After WWII, a different type of movie leading man began to appear. One could say that he embodied the psychological turmoil and soul-searching of the movie going public, as they grappled with the post-traumatic stress of war and the horrors of the atomic bomb.
This leading man's conflicts were inside himself, rather than against some external villain. Actors such as James Dean, Sal Mineo, Cliff Robertson, Anthony Perkins, Robert Wagner, and Montgomery Clift made it their specialty to explore this difficult psychological territory - creating male characters who were fearful, unpredictable, psychologically damaged, and potentially dangerous, in direct contrast to the self-assured ruggedness and dependability of earlier male icons like John Wayne and Clark Gable.
These new men had an interesting and often conflicted sexuality. While uniformly handsome on screen, they were rarely sexually confident or competent, and sometimes sexually violent. Rather than being the traditional romantic leading man who woos an ingenue, they were more likely to be pursued by experienced women who were sexually assured and interpersonally confident.
My favorite of all the "men on the verge of a nervous breakdown" is Richard Basehart. While he may now be best remembered as the stalwart Admiral Nelson in the long-running TV series "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea," in his earliest screen roles he played characters who were usually either homicidal or suicidal, and often on their way into (or escaping out of) a mental asylum or prison.
Below, in "Fourteen Hours" (1949), he spends the entire movie out on a ledge threatening to jump. The source of his dismay: his sexual difficulties with fiance Barbara Bel Geddes. (His mother is Agnes Moorehead - no wonder he has problems!)
Very handsome, with expressive eyes and a beautifully resonant voice, the brilliant Richard Basehart could make you sympathetic and wary at the same time.
In "Outside the Wall" (1950) he plays a man who is finally paroled after essentially growing up in prison (he served 15 years after accidentally killing a man as an adolescent). Emerging into the world, he is overwhelmed by its crowds and demands, and is profoundly awkward and unsure of himself around women...although it's clear from the way they look at him that they know exactly what they want him for.
Below, a waitress at the cafe where he gets his first job makes a forward pass, but the awkward and inexperienced Richard fumbles.
Later, when he applies for a new job as a lab assistant in a hospital, he is required to get a physical examination. In one incredibly erotic scene, the befuddled Richard is ordered by the platinum blonde nurse to "Strip," although he has never undressed in front of a woman before. In a total reversal of the usual male-female sexual dynamic, he is completely vulnerable while she is in absolute control.
Below, the sequence in which he undresses. Note the way her "thermometer" points up at him like an erection.
When she gives him an injection, the camera stays close up on their faces. She "penetrates" him and he flinches like a virgin, then their eyes meet and he settles back down in his chair, a satisfied smile of gratitude appearing on his face.