Tuesday, July 6, 2010
My Top Ten Movie Villains
Villains are very important to certain kinds of narratives. Maybe not in Jane Austen, but in action or suspense stuff, absolutely. You can get along with a shitty uninteresting hero, but you'd better have a compelling heavy...bad guys are kind of the motor. I like to think I know something about characterizing bad guys, and people who like my work seem to think so too...at any rate, I devote a lot of thought to my villains, and try to give them distinct personalities and philosophies. Actually, once you come up with a really wack evil philosophy, it get rather easier to frame the wack evil philosopher. But enough theory.
I was watching Sexy Beast the other night with my wife, and for the umpteenth time I was knocked out by Ben Kingsley's nightmare-come-true bad guy, Don Logan; I decided write then and there that I should put together a list of my favorite movie villains, so you can approve of my judgement, dismiss it utterly, or rush right out and locate the films where these horrible customers appear.
One note: we're talking plain human bad guys here. Not devils (I'm going to do a top ten movie devil list at some point), or monsters. There's only one semi-exception, Boris Karloff in The Body Snatcher...he---maybe---comes back as a ghost at the end. But he's a purely naturalistic horror up till then.
And speaking of The Body Snatcher...
1.Boris Karloff as John Gray, The Body Snatcher, 1945. This is Karloff at the top of his very considerable form. The guy was a consummate pro...I don't think he ever turned in a lousy performance, even when he was stuck in a lousy movie; he was as watchable as anybody who's ever come down the pike, with the possible exception of Sophia Loren in Boy on a Dolphin. The Body Snatcher was a primo vehicle for him; it was produced by the great Val Lewton, directed by Robert Wise (who'd go on to helm The Haunting), and was based on Robert Lewis Stevenson's good little short story, which was improved upon considerably in the screenplay by Philip Macdonald. Karloff plays a resurrectionist who supplies corpses to doctors for dissection; since dissection is illegal in 19th-century Edinburgh, body-snatching is a very dicey and dangerous business. He's got a nasty relationship with Dr. Toddy MacFarlane (played nicely by Henry Daniell), who really really hates him; Gray's blackmailing him, and Toddy decides to murder his partner-in-crime, with decidedly poor results. Karloff's performance is extremely well-rounded...he's scary, funny, and oddly sympathetic...when it's all over, you'll find yourself saying "never get rid of me" over and over again, until everyone's very sick and tired of it...
2. Jimmy Cagney as Cody Jarrett, White Heat, 1949. I truly love me my gangster flicks, and White Heat is one of the best, textbook rat-a-tat-tat film-making by Raoul Walsh for Warner Brothers, who've specialized in gangster stuff, all the way from Little Caesar and Public Enemy to Goodfellas. White Heat is a classic entry in the underworld canon...it's mean, it crackles, it really rips, and Cagney's Cody Jarrett suits Walsh's style perfectly. Cagney established himself instantly as one of celluoid's baddest asses in Public Enemy, but in White Heat he really surpasses himself, as a psycho momma's boy mad-dog killer frightening the living daylights out of Edmond O'Brien, who plays an FBI agent who infiltrates Jarrett's gang in prison. Once the gang busts out, poor Edmond is in for a truly hellish high-speed ride, which culminates in a shoot-out at a refinery with Cagney taking multiple slugs and screaming "top of the World, ma!" before everything blows in a series of blasts that billow up like mushroom clouds...I used the scene in Samurai Cat in the Real World, where they're watching the movie at Stalin's lair...when everyone starts turning into werewolves, Cody jarrett does too, and tries to burst out of the screen repeatedly...
3. Lee Van Cleef as Angel Eyes, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, 1966. As this list unfolds, you'll notice bad guys from three Clint Eastwood movies. Eastwood was always very fortunate in his choice of cinematic adversaries, and The GBU was the movie that established the trend. Up until Sergio Leone started using Lee Van Cleef, in For a Few Dollars More, where's he's a scary saturnine good guy (who steals the show from Eastwood) Van Cleef was a Hollywood character actor who worked a lot in westerns (he's one of the baddies in High Noon, for example), but never got too much attention. But Few Dollars More changed all that, and he really cemented his reputation with GBU, this time as a very scary very saturnine bad guy. With his great lean physique, slitty shadowed eyes and hook nose, he's the very image of a western villain, right up there with Jack Palance in Shane (who doesn't get enough screen time to quite make this list), and he establishes his awful character right at the beginning of the flick, wiping out the menfolk of this one Mexican family (he shoots the paterfamilias through the nasty-looking food on his plate), and then bullet-reaming a cripple's brains out through a pillow because the aforementioned paterfamilias paid him to do the cripple before Angel-eyes did the Mex. Angel Eyes is smart, well-informed, and mean, mean, mean, absolutely begging to be shot in the face, which is what Eastwood does to him at the end.
Note: impressive as Van Cleef is, this flick is stolen from him (and Eastwood too) by Eli Wallach as Tuco, who is indeed a bad guy, but Tuco's a bit too ambiguous and funny to be on this list. You really like him.
