Some of the best stories are of a flawed protagonist who exhibits complexity of personality and reveals himself (or herself) to have a pivotal moment(s) where their character undergoes an unexpected action, yet they remain true to their basic moral fabric.
What this is not: a fairytale moment of metamorphosis of The Grinch suddenly growing an enlarged heart and everything is unicorns and rainbows. Good guy/bad guy characters are those who perform actions that change the story but come at a cost, and even to a bittersweet ending.
Theses are also not lovable bad guys as in We’re No Angels, or good guys who are framed for crime.
The Getaway (1972) – Doc McCoy (Steve McQueen) gets released from prison, to lead another armed robbery. Things go wrong, he is double-crossed, so Doc and his wife take off with the money, with the law and other criminals on his trail. Doc can be a brutal and hard man, but also has a decency and soft spot which he displays at the end when he buts an old man’s (Slim Pickens) truck.
Heaven Can Wait (1978) – Joe Pendleton is a pro quarterback who is killed in a freak accident, only he not exactly died. An angel intervened and took his soul to Heaven. Unfortunately, that’s not how it is supposed to work. He is put into the body of industrialist Leo Farnsworth, a greed, bad man. Pendleton, as Farnsworth, attempts to fix some of the bad Farnsworth has caused, while trying to get Farnsworth’s body in football shape to become the L.A. Rams’ quarterback.
Tootsie (1982) – Michael (Dustin Hoffman) is an actor who can’t seem to get hired. He’s not likable. So, he dresses up as a woman for a TV daytime show audition. He gets the job and must continue to perform as a woman, with increasing complications. Michael learns to be a better man by spending time as a woman.
Mulholland Falls (1996) – L.A. detective Max Hoover, who dispenses sidewalk justice in post- WWII Los Angeles, dissuading criminal from setting in L.A. Hoover and team investigates the murder of a young woman who was a prostitute with clients including Hoover. Her affairs were filmed, including Hoover, which ends up in the hands of Hoover’s wife.
Chinatown (1974) – Jack Nicholson is private detective Jake Gittes in post-WWII L.A. Gittes is a good guy because he wants to keep his license and the police breathe down his neck. But he will break the law to save his client, even though this gets her killed. Gittes’ history is he was a police officer in the days when the police had more freedom to dispense sidewalk justice.
Hombre (1967) – John Russell (Paul Newman) is half Native American, half White man, raised by his tribe. He inherits property in the White man’s world and thus begins his problems. He gets involved in thwarting a stagecoach robbery and leads the stage passengers on their trek to safety. He is looked upon as the leader, but doesn’t accept it. He does not feel he owes them anything, yet in the end he gives his life against the stage robbers.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) – The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) returns from the future, but this time to protect young John Carter and his mother (Linda Hamilton). Instead of killing, Carter orders him to maim. The threat is another terminator who is sent from the future to kill Carter.
Double Indemnity (1944) – Fred McMurray is the gullible insurance man who falls for a wicked dame who uses him to murder her husband. In the end it costs him his life, but he confesses.
Stalag 17 (1953) – William Holden is Sefton, the most disliked person in the WWII prison camp. Everything is profit motive or self- serving to him. Suspected of being an informer, Sefton reveals the real spy and agrees to help a prisoner escape, mainly so he can get out and benefit from any reward the rich prisoner’s parents may want to extent. Calculating to the very end.
In Harm’s Way (1965) – Not the John Wayne character, the troubled Kirk Douglas’ Commander Eddington, who loses his philandering wife and sinks into alcohol and violence, and raping a young Ensign Dohrn. Eddington attempts to make up for his misdeeds with a suicide flight to spot a Japanese convoy.
Spy Game (2001) – Bishop (Robert Redford) is a CIA case officer on the cusp of retirement when a former operative (Brad Pitt) gets caught in China and faces execution. The operative was there to rescue a woman that Bishop had traded for the release of an American. Bishop feels responsible and arranges the rescue of the operative and the woman, draining his retirement account and committing many unlawful acts to accomplish the daring rescue. Bishop is reminded of the many untruthful and morally flexible things in his career.
Grosse Pointe Blank (1997) – Martin Blank returns to his hometown for a job exactly as his high school reunion is scheduled. He’s a freelance hitman, the target is his high school girlfriend’s father. Blank is good at his job, he doesn’t moralize or judge. By the way, this is a comedy.
Man on Fire (2004) – Denzel Washington is Creasy, a former CIA operative who takes a job as a body guard to a little girl in Mexico City. He is a burnout alcoholic, dealing with the darkness of his life. She is kidnapped for ransom and in the ransom exchange, a rival gang kills some of the kidnappers, resulting in the kidnappers intending to not return the girl. Creasy tracks down the kidnappers and eventually freeing the girl, but loses his life in the process.
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) – McCabe is a business man in the Old West, opening a whore house in an out of the way mining town. A successful gambler, McCabe runs afoul of a big company that wants to take over his business. He has let it be believed that’s he’s a gunfighter, which only makes his trouble worse as must battle hitman.
The French Connection (1971) – Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) is not very popular as an NYC detective and treats suspects without respect and with force. He stumbles onto a large drug case and fights to pursue it. He’s so obsessed to break the case that he accidentally shoots a fellow police officer while cornering the drug gang.
High Plains Drifter (1973) – The Stranger stumbles into a town that is in need of his gun skills after he kills three men who give him trouble. He saves the town from an outlaw gang, but does so by taking over the town and taking what he wants, including raping a woman gives him attitude.
4 thoughts on “Good Guy/Bad Guy”
I’m not sure Paul Newman’s portrayal of white/Apache “John Russell” belongs here. For me, he’s the only noble one in the bunch. He does have a simmering repulsion for the others, but it’s justified by the circumstances. (One of my favorite flicks.)
My thinking basically included this: Russell could kill without showing any remorse; he had no compassion for helping any of the other stage riders; he was willing to leave them in the desert; although half white man, he did not seem to like them or have any kindness toward them.
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Yeah, I’ll buy that. I guess I exalt Russell more than the other “antiheroes” you listed because, as a white man raised by Apaches and who experienced both societies, he has justification for his hatred of whites, most of whom (in this instance) are very shallow (and in Fredric March and Barbara Rush’s case, are downright despicable).
That grainy photo at the end of the movie is of an actual white boy who briefly lived with Apaches and had trouble readjusting to white society. (I forget the name…Alvarez, I think.)
I love the film, there are so many riveting moments in the story. Great cast.
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