The antihero archetype goes back to the dawn of literary antiquity. In Greek Drama antiheroes were common protagonists, but always in tragedies; and the antihero’s flaws inevitably led to the antihero’s downfall.
This type of tragic antihero has also been common in cinema. Gangster movies in the 1930s and 1940s are prime examples. Jimmy Cagney in Public Enemy (1931) Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar (1931), and Humphrey Bogart in the Petrified Forest (1936), are all examples of actors who became major Hollywood stars by playing the gangster antihero. These gangsters in these early films were antiheroes in the classic tragic sense, all earning their inevitable bloody ends.
The antihero as a non-tragic protagonist has its movie beginnings in the late 1940s/early 1950s. For hard-boiled private eyes living in the gray area between the underworld and the law it was an easy transition to become rogues and outright criminals yet still be cinematic heroes. The Glass Key (1942) with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake is an early film noir with the rogue as a non-tragic antihero. In the 1950s through the 1960s Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, and Clint Eastwood all became superstars by starring in movies where the antihero did not come to a deserved end, but instead succeeds.
Marlon Brando was a major new star of the 50’s, and his most memorable roles were antiheroes. He was the motorcycle gang leader Johnny in The Wild One (1953); and Terry Malloy, in On the Waterfront(1954), was an ex-boxer, thug, and leg-breaker for the ‘mob’ that controlled the waterfront. Possibly Marlon Brando’s greatest role was the mafia family patriarch Vito Corleone in the Godfather (1972).
Paul Newman would also make a career playing antiheroes. He played a pool shark in the Hustler (1961), a petty criminal in Cool Hand Luke (1967), a bank robber in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), and a con man in The Sting (1973).
Likewise, Steve McQueen’s famous roles include a poker player in The Cincinnati Kid (1965), a playboy Wall Street investor who masterminds bank robberies for excitement in the Thomas Crown Affair (1968), a bank robber in the Getaway (1972), and a murderer sentenced to life in prison on Devil’s Island in Papillon (1973).
In the same way, Clint Eastwood upended the John Ford/John Wayne Western Mythos with his “Man No Name” trilogy of Spaghetti Westerns (A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and the Good the Bad and the Ugly (1966)). They made Clint Eastwood a superstar. He even played the ultimate counterculture antihero in Kelly’s Heroes (1970).
One of the most enduring antiheroes in movie history is James Bond 007. Just as Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name was the opposite of John Wayne’s Ringo Kid, James Bond is the exact opposite of the Swashbuckler. He is callous, ruthless, and has a license to kill. Chivalry is dead for James Bond. Charm, manners, and courtly romantic love are tools he uses to seduce the enemy. Courtesy and gallantry are weapons just as deadly as his fists and his Walther PPK. In each one of the first four James Bond movies, Doctor No (1962), From Russia with Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), and Thunderball (1965), James Bond seduces and beds his enemy’s woman. Consider the following dialog from Casino Royale (2006);
Vesper Lynd: Am I going to have a problem with you, Bond?
James Bond: No, don’t worry, you’re not my type.
Vesper Lynd: Smart?
James Bond: Single.
James Bond is the ultimate “bad boy” and yet along with Indiana Jones, and Atticus Finch, James Bond can be considered one the three greatest cinema heroes of the twentieth century.
By the early 1970s the antihero was the dominant protagonist in cinema. A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather II (1974, The Sting (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) are just some of the best known antihero films nominated for Best Picture.