4.Andy Robinson as Scorpio, Dirty Harry, 1971. Holy shit, another Eastwood villain, and hands down the most horrible of the bunch, maybe the most loathesome creature ever to appear in an action flick. Boy does this guy stink up the screen....Robinson's performance is so good that it ruined his career...if I saw Robinson on the street, I'd be tempted to hit him with a bat. Scorpio is kinda modelled on the Zodiac killer, but he's a very all-purpose monster, anti-catholic, anti-black, anti-cop, a vile peacenik who wears distorted peace-symbol belt buckles and shoots chicks in swimming pools...he's so all over the place that it's sorta ridiculous, except that...it works. Robinson, with his bulging eyes and blazing blowing red hair, is slimy beyond belief, and you really can see why Harry would chuck that pesky Bill of Rights to get at such a demonic mutant psycho. A lot of the credit has to go to Don Seigel, who does a bangup job in the director's chair, and John Milius, who did a bunch of uncredited work on the script, apparently providing it with all of its most legendary lines. Bottom line? Scorpio is one of the leading contenders for best movie villain ever.
5.James Earl Jones as Thulsa Doom, Conan the Barbarian, 1982. Another John Milius characterization...M wrote and directed this one. The movie has rather little to do with Robert E. Howard, in my opinion, but as much as I like Howard, I think Milius is a much better writer. Certainly Thulsa Doom has a lot of more personality than any of Howard's villains, and he has a philosophy to boot. Originally, Doom was a King Kull villain, but Kull stuff is pretty similar to Conan stuff, and Thulsa Doom is a very cool name....since they were chucking so much of Howard's original conception, why not slap the name on a Stygian snake-priest or whatever? In the movie, Doom first makes his presence felt after an attack-on-a village sequence that must be one of the most imitated scenes since the opening shot of Star Wars...Doom tests out a captured sword on Conan's mom, traumatizing little Conan with one of the all-time best movie decapitations (CTB is full of great beheadings), setting up the whole revenge plot. It's a while before Doom comes onstage again, but he's pretty awesome when he reappears...James Earl Jones delivers some memorable dialogue really nicely, particularly a couple of monologues where he explains to Conan that he actually did him a favor, by giving him a purpose in life. When Conan sees through this and hacks Doom's head off and hurls it down the steps at Doom's idiot hippyshit followers, it's just plain seminal ultraviolence, although there's been a ton of that beforehand.
6.Gene Hackman as Little Bill Daggett, Unforgiven, 1992. Yet another great Eastwood villain, this time with Clint behind the camera...wonderful wonderful screenplay by David Webb Peoples, with Hackman just the guy to play Little Bill, a Wyoming lawman who's really gone around the bend, even though it might not be apparent to a lot of folks.Truth is, Bill's got a lot of impressive traits...if you were living way way out in the wild west, you just might want someone like him keeping the lid on your town. But lurking behind a fairly reasonable law-and-order facade is a bastard with a mean streak a mile wide.
He is a gun-control enthusiast, and he does go after guys like English Bob, a vile hired killer who specializes in murdering Chinese laborers; for that matter, Eastwood's William Munney has a quite a horrible record, and Bill's got every right to take an interest. Munney's a broken-down Missouri ex-trainrobber who's tried his hand (and failed) at pigfarming, and comes to Little Bill's town to do a little bit of murder, just enough to revive his fortunes. But Little Bill's expecting trouble; he notices that Munney's violating the gun-control ordinance; he beats the crap out of Munney, then kills his partner, played by Morgan Freeman. A chilling final shootout ensues...lying wounded on the floor, just about to receive a double dose of buckshot from Munney's shotgun, Little Bill snarls that he doesn't have it coming, but boy, by this time, we suspect he does...
7. Kam-Kong Wong as Master Kung, Burning Paradise, 1994. I hated Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, as you know if you've read the Samurai Cat version, but if Indie's second outing had actually been a good movie, it would've been rather like Ringo Lam's hyperviolent masterpiece, Burning Paradise. If you like movie carnage, you gotta see this thing. Once it gets going, it delivers something lip-smackingly nasty every four minutes or so. But over and above all the splatter and grue, it's got the best bad guy in New Wave Hong Hong cinema, a demented Qing dynasty torturer who's been put in charge of brutalizing captured Shaolin rebels...the Buddhist equivalent of a satanist, he's also a crazy artist who can only stave off his fear of death by inflicting hideous torments on his fellow human beings. His paintings are genuinely disturbing, and his behavior is spectacularly ghastly; when he isn't raping poor helpless women or yanking their heads off, he's soaking them in vats of nasty red fluid...the only way you can make someone perfect is by embalming them, you see. A bit involving a bullet-spitting Buddha image has to be seen to be believed...ultimately the imprisoned heroes Fong Sai Yuk and Hung Hei-Kwan have to team up to splash him (via a flying severed stone Buddha-hand) into one of his own fucked-up pictures.
