Thursday, June 30, 2011

Man on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

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.


  1. I love the film "Fourteen Hours" so much! I consider it an example of how great a movie can be without switching to dynamic views of cities and expensive special effects every other scene. The rest of what you've shown here is very interesting too. I love the reversed sexual dynamic going on, and I wonder if that can't be seen more in other films of the era. Now I have to go through my DVD collection and find out!


  2. I have seen "Fourteen Hours" (Horas de Angustia) many times, but never under this interesting perspective. "Outside the Wall" (nací en la Cárcel)only once, perhaps I must re-view both of them to apreciatte this blog better ;)
    Richard Basehart's fan from Spain

  3. Hi Ace, Once again we have similar taste in film. I'll be interested to hear if you come up with some other examples of the reversed sexual dynamic.

  4. Hi Harriet, I'm delighted to meet another Richard Basehart fan. Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy the blog.

  5. I can see your point in the subtle sexual exchange in the injection sequence with the nurse in "Outside the Wall" but if you'll note in the balance of the movie he is very wary of the selfish motives of the seductions of the various women he encounters. Probably due to his fellow inmates relating their bad experiences with 'dames'. It isn't until he finally meets the one who is honest and captures his heart that he does not hold back, and she in turn trusts him. He also finds that his momentary enamored feelings to the "blond injection nurse" are changed when he sees that she is not of the same caliber as the one he finally sets his heart on.
    So was he searching all this time for the one woman? He is pretty firm and straight forward with most of the women in the movie and then almost seemingly disappointed when they are not 'good girls'.
    Another Basehart fan.

  6. Hi Joel, Thanks for adding to the discussion, you raise some very interesting points. Whether his wariness is due to what he has heard while behind bars, or if it's from being so inexperienced when he encounters life for the first time, either way his character is in a unique place of being both an adult man and completely sexually naive when it comes to women. An interesting character to explore, and one quite unlike the typical Hollywood leading male role.

  7. I wonder what Richard Basehart would think of your analysis. He did like those off the wall roles and Fourteen Hours was one of his favorites.

  8. Early Richard Basehart!! ("Tension," "Fourteen Hours" and even "The House on Telegraph Hill")...and once more you've given me a film to look for--I don't know "Outside the Wall."

  9. Hi Stephanie, Thanks for writing in. Wouldn't it be great to be able to discuss this with Richard Basehart himself?? I would love to hear what he would have to say.

  10. Hi FelchingPisser, Oh I love "Tension." Audrey Totter is one of a kind. "Outside the Wall" might be a little hard to find - I don't think it ever made it to VHS or DVD, but I believe appears on cable from time to time.

  11. And if you're looking, look for the VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA with Richard Basehart and a very early Ed Asner playing a mad Russian dictator reminiscent of Nikita Kruschevev.

  12. Great tip, Anonymous. Richard Basehart plays a very different type of character in that series - a real play-it-by-the-book military man.
    And I've always thought Ed Asner was pretty sexy...