Much is made of computer animation and other technology in movies and TV, but I think one of the best special effects goes on top of an actor’s head. It shapes our whole attitude about a character, without so much as a transposed pixel. Here, without commentary, are some of my favorites.
HARRISON FORD AS INDIANA JONES
CHARLIE CHAPLIN AS THE LITTLE TRAMP
THE LADIES OF “DOWNTON ABBEY”
CLINT EASTWOOD AS THE MAN WITH NO NAME
SALLY FIELD AS “THE FLYING NUN”
JON HAMM AS DON DRAPER
THE CAT IN THE HAT
JIMMIE WALKER AS J.J. EVANS
ALAN HALE JR. AS THE SKIPPER
MARY TYLER MOORE AS MARY RICHARDS
BASIL RATHBONE AS SHERLOCK HOLMES
MIKE NESMITH IN “THE MONKEES”
FESS PARKER AS DANIEL BOONE
DANIEL DAY-LEWIS AS ABRAHAM LINCOLN
THE SORTING HAT FROM “HARRY POTTER”
ART CARNEY AS ED NORTON
B.D. IN “DOONESBURY”
LARRY HAGMAN AS J.R. EWING
JOHNNY DEPP AS THE MAD HATTER
BUDDY EBSEN AS JED CLAMPETT
ARETHA FRANKLIN AT THE PRESIDENTIAL INAUGURATION
LIDSVILLE TV SERIES
GENE HACKMAN AS POPEYE DOYLE
ERROL FLYNN AS ROBIN HOOD
HUMPHREY BOGART AS SAM SPADE
MARGARET HAMILTON AS THE WICKED WITCH OF THE WEST
That’s a LOT of hats! But even so, feel free to suggest a few more!
The private eye is an evergreen character for a very good reason. No matter what era or locale you choose for your story, there’s going to be greed and there’s going to be the occasional crime of passion. And the only way to sort it all out is to find an intrepid sleuth-for-hire. Here are the ones I prefer.
HUMPHREY BOGART IN “THE MALTESE FALCON”
For a good many people, Bogey is the gumshoe gold standard. His whole vibe told you that he expected the worst from people, but hoped for the best. In “The Maltese Falcon,” a true classic, he gets to rub elbows with such stellar character actors as Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre.
JACK NICHOLSON IN “CHINATOWN”
Nicholson channeled more than a little bit of Bogart in “Chinatown,” one of the best movies of the 1970s. He was feisty and dogged in his search for answers in a case that reached operatic heights (and depths) of corruption and depravity. Yet Jack also managed to be a real smartass. That’s saying something, considering what happens to his nose.
RICHARD ROUNDTREE IN “SHAFT”
The most excellent “Shaft” song gets so much attention, you tend to forget how cool Richard Roundtree was in the title role. Unlike a lot of private eyes, he looked damn good while was chasing down leads and busting heads.
DAVID JANSSEN IN “HARRY O”
“Harry O” wasn’t on TV for all that long, and it wasn’t a hit, but it featured a rich, nuanced role for David Janssen. His Harry Orwell was complicated, compassionate and filled with deep reservoirs of unspoken feeling. And get this – he didn’t have his own car! He would actually ride the bus around San Diego to work on his cases.
WILLIAM POWELL AND MYRNA LOY IN “THE THIN MAN”
Powell and Loy were terrific as a team of married sleuths in “The Thin Man” and its sequels. More often than not, Powell’s Nick Charles was nursing a bad hangover, which wife Nora loved to point out. Loy and Powell’s dialogue just sparkled, no matter what sort of situation presented itself. Few movie duos since have matched their obvious chemistry.
HARRISON FORD IN “BLADE RUNNER”
The juxtaposition of old-time, private eye tropes and futuristic gizmos served “Blade Runner” very well. Ford was a grim investigator trying to track down a bunch of violent, artificial life forms trying to blend in with the general populace. He discovered it wasn’t quite that simple. That’s how it is with private eyes. They always see the shades of gray.
