To be suave, is to be…
pleasantly tactful and well-mannered
high cultivation and poise coming from wide social experience
stresses an ability to deal with ticklish situations tactfully
emphasizes mildness of mannerand absence of irritating qualities
Though Cary Grant’s name is often synonymous with cool and suave, his best known films often take advantage of both appearance and reputation to somehow compromise his composure. Whether it be the absurdity of a screwball comedy or the constant confusion of North by Northwest, filmmakers seem to take a special joy in ruining the illusion of Grant’s seemingly impenetrable cool. Notorious is perhaps his most serious role, he plays an American double agent who acts as something of a guide for an unexperienced woman who could be of great value to the American government. Watching this film, it’s no surprise that Ian Fleming modeled James Bond after Grant, and though there is little proof this film was the direct example, the assumption doesn’t seem all together ridiculous. Cultured, cool and seductive Devlin uses his collected exterior to mask a wounded soul. I rank him at just number ten, because though on the outside he seems unphazed, he can’t help hiding his anger and frustration over love, and betrayal. If you liked the hardened Bond of Casino Royale, this is a film worth checking out. The films have more in common than Fleming and spies, but at heart, characters that hold explosive emotions boiling just below the surface of the man, men want to be, and women want to be with.
As much as I like the rough around the edges and gritty Bond that Daniel Craig embodies, he still can’t compare to the brutish masculinity and coolness of Sean Connery. I’m sure many will argue this is far too low, and maybe they’re right. If I were to choose a character on a whole, perhaps he would be number one, but I personally decided to choose characters within the realm of a single film. Why of all Bond films do I choose From Russia with Love? Well, the complicated answer would be that I appreciate the gritty, small mission oriented Bond films that don’t involve potential world destruction and a vignette of different locations and beauties (though it certainly HAS that element), the easy answer is, it’s just my favourite Bond film. I have a soft spot for the most emotional and feminine accessible On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Casino Royale, I think From Russia With Love is the best film of it’s kind. It’s pure espionage and pure action, and Connery goes through series after series of interaction without breaking a hypothetical sweat. His dealings in both work and pleasure is admirably effortless. It might not be the hardened image that Fleming envisioned when writing the character, but Connery’s masculinity and charm sells the lighter role of the film Bond.
Masculinity is not a pre-requisite for being either cool or suave, which is at least, in part my justification for including Addison DeWitt on my suave list. Low on tactfulness, DeWitt excels at cultured intelligence. He is the evil cool, though he does not exist in a world of villains of heroes and villains, but rather variant levels of grays. The world of theater involves a high level of crazies, and an even higher level of battling egos. No one compares to DeWitt in this category, though, his inflated self-worth is perhaps one of the few cases where it is warranted. Though you could probably argue his callous abuse of the world around him is never called for, he does it with such grace and wit that one easily forgives his character flaws. No one is as cultured, or as critical of said culture as he is, and he uses it to his advantage. George Sanders not only had the sneer to pull it off, but the voice. For those unfamiliar with All About Eve, they would still no doubt recognize his voice work in Disney’s Jungle Book as the tiger, Shere Khan. His voice alone is like poison being poured into your ear, a sweet dream that only leads to a painful social death.
An important element in being suave, is the ability to maintain composure. Charles Boyer made a career of it, but never was he put against more strain than when in Cluny Brown. One of two characters from an Ernst Lubitsch film to make my list, no director was able to bring sophistication to the screen quite like him. Though Cluny Brown is perhaps his own parody of these rich socialites, there is no denying that Boyer was consistently charming and cool throughout his career. His inclusion on the list have to do with his every day battles with coolness. First, he’s introduced as a professor on the run from the Nazis. His ability to brush off both his heroism, in such a humble and unassuming way, for me synthesizes suavity at it’s best. Though Addison DeWitt used his culture and manners to push others down, Belinski uses it to bring others up to his own level. Throughout the film, his composure is tested in the most delightfully simple, but equally strenuous ways. His interactions with the troublesome but sincere Cluny Brown whom he yearns for, in more ways than one. Watching him attempt to keep his cool, and succeeding, while she describes a “censored” sex dream about him and her, is reason enough to warrant his inclusion.
6. Det. Lt. Mark McPherson in Laura (1944)
The first reason why Det. McPherson makes my list is that he’s dead sexy. Dana Andrews is one of the most blood boiling, panty wetting, dreamboat to come out of classic Hollywood. He had this grin! And a swagger… as a detective he was almost unshakeable. He was so cool he didn’t even try caring about what was going on most of the time. Whenever he needed to think, he pulled out of his pocket one of those little games kids have with the little metal balls where you try to get them in the holes… it’s charming, and endearing. A sensitive and neurotic touch to the unshakeable detective. His voice was smooth and though he always played an “everyman”, he always had an intelligence lying beneath his eyes. His tough exterior was unravelled by his thoughtful eyes. He was able to keep those haunting thoughts boiled below the surface. What really pushes him over the edge, is his ability to handle pressure. Not only is it a daily occurence as a police detective, but there is a twist in this film that would break anyones cool… not McPherson. This is the first, but not the last detective to mae the list. There is something so effortless cool about a 40s style detective, the clothes, the persona… the situations… the women? What’s not to love!
