Saturday, May 23, 2009


In the Guardian (UK) Michael Hann responds to David Thomson's piece about movie villains. The major and minor ones of different types.

"David Thomson thinks it's Robert Shaw – even when, as in Jaws, he's on the side of the angels, David believes Shaw to have the been the scariest man to stride across the cinema screens. So who are the greatest villains in cinema history? They must be characters who compel us to watch, people who make us wonder: what happened to make them that way?

"So those villains who are set up purely to teach us about the hero – as in the likes of Zodiac or Rear Window – don't work. Not least because you never get to encounter them as real characters. Nor do "supervillains" – the likes of Blofeld or the Joker in either his Ledger or Nicholson guises – because we know they are not and can never be real. They are cartoons, and we know they exist only to entertain.

"The villains who truly terrify are those who we might plausibly encounter, if we are unlucky, if our lives go right off the rails, if we simply happen to be in their path when they come through town. They are those who bring disorder, the thing that those of us whose lives follow patterns fear most. They are the likes of Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, who holds the life of a petrol station attendant in his fingers, even if the hapless old man doesn't realise it. We are horrified, because of the discrepancy between our knowledge and the petrol pumper's. Or Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas, who turns from genial to petrifying in the blink of an eye, and – worse for us – does so without recognising the distinction. Or Tommy's homegrown cousin, Trainspotting's Begbie, whom an awful lot of YouTube posters seem to regard, worryingly, as a role model."

Ed here:

"The villains who truly terrify are those who we might plausibly encounter, if we are unlucky, if our lives go right off the rails, if we simply happen to be in their path when they come through town."

If that's the measure I'd go with Robert Mitchum in Cape Fear and Joe Pesci in Casