic) antihero, Rick Blaine in Casablanca. Bogart’s mature hard-boiled screen persona became an anti-Nazi gambler opposite Peter Lorre and Conrad Veidt in All Through the Night (1942); followed by Across the Pacific (1942) and Casablanca. Warner’s publicity for All Through the Night called Bogart, “the male star that says excitement,” and capitalized on the film’s hard-boiled patriotism: “the brand newest twist in big-time action—gangsters vs. Gestapo—and it is welcome now!” [viii]

In shadowy wartime patriotic drama Passage to Marseille, Bogart plays an Allied Free French war hero (and Devil’s Island prison escapee) who dies, and joins other older film actors such as Casablanca costars Claude Rains, silent/Weimar-era German film star Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet (as a Nazi collaborator loyal to the puppet ‘Vichy’ regime in France) while an heroic old man, Grandpère (Vladimir Sokoloff) laments that he is over 65 and therefore too old to fight in the war, but insists that even aging men can help with the war effort and sacrifices his own freedom to assist other men to escape and fight the Nazis. Aging hero Grandpère mentions that he is a veteran of World War I.

However, despite heroic (and antiheroic) cinema depictions of tough older male film stars such as Bogart, Cagney, Robinson (and later Brando), a gender bias existed for female screen heroines. Women including femmes in noir crime films were often considerably younger than their masculine counterparts. For instance, beautiful 19 year old Lauren Bacall was a much younger heroine than male hero Bogart in noir films To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, and Dark Passage. In fact, in Dark Passage a fugitive antihero gets plastic surgery to look older and disguise himself then appears after the surgical makeover as mature noir antihero Bogart. Gorgeous youthful fresh-faced beauty Ingrid Bergman was also a younger female costar to veteran Bogart in Casablanca. Joan Bennett, star of Fritz Lang’s wartime films noir Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street, admitted in a 1984 interview: “My film career faded. A man can go on playing certain roles till he’s sixty. But not a woman.” (She lamented, “The golden age is gone, and with it most of the people of great taste. It doesn’t seem to be any fun any more.”) [ix]

Other noir films such as This Gun for Hire (1942) and The Big Sleep even featured men who were bound to wheelchairs. Film noir This Gun for Hire stars older criminal saboteur antagonists, including Laird Cregar, who runs a nightclub, and a crooked, gray-haired elderly “fifth columnist” industrialist (Tully Marshall) at a chemical plant who makes poison gas for enemy bombs. (He tries to shoot the hero, but dies of a heart attack in his wheelchair.)

On the heels of his tormented older antiheroes in Casablanca and Passage to Marseille, Bogart epitomized scrappy, seasoned, middle-aged hard-boiled protagonists starring in noir crime films To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep opposite a young Bacall. Bogart’s cynical aging noir hero in To Have and Have Not, fishing boat captain Harry Morgan (aka ‘Steve’), is a loner turned reluctant patriot (like Rick in Casablanca) who aids the French Resistance war effort in Martinique with the help of his older drunken sidekick friend Eddie (Walter Brennan). Even the bad guys are old actors, as Greenstreet is in Passage to Marseille. In Casablanca, menacing Gestapo Major Strasser was mature silent-era German film star Conrad Veidt. In To Have and Have Not, a rich middle-aged customer tries to rip Harry/Steve (Bogart) off and skip town without paying him, then is shot down by Vichy Gestapo thugs.

In The Big Sleep, not only is Bogart an older hard-boiled detective hero, Philip Marlowe, but his client, General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) is an old man, an aging, hard-living veteran in a wheelchair who lives in the greenhouse of his mansion amid the orchids and does his drinking and smoking vicariously, watching Marlowe (Bogart) sweat and consume a glass of brandy and admitting that he enjoyed it even more than the private eye did. “It’s too hot in here for any man who still has blood in his veins,” Sternwood admits to Marlowe, commenting on his own elderly frailty. “You can smoke too. I can still enjoy the smell of it.” When he asks, “How do like your brandy?” Bogart dryly answers: “In a glass.” Reflectively suggesting that life as an infirm old man isn’t worth living and anticipating his own demise, in a 1944 draft of the script Sternwood adds, “That man is already dead who must indulge his own vices by proxy.” His line was changed for the film as he sardonically muses aloud: “Nice state of affairs when a man has to indulge his vices by proxy.” He explains to Bogart’s detective: “You’re looking, sir, at a very dull survival of a very gaudy life, crippled, paralyzed in both legs, barely I eat and my sleep is so near waking it’s hardly worth a name. I seem to exist largely on heat like a new born spider.” He admits, “My hold on life is too slight to include any Victorian hypocrisy… any man who has lived as I have and indulges for the first time in parenthood at my age deserves all he gets.” [x] Even supporting players in The Big Sleep, such as the dubious blackmailer Geiger (who is murdered by gangsters), is a criminal antagonist-turned-victim described as middle-aged, fattish, with a glass eye. Despite his maturity, Bogart is a tough guy to be reckoned with. Although he gets roughed up by hoodlums, he outsmarts them and beats the gangsters to solve the crime.

Similar to World War I veteran Bogart, crime antihero Robinson was also too old to enlist in military service during World War II. Yet, Robinson, a Jewish actor, Romanian born Emanuel Goldenberg, who was especially concerned about the rising anti-Semitism in Europe with the rise of the Nazis and the escalating war, did volunteer to serve but was deemed ineligible due to age. However, Robinson shined as tough wartime antihero, playing hard-boiled insurance investigator Barton Keyes in classic film noir Double Indemnity (shot in 1943, released in 1944) during Hollywood’s war-related labor shortage. The mature tough crime antihero also excelled starring in Fritz Lang’s wartime noir films Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street, in which Robinson’s older (and seemingly mild mannered) protagonist has an affair with, is dominated by, then kills a younger woman. Robinson plays middle-aged bank clerk Chris Cross who murders younger noir femme fatale Kitty (Joan Bennett) in Scarlet Street. Robinson’s antihero was no longer America’s renowned Depression-era gangster and menace to society. The New York Times observed, “It has been just exactly eight years since Little Caesar blazed his chilling way across half the motion picture screens in this country and thereby earned for Edward G. Robinson not only a lasting sobriquet but also a reputation as one of the toughest guys in the world.” [xi] His crime persona was redirected to film noir and the war effort as the aging actor and war scarred antihero broke out of typecast gangster roles during the 1940s.

In wartime films noir, Robinson portrays mature professional antiheroes, including a professor and a bank clerk (who moonlights painting), who are lured by Bennett’s femme fatales in Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street, and fights crime in Double Indemnity and The Stranger, where the former gangster plays a federal agent investigating war crimes by a former Nazi commander (Orson Welles) after the conflict. Robinson later portrays an insane, disabled old farmer with a wooden leg who is a murderer in noir The Red House (1947) and an aging racketeer, Johnny Rocco, who menaces Bogart and Bacall in Key Largo (1948). [xii] Other creative filmmaking talents crafted tough cinematic heroes on screen in noir crime films, including expatriate directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang, and writers such as William Faulkner, who co-adapted To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep (with female writer Leigh Brackett), and hard-boiled fiction author Raymond Chandler, who wrote The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely (Murder My Sweet), The Blue Dahlia, and adapted James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity with European émigré writer-director Billy Wilder, who had worked in silent Weimar-era German films with fellow noir director Robert Siodmak.

Hollywood’s war-related labor shortage also provided opportunities for roles in noir films for other actors coming into their prime, including mature former 1930s musical star Dick Powell cast against type as tough aging hard-boiled detective Philip Marlowe in 1944 noir Murder My Sweet, and 1930s diva Bette Davis who murders her older classical composer-conductor mentor/ex-lover (Claude Rains) to further the music career of her European war refugee cellist husband (Paul Heinreid) in 1946 noir Deception, a postwar noir that showcases three aging stars in virtuoso performances with shadowy chiaroscuro visual style. As the former Public Enemy, in the wake of the war, Cagney had a huge comeback as psychopathic fugitive (and gangster mama’s boy) Cody Jarrett in 1949 noir White Heat.

Aging male stars became popular in response to Hollywood’s World War II manpower labor shortage of young men creative personnel due to the conflict. Film noir and its heroes of the 1940s grew out of younger crime heroes of early 1930s gangster pictures, which were censored as “unpatriotic” for propaganda purposes during the war. [xiii] As a result, wartime crime films and their antiheroes evolved in films noir with more ambiguous crime protagonists, greater pathos, a more brooding tone, sensational violence and trademark atmospheric urban milieu evolving from the Prohibition era and Depression years to the wartime and postwar eras. By the 1940s, noir crime pictures responded to changes in Production Code censorship and federal regulation. Screen gangsters were adapted and reformed in new and innovative ways. Hollywood reformulated gangster antiheroes in a fascinating array of experimental crime films as World War II broke out and filmmakers responded to social, cultural and industrial changes in the film industry in a new era. Wartime noir crime antiheroes evolved from gangsters to hard-boiled tough guys, which resonated in the war and postwar years. After the war, Hollywood resumed making gangster pictures, which were changing, influenced by film noir, as were aging crime antiheroes, by the postwar late 1940s era.

Tough antiheroes were also the cinematic rage in the postwar era. By the time film critic Robert Warshow wrote his influential crime film essay, “The Gangster as Tragic Hero,” in 1948, Hollywood gangsters had taken on a variety of cinematic permutations in an existential milieu. Noir gangsters like Cagney’s volatile mobster Cody Jarrett in noir White Heat powerfully critiqued the American Dream, raised social class issues and showcased the ultimate tragic fate of a self-destructive noir crime antihero. Warshow described the screen gangster’s futile quest for upward mobility in these Hollywood crime films: “for the gangster there is only the city, not the real city, but that dangerous and sad city of the imagination…which is the modern world.” Trapped in the alluring, deceptive and harsh climate of the urban jungle, the gangster’s struggle for success by means of crime and violence ends in his demise, terminating his pursuit of the American Dream. “In the deeper layers of the modern consciousness…every attempt to succeed is an act of aggression, leaving one alone and guilty and defenseless among enemies: one is punished for success. This is our intolerable dilemma: that failure is a kind of death and success is evil and dangerous, is—ultimately—impossible.” [xiv] This moral retribution ending in the gangster’s demise was reinforced by Hollywood’s Production Code censorship which punished screen crime antiheroes and would ultimately lead to a remarkable transformation of film noir and the gangster genre itself. Cagney’s ill-fated older fugitive in White Heat goes crazy and (after he is betrayed by his friend who turns out to be a cop) yells, “I made it, Ma! Top of the World!” and then (realizing that he has reached the peak of his potential and his fate is futile) triggers an explosion by firing into the propane storage tank he is perched on and immolating himself before the cops can shoot or arrest him.

Mature noir heroes lived on in later films. Classic wartime 1940s noir antiheroes were reimagined in Brando’s brilliant screen incarnation of aging mafia boss Vito Corleone, the mob kingpin who is gunned down after the war, but survives and eventually dies in his old age (from a heart attack chasing his grandson around tomato vines instead of from the gunshot wounds) after passing the reins to his youngest son, World War II veteran, Michael (Al Pacino) in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 neo-noir underworld epic The Godfather, set just after the war in 1945. Tough guy antihero Brando, known for his powerful Method acting decades earlier in films The Men (1950), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), and On the Waterfront (1954), transformed himself into the elder Corleone in The Godfather. In spite of his antihero’s age and battle scars, Corleone is formidable. When Brando’s mafia crime family patriarch makes a Hollywood studio chief an “offer he can’t refuse,” the movie mogul makes a horrific discovery and finds the severed bloodied head of his favorite horse in bed with him. In a brutal world where mob rivals betray each other, get wacked, and “swim with the fishes,” Brando’s Godfather portrays an insightful aging hero who, despite his years and vulnerable health, conveys wisdom, resilience and embodies a tough survivor that folks (like Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and Barton Keyes) live by a code of honor despite the fact that they operate in a bleak and brutal world. Corleone (Brando) expresses a moment of tenderness in a moving scene on the patio with his son Michael (Pacino), and plays with his grandson in the garden just before his death.