ROBERT MITCHUM IN “OUT OF THE PAST”
Quite simply, it’s one of the best film noir performances ever put on film. Mitchum personifies fatalistic stoicism as a smitten gumshoe who falls under the spell of a dangerous, mysterious dame. When the bad guy shows up, it’s – holy crap – Kirk Douglas!
JAMES GARNER IN “THE ROCKFORD FILES”
Garner was smooth as silk as Jim Rockford, an LA private eye who lived in a trailer on the beach. Like most of the folks on this List, he was a jaded guy who still managed to be a soft touch when someone was in trouble. Garner gave the character easy humor, natural charm and a hard-earned intelligence.
JASON SCHWARTZMAN IN “BORED TO DEATH”
The private eye as a Brooklyn hipster/struggling writer. It’s a brilliant twist on the genre, with Schwartzman perfectly cast as the self-involved, yet surprisingly effective, investigator. The supporting cast is great, too, headed up by Ted Danson.
ROBERT URICH IN “SPENSER: FOR HIRE”
Urich’s likability, combined with the literary pedigree of Robert B. Parker’s source material, made “Spenser: For Hire” a pleasing way to spend an hour. I also liked that the show was set in Boston, that Spenser drove a Mustang and that he had the best side character on TV. That would be Avery Brooks as Hawk.
MIKE CONNORS IN “MANNIX”
Okay, I’ll admit it. My favorite part of “Mannix” was the theme song. Connors did a fine job – but that theme song was dynamite.
JIMMY STEWART IN “VERTIGO”
In “Vertigo,” Jimmy Stewart’s character isn’t so much trying to solve a case as he is surrendering to a personal obsession. He becomes unhinged by Kim Novak’s death and goes completely off the deep end when he encounters a woman who looks exactly like her. As always director Alfred Hitchcock pounces on the dark side of human personality.
DONALD SUTHERLAND IN “KLUTE”
This is such an underrated performance, mainly because it’s Jane Fonda’s character who dominates the film. But Sutherland is masterful as the quiet, conservative investigator who watches everything with a piercing gaze. As the plot plays out, his strength and resolve radiate wonderfully.
KRISTEN BELL IN “VERONICA MARS”
“Veronica Mars” took the private eye story to a scary place: high school. These weren’t soft mysteries. Young Veronica, played with plucky toughness by Kristen Bell, had to deal with murders, sexual assaults and spurned lovers, as well as a gaggle of mean girls who hated her.
DENZEL WASHINGTON IN “DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS”
Here we have a wonderful blend of politics, a search for a missing woman, hidden motives and a dash of racism in 1940s Los Angeles. Denzel Washington plays Easy Rawlins, a guy who loses his job and tries to pay his mortgage as a private investigator. Luckily for him, he’s got crazy Don Cheadle helping him out of a few jams.
ELLIOT GOULD IN “THE LONG GOODBYE”
For the life of me, I don’t know why this version of Philip Marlowe works so well. It’s set in ’70s California, with lots of drugs, free love and groovy people – not exactly the usual surroundings. Gould is the key. He’s still a dour, relentless seeker of truth, like this brethren of other eras.
BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH IN “SHERLOCK”
I thought long and hard about whether Sherlock Holmes belonged anywhere on this List. Ultimately, I decided he did, and for me the very best Sherlock is the one on British TV, played by Cumberbatch. He’s set in the current day, but he retains the razor-sharp mind and massive quirks that make the character iconic.
PAUL NEWMAN IN “HARPER”
Here’s the one I put at the head of the table: Paul Newman as Lew Harper, based on novelist Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer series of books. Everything about this performance is excellent. He’s able to seem smart and dumb, honorable and sleezy, energetic and exhausted – all without breaking character. Newman would return as Harper years later in 1975’s “The Drowning Pool.”
Feel free to add your own favorites. And may all your herrings be red ones. Also, here’s a little treat for you:
Here’s a tip of the cap to some memorable dudes in movie history who DIDN’T get the girl. Even when they’re bland or banal, they serve a necessary purpose. Without them, where would we get our plot twists and dramatic tension?