The second Lubitsch character to grace my list, Gaston Monescu is in many ways a proto-type of the suave gentlemen that Cary Grant would embody throughout most of his career. He was cultured, he was witty, and he was far too clever. His chosen profession was thievery, and he impersonated wealthy dukes and princes so he could woo naive socialites and rob them blind. The film’s opening scene sees him courting a young countess, there is no indication that things are going awry, but something is most definitely amiss. His efforts to both persuade and pilfer are meeting an unfortunate dead end, as the countess seems to “unknowingly” foil all his attempts. Things progress, both maintain their composure, ignoring the oddities of each other’s behavior until, overtaken by pleasure they confess their true identities! He falls for a crook, she falls for a crook and they fall for each other. From here on out, Gaston has another woman in his grasp, this one ripe for robbery. He does it with such grace and affection, it would be of no surprise that if you were to catch him red handed, he’d be able to convince you he is doing you a favour and you would thank him for robbing you. His handling of the affections of two very intelligent women and a few ridiculous situations only further his suave persona.
I had a few Bogart characters I could have easily replaced in the place of this, but I finally settled on Marlowe for his ability to remain cool in a world of chaos. What distinguished Marlowe from the other noir heroes, was his ability to sit outside the world of crime and corruption. Whereas most noir protagonists became somewhat entangled with the crime and the ethical dilemmas, Marlowe had a clear set of motives and morals that he was able to follow even under the most difficult strain. Though in the novels he has moments of frustration and anger, Hawks stripped them for the screen, creating a masculine ideal as far as he was concerned. Hawks’ Marlowe was strong, smart and something of a womanizer. He was so self consciously cool, he had to play a “poof” to convince that he was anything but a hard boiled detective. He was effortlessly sexy even though he was hardly conventionally good looking. His scenes with Bacall consistently oozed with sexual tension, but same could be said with his interactions with any woman that pops up.
Clint Eastwood is too cool, and though he might be missing on the higher cultural elements one might commonly associate with someone who is suave, he has a certain intelligence that elevates him beyond simple bad-assery. He is more than just a brutish package of testosterone, but would rather use skills and intelligence to get his way. Furthermore, he is well mannered, especially alongside the boisterous and crude Tuco. He doesn’t have to do much of anything to demand respect from those around him. This is a large part of why he is ranked so high; the esteem he’s held in by all those who meet or need him. Whereas Tuco’s stupidity and impulsive nature put him in compromising situations, it’s Blondie’s grace that saves him. The final aspect that puts him on the list, is his sensitivity towards the world around him. Though he is “gifted” with the tools to destroy and kill, more so than most, he also is allowed a huge amount of humanity. Him playing with kittens, or giving his jacket to a dying boy are just moments of incredible awareness.
It’s almost cheating… but not quite. It’s impossible to divorce the characters Nick and Nora when discussing The Thin Man, or even characteristics. One of the few married couples on screen depicted with no real hitch, they seem to complete and compliment each other completely. Each bouncing and benefiting the other in every way. Nick and Nora make for the coolest couple you can imagine. Parties, presents and detecting; they never break a sweat, even under the most strenuous circumstances. Their repartee is classy, filled with wit. They’re clever and funny, never allowing an opportunity for jest or humor miss each other. I think their greatest advantage though, is they have no fear of looking the fool. They take more risks, and come across the better for it. Even in brief moments of silliness, the lack of shame they show, allows us to laugh with them, rather than at them. It’s a defense mechanism that works wonders for the series, and the audience is swept up in the thrills and luxury of their lives. Just cool.
As the list suggests, I tend to understand suave as a male characteristic. I think the female alternative would be poise or well… grace… but somehow, it’s impossible for me not to include Lisa. Though undeniably feminine, she exhibits all the characteristics I’ve associated with being suave throughout the thread more than all the rest, and she has the added strength of being perfectly womanly throughout. I’d even argue, beyond being far more cultured, calm, diplomatic, and anything but irritating, she possesses incredible strength and bravery. As much as the detectives, spies and thieves of my list are forced to place themselves in compromising situations, it’s Lisa’s unfamiliarity with the environment and risk that makes her ventures all the more thrilling and requiring almost more poise and strength than those forced to confront it by choice. However, like them, she seems to thrive off the adrenaline, and watching a beautiful woman put her life on the line is perversely arousing. This plays into her incredible energy and suave-ness, her sexual appeal. The cherry on the cake of cool, is sex, and Grace Kelly could not be more beautiful, could not be more sensual… could not be more liberated. More-so than her contemporaries, she seemed experienced without ever being a slut. She’s the woman who holds herself beautifully in all situations, but most of all we yearn to see her behind closed doors. It’s not an issue of appearances being deceiving, but her appearance of unshakable confidence that only alludes to that kind of lack of sexual inhibitions. She’s hot, she’s smart, and she’s effortless.