8. Tim Roth As Archie Cunningham, Rob Rob, 1995. If I were forced at gunpoint to choose my favorite movie villain, I think it would be Archie here. This characterization has it all. Tim Roth turns in a fabulous performance, his dialogue (by Alan Sharp) is fine vivid period stuff, and the direction (by Michael Caton-Jones) takes excellent advantage of Sharp's screenplay. Archie is extremely well-rendered and completely three-dimensional; we know exactly where he's coming from, and there a number of moments when we almost sympathize. But they always, always set you up to hate him more, and hate hate hate him you do. So what if you understand him. He's a bottomless pit. So what if he's kind of pathetic in some ways. When push comes to shove, you wouldn't want this hellish creature on your case. He dresses like a ridiculous fop, and he favors towering goofy wigs and cosmetics; but you guess he only does this to fake you out, and maybe infuriate you. At one point, a character suggests that Archie doesn't know "ass from quim," to which Archie replies, "It has been years since I buggered a boy, and in my defense, I thought him a girl at the moment of penetration." But all this is just the covering over a pit full of punji-sticks. He's an incredibly lethal swordsman, and When Liam Neeson's Rob gets into a climactic duel with him, you're absolutely convinced Rob's a goner...the final fight is a rare treat, exciting, plausible, and completely compelling...kinda like the rest of the film.
9. Harry Lennix as Aaron, Titus, 1999. I'm not quite sure if Aaron should be classfied as a movie villain, seeing as how he's from Shakespeare, but he owns this Julie Taymor flick, so what the hell. Back during Shakespeare's time, Titus Andronicus was just about the Bard's most popular play...people were, like, "okay, enough with this Hamlet stuff, we want to see more shit like TA." They liked revenge theatre, and they liked it really bloody, and boy, Titus Andronicus delivers on that score. True, it's absolutely batshit, totally wacky; all the characters behave in mystifying, utterly grotesque ways; and the plot is nonstop nonsense. Still, somehow, when you see it performed, it...works. It's like watching Sweeney Todd. Among others things, there's a gaggle of intensely horrible baddies, and the baddest of the lot is Aaron the Moor. He's almost like an early dry-run for both Othello and Iago, except there's nothing dry about him, and actors have known for quite some time that Aaron is the role to play. He does have one somewhat redeeming feature; he does seem to love his little son. But he's Shakespeare most deliciously evil creation, and he does lots of bad in the service of the awful Gothic Queen Tamora...he's so over-the-top technicolor panavision monstrous that you find yourself laughing out loud for delight.
Historical note: if you find Aaron just too preposterous, do a web search on Karl Panzram. He was the kind of fellow who'd go to Africa just so he could see what it was like to feed guys to crocodiles.
10A.Ben Kingsley as Don Logan, Sexy Beast, 2000. Oops, seem to have gotten carried away here...my top ten list has eleven entries...afraid I'll have to solve that by splitting no. 10 into A and B, since it would be a crime to exclude either of these last performances.
Quite a shock to see Mahatma Gandhi acting like such a rotten bastard, but there you have it...Ben Kingsley had done villains before, but nothing like Don Logan. If some of my other picks are more frightening or disgusting, Don Logan is the most screamingly unpleasant. He's been dispatched to sunny Spain by English gangster Teddy Bess (Ian McShane, who's also pretty damn great); he's supposed to make sure that poor retired ex-con Gel (Ray Winstone) will participate in a big robbery back in Blighty. But Gel loves his Spanish life with his gorgeous ex porn-star wife and doesn't want to return to England, which he calls a real "shithole, every cunt walking around with a long face," and he becomes the immovable object to Logan's irresistable force. Logan heaps every kind of beautifully written obscene abuse on him, but Don's got a weakness, as it turns out; he had an affair with Jackie, the wife of Gel's friend Aitch, and he's come to Spain, at least in part, to harass her...between his frustration with Gel, and his lust for Jackie, things get astoundingly itchy and ugly, with Kingsley ratchetting up a performance that's hilarious and terrifying at the same time...
10.B Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh, No Country For Old Men, 2007. Boy do you cringe ever time this stone-cold butcher shows up on screen. Even if he isn't three-dimensional) he's the most frightening baddie in the list; his voice is so unsettlingly low it sounds like a defect on the soundtrack, his eyes look completely dead, and his facial expressions look like he's been wacked up with novocaine. Everything about him projects the impression that he's totally removed from human experience as a normal person would know it. You can't deal with him or adopt any kind of attitude that will disarm him....he'll kill you on a whim, for no reason at all. And he's absolutely remorselessly effective. When we find out that he's looking for the money that Josh Brolin's Llewelln Moss has found, we know things are going to turn out horrendously for Llewelyn and probably everyone around him. I just wish that the Coen Brothers, in their wisdom, had chosen to show the climactic shootout between Llewelyn, those Mexicans, and Chigurh at the motel. The pressure just goes out of the movie at that point, and it's never really quite restored.
Okay, so that's that...I'll have to think about that Top Ten Devil list...