OWEN WILSON IN “MEET THE PARENTS”
Threw you a curve there, didn’t I? Wilson usually gets the girl in his films, but I thought he was equally effective in “Meet the Parents,” where he lost out to Ben Stiller. Wilson played it without diminishing his personal charm, which was the key.
RALPH BELLAMY IN “HIS GIRL FRIDAY”
Here’s one from a classic comedy. Bellamy is the earnest, gullible guy set to marry newshound Rosalind Russell. There’s just one problem, and his name is Cary Grant. No contest, obviously, but Bellamy’s timing and manner are a funny contrast to the rest of the fast-talking characters.
BILL PULLMAN IN “SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE”
Pullman’s performance is a smart updating of the Ralph Bellamy model. He’s still earnest and mild mannered, but he maintains a sense of awareness and personal dignity. The allergies were a nice touch.
HUGH GRANT IN “BRIDGET JONES’S DIARY”
Grant seemed to revel in this part, playing the selfish jerk who ends up competing with Colin Firth for Renee Zellweger’s attention. He was great at it, frankly. He had many of the best lines in the movie.
JIMMY STEWART IN “THE PHILADELPHIA STORY”
Truly, one of the very best examples of the guy who didn’t get the girl. In “The Philadelphia Story,” Stewart and Katharine Hepburn are totally incompatible (he’s a working class reporter and she’s a wealthy society woman), yet they get some of the coziest, wittiest, most flirtatious scenes you’ll find in any movie. If it weren’t for Cary Grant (him again!), the result might have been different.
ERIQ LA SALLE IN “COMING TO AMERICA”
What’s great about La Salle in “Coming to America” is that he offered himself up for scorn in every way, from his hairstyle to his arrogance to his poor treatment of Shari Headley. He made Eddie Murphy look gooooood.
TIM ROBBINS IN “HIGH FIDELITY”
Similarly, Tim Robbins is a real pantload in “High Fidelity.” So self-righteous. So condescending. The world, as presented in this movie, cannot be operating correctly as long as John Cusack is losing out to this doofus. Nicely done, Mr. Robbins.
JOHN WAYNE IN “THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE”
It’s not a misprint. John Wayne actually comes in second in “Liberty Valance” – to Jimmy Stewart, no less. The lovely Vera Miles has a choice between a rugged individualist (Wayne) and an idealist with a social conscience (Stewart). Something really interesting here is that director John Ford allows for the notion that Vera might have made the wrong choice.
GREG KINNEAR IN “YOU’VE GOT MAIL”
Excellent work by Kinnear, playing a slightly pompous columnist who ultimately can’t compete against Tom Hanks in the Meg Ryan Sweep-Her-Off-Her-Feet-Stakes. I think Kinnear’s intelligence and humor are better suited to roles like this than when he plays the leading man.
WENDELL COREY IN “HOLIDAY AFFAIR”
This isn’t a well-known movie, but I wanted to include it because Corey is a very specific type of “guy who didn’t get the girl.” He has the thankless job of being the character the leading lady has to settle for until she meets … Robert Mitchum. Corey has no shot here. The audience knows it; even he knows it. But he gamely soldiers on until a few minutes before the closing credits.
PATRICK WILSON IN “THE SWITCH”
Wilson gives his character some interesting twists in “The Switch.” He’s honorable, vulnerable and loyal, which is just the type of guy Jennifer Aniston is looking for. At the same time, he’s an emotional basket case. Jason Bateman does him a huge favor by stepping in and taking charge of the situation.
HUMPHREY BOGART IN “CASABLANCA”
There’s only one way to close-out this List. Bogart’s Rick is a one-of-a-kind, iconic character. He’s full of pain, anger and stoicism. He actually chooses not to get the girl, Ingrid Bergman, out of a sense of nobility. And that choice gives us one of the best movie endings ever.