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From Sam Spade to Harry Callahan: toughest movie characters of all times

From Walter Cameron and A.C. Abadie playing the sheriffs in Porters’ The Great Train RobberyTotal Recall, the history of moving pictures is full of tough fellows and quite many tough dames. But who should be the one to be placed above all. (1903) to Douglas Quaid in Verhoeven’s Who’s THE toughest movie character of all times?

To begin with, allow me to establish my basic presumption that a clear male-female separation needs to be kept in such a contest… I was totally fascinated by Jamie Lee Curtis‘ character of the rookie female cup in Kathryn Bigelow‘s 1990 Blue Steel but we can’t have this lady competing against Harry Callahan. We are just going to have to make a special tough-woman review. As they say, when the going gets tough the tough gets going, so after establishing the above its time for us to get ourselves on the road looking for our ultimate tough guy. Everyone is invited to make their comments.

If you find this article interesting you can check on my toughest movie characters playlist on YouTube as more videos are being added there every once in a while.

1: Harry Callahan
Actor: Clint Eastwood
Movie: Dirty Harry (1971) and sequels

Who can argue with the most legendary tough-guy line in the history of motion pictures? the lines of the lines. The one that gave the .44 Magnum its notorious name, making it perhaps the most commonly known handheld weapon model in the history. “Dirty” Harry Francis Callahan is a fictional San Francisco Police Department inspector in the films Dirty Harry (1971), Magnum Force (1973), The Enforcer (1976), Sudden Impact (1983), and The Dead Pool (1988) all played by one of my favorite tough guys Clint Eastwood. I vote for Harry Callahan as the number one tough character in the history of motion pictures.

2. Jeff Costello
Actor: Alain Delon
Movie: Le Samouraï (1967)

The nearly mute perfectionist hitman who “religiously adheres to a strict code of duty” in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï is my second choice for the subject. Costello is not just tough. He is icy cold tough. He lives in a Spartan apartment whose interior contains a neatly arranged line of mineral water bottles, cigarettes on a bookcase, as well as a little bird in a gray cage in the middle of the room. The film opens with a long take of Costello lying awake on his bed, smoking, as the following text appears on-screen, attributed to an ancient samurai writing entitled “The Book of Bushido”, which Melville later on admitted to be completely fabricated:

“There is no solitude greater than the samurai’s, unless perhaps it be that of a tiger in the jungle.”

3. Roy ‘Mad Dog’ Earle
Actor: Humphrey Bogart
Movie: High Sierra (1941)

The robber gangster Roy ‘Mad Dog’ Earle was Raoul Walsh‘s tragic hero in an early heist film noir film written by John Huston and W.R. Burnett from a novel by Burnett. Starring Ida Lupino and Humphrey Bogart High Sierra was shot on location at Whitney Portal, halfway up Mount Whitney. The film has entered the motion picture pantheon for its climatic final scenes, as the cups pursue ‘Mad Dog’ Earle from Lone Pine up to the foot of the mountain before they kill him. My vote goes for Roy as the third toughest movie character of all times.

4. Marv
Actor: Mickey Rourke
Movie: Sin City (2005)

My favorite character in the Sin City (2005) movie adaptation and one of the leading characters from the graphic novel series Sin City, created by Frank Miller. Marv works the streets of Basin City (“Sin City”) performing jobs for people he feels deserve help. He can be very mean and extremely cruel when preforming his questioning routines with the assistance of his sawing tools and tourniquet set. Yet he usually does that to protect a lady so that gives him an additional point. The 2005 neo-noir anthology film written, produced and directed by Miller and Robert Rodriguez was the first time for me to meet Marv. I must admit at the time I though this guy does it and gets my “toughest of the toughest” vote but now it gets a 4.

5. Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle
Actor: Gene Hackman
Movie: The French Connection (1971)

The Obsessive-Compulsive New York City police detective portrayed by Gene Hackman in The French Connection is a model for persistence and not letting anything taking you off your course. Other than being really tough and preforming exceptional “running after the bad guys until they die” skills, The Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle character is actually based on a real life New York City detective named Eddie Egan. I bet Egan was tough as well.

6. Max Cady
Actor: Robert Mitchum, Robert De Niro
Movie: Cape Fear (1962), Cape Fear (1991)

Here is a guy you wouldn’t like to get into an argument with. The villain of the John D. MacDonald’s novel The Executioners, the 1962 film adaption Cape Fear and Scorsese’s 1991 remake is definitely one of the meanest toughest hoods any of us had ever seen. If you haven’t met this guy yet, believe me when I tell you he is tough. First played by Robert Mitchum and then again by Robert De Niro (in an Academy Award-nominated performance) in the remake, Max Cady ranked his way to the 28th place on the American Film Institute’s list of the top 50 movie villains of all time.

According to Wikipedia, the scene where Mitchum attacks Polly Bergen’s character on the houseboat was almost completely improvised. Mitchum rubbing the eggs on Bergen was not scripted and Bergan’s reactions were real. Bergen suffered back injuries from being knocked around many times during this scene and “felt the impact of the ‘attack’ for days”. Both Mitchum’s and De Niro’s characters are tough. Yet i vote for the Mitchum one. Being more realistic I find it more effective in my opinion.

7. Sam Spade
Actor: Humphrey Bogart
Movie: The Maltese Falcon (1930)

Created by Dashiell Hammett Sam Spade is the tough private eye of the 1930 novel The Maltese Falcon and the first film-noir movie ever made written and directed by John Huston. In those days there were not many tougher than Spade as played by Bogart. “Spade has no original. He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been and in their cockier moments thought they approached.” (Dashiell Hammett on Sam Spade)

8. Paul Kersey
Actor: Charles Bronson
Movie: Death Wish (1974) and sequels

Based on a 1972 novel by Brian Garfield Paul Kersey is the main character in the series of motion pictures all titled Death Wish; Death Wish (1974); Death Wish II (1982); Death Wish 3 (1985); Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987) and; Death Wish V: The Face of Death (1994).

Kersey was kind of a nice guy before he metamorphosed into a serial killer. It was quite a breakthrough in terms of the type of things a popular movie “hero” character can do and still have its sequels. Besides, Bronson was always tough and we can’t have this list without at least one of the amazing characters he played.

Harmonica
Actor: Charles Bronson
Movie: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

An anonymous user which later on signed as Benjamin posted this comment to my From Sam Spade to Harry Callahan: toughest movie characters of all times article claiming Charles Bronson in Once upon a time in the west should have been be considered, too, as a “really tough” being an “(anti-)hero”. He also added the following YouTube reference. I love this film SO much that after watching this scene again I just had to do this gesture for both Benjamin and Charley. Even though Bronson’s character name remains (to the best of my knowledge) unrevealed, it does have this supercool nickname “Harmonica”, given to him by Frank (Henry Fonda). here it is: The Once Upon a Time in the West final showdown.

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4 Responses to “From Sam Spade to Harry Callahan: toughest movie characters of all times”

  1. Well, I can’t even half argue with Clint’s selection as the number one tough guy. Him being also the number one gentleman makes him even more suitable as the winner. I have to disagree about Gene’s ranking – how could you?! With all due respect to Alain, Humphry and Mickey….he is as mean as it gets.
    I look forward to the ‘toughest women’ review 🙂

  2. I think Charles Bronson in “Once upon a time in the west” should be considered, too, as a really tough (anti-)hero: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ErtRKdpncyk

  3. Oh, and don’t forget Al Pacino in The Godfather 2!

  4. John Shaft number one.. “he’s a bad motha, Shut your mouth. but I’m talking about Shaft. I can dig it”


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