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Why is the Anti-Hero So Important in Classic Movies?

The other night I was re-watching Billy Wilder's classic movie from the early 1950s, "Stalag 17." It is a strange mixture of comedy, detective story, and cynicism. William Holden certainly deserved the Oscar he got for Best Actor.

The commentary track kept talking about how good the comedic supporting actors were. I could not agree: the comedy seemed dated and un-funny. But the anti-hero, played by William Holden, did not seem dated. Why?

Is this a general trait of movies as they age into classics? If so, the Positive Thinkers of the world should be alarmed.

Consider another example, "Casablanca." The anti-hero role played by Humphrey Bogart was the main character, of course. Maybe some of the importance of the anti-hero is just a psychological trick, and this is particularly easy to see in "Casablanca." The "negative" characteristics of anti-hero are most noticeable at the beginning of the movie. Towards the end, he surprises you with strengths; and of course you give him credit for these strengths since you had already decided that he was a jerk. "Expectations engineering" in practice.

But don't think this post is an advertisement for cynicism. Certainly the anti-heroes were seen that way by most of the people around them. But the anti-hero was calculating the odds, and waiting for the Big Chance. From his point of view, other people were telling each other half-truths and quarter-truths; they lived in an echo chamber of pep-talks, escapism, and unproductive sentimentalism; and they disliked the anti-hero for not paying lip service to their cant.

In this sense the anti-hero is the ultimate "positive role model." What could be better than biding your time patiently, waiting for your big chance, and dealing with practical survival and pleasure in the mean time. That is, as long as the anti-hero has the courage to actually take the big chance when the time comes. Isn't that what you like to say you've done about choosing a car, a job, house, spouse, or investment?

But cynicism versus more popular conventionality might not be the most important difference between the anti-hero and the comedic characters, romantic figures, or Action Heroes. What makes these latter three archetypes interesting to an audience at the time of the movie is that they exaggerate or "push the envelope" by 3% compared to what is completely conventional in their own times. But of course, conventions and manners change frequently. 

In the blink of an eye, the comedian starts to look corny; the hot actress is soon outshined by a younger actress who is more lewd and has another $100,000 of cosmetic surgery; and the Action and Special Effects cool off into tameness. 

But the Anti-Hero deals with more fundamental and adult dilemmas. These do not go instantly out-of-date. Thus the Anti-Hero still seems contemporary in a 60 year old movie. Aging well is certainly one requirement of any classic.


XXXXX said…
Surely, without an anti-hero there is no story. He's always the one who shakes things up, makes things interesting by not behaving in the expected manner. He is willing to behave unconventionally, often the way the rest of us wish we had the nerve to do.
Society endorses what is good for the collective, whatever that is deemed to be at that particular place and time. The anti-hero doesn't give a crap about that.
I'm not sure he ages any better than any other part but I do think that he's a very telling character as far as understanding the particular place and time he lived in. Much better than a narrative account such as a history book. Your other examples, comedic and romantic characters, I believe also vary with the times as well but would agree are defined by the conventions of the time.
Would be interesting to consider how the attractiveness of the anti-hero is created without becoming a repulsive and evil character that one is glad to see get defeated in the end. The anti-hero defies convention in such a way as to demonstrate an alternative, but very attractive, way of living that society at the moment does not endorse. He's just one or two steps ahead of the masses. Any more than that and he'd more likely be a target.
The two famous anti-heroes I had in mind weren't evil. They used cynicism to protect themselves, as calluses protect skin. And they were cautious.

But your point is well taken about "how the attractiveness of the anti-hero is created." Scriptwriters must have to put a lot of work into that. I like how Stalag 17 revealed strengths of the anti-hero in a subtle way. It challenged the viewer to see those strengths.