Such seasoned screen heroes in Hollywood crime films channeled 1940s celluloid noir criminals and real life gangsters. In March 1943 mobsters known as Al Capone’s “gangland successors” were indicted and notorious syndicate leader Frank Nitti was found shot dead along a railroad track—a “suicide.” [xv] As off screen gangsters and Capone aids were indicted for racketeering in wartime, aging tough guy screen criminals and reformed gangsters evolved and became a staple of noir crime antiheroes in the war years and in the aftermath of World War II. Like Brando’s aging, dying Godfather antihero, it seemed to be the stuff of gangster film lore, signaling a day of reckoning and the end of an era. In its beautiful, chiaroscuro noir visual style and harsh, atmospheric 1945 “period” setting of gritty crime and corruption reaching from the violent streets of postwar New York to Hollywood, The Godfather’s neo-noir paid homage to 1940s film noir and its “urban jungle” setting, and harkened back to an earlier 1940s milieu suggesting a lost noir era which seems to mourn the passing of Corleone, an older way of life, the demise of the Golden Age of Hollywood’s classical studio system itself and its earlier generation of older classic noir heroes. These crime pictures reveal that while films before and after the war such as The Roaring Twenties and The Godfather portrayed aging as a liability, 1940s film noir during the conflict actually celebrated mature heroes such as Bogart as Hollywood’s labor pool and America’s home front audience included an abundance of tough older men (in the absence of younger servicemen overseas in combat)…and women who admired them.

[i] As young American men signed up (or were drafted) for wartime military duty or were sent overseas to combat fronts after Pearl Harbor, the demographics of the Hollywood motion picture industry and America’s domestic film viewing audience changed dramatically on the “home front,” with fewer young men available to work in Hollywood films or American industry stateside or to see films at home. An array of older men who could not enlist, including European émigré filmmakers and stars, and veterans of the First World War, such as Bogart, made films to support the combat effort and boost morale during the Second World War, including Casablanca, Sahara (1943), Action in the North Atlantic (1943), Passage to Marseille, and To Have and Have Not, and entertained the armed forces abroad.

[ii] The Big Sleep was shot at the end of the war in 1944-45, previewed in 1945, then stockpiled and later released in 1946 with the addition of several reshot sequences.

[iii] Wartime posters featured America’s famous heroic female munitions factory worker Rosie the Riveter proclaiming, “We Can Do It!” while women picked up much of the slack working for servicemen who were away.

[iv] And they appealed to an older adult audience, unlike most of the youth-oriented male action films today, produced and viewed in a different cultural, industrial, and historical context that has completely transformed since World War II. For more on the war, noir and changing audience demographics, see Sheri Chinen Biesen, Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005); Sheri Chinen Biesen, Music in the Shadows: Noir Musical Films (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014); and Thomas Schatz, Boom and Bust: American Cinema in the 1940s (New York: Scribners, 1997).

[v] Paul Schrader, “Notes on Film Noir,” Film Comment 8.1 (1972), 8-10; Biesen, Blackout, 1-5; Schatz, 204-206, 232-239.

[vi] Warner Bros. publicity trailer for Casablanca, USC Warner Bros. Archive (WBA), 1942.

[vii] For more information on film noir, the wartime motion picture industry, and Hollywood screen censorship, see Biesen, Blackout; Schatz; Leonard Leff and Jerold Simmons, The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship, and the Production Code from the 1920s to the 1960 (New York: Grove, 1990, Univ. Kentucky, 2001), 130-135; Clayton Koppes and Gregory Black, Hollywood Goes to War (New York: The Free Press, 1987), viii, 113, 324-328; Thomas Doherty, Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture and World War II (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 4-5.

[viii] Warner Bros. Press Book for All Through The Night, WBA, USC, 1942.

[ix] Joan Bennett, interview in “Joan Bennett – A Pictorial,” Classic Cinema Gold, 1984.

[x] Warner Bros. screenplay (adapted by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman from Raymond Chandler’s novel) for The Big Sleep, WBA, USC, 1944.

[xi] Bosley Crowther, “Little Caesar Waits His Chance,” New York Times, January 22, 1939, 119.

[xii] Despite his gruff tough guy persona, Robinson was in reality more quiet and refined; a painter, art collector and humanitarian.

[xiii] Biesen, Blackout, 1-5.

[xiv] Robert Warshow, “The Gangster as Tragic Hero,” Partisan Review (New Brunswick, N.J., 1948) repr. in The Immediate Experience (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970).

[xv] “8 Capone’s Aides Indicted in Fraud; One Kills Himself,” New York Times, March 20, 1943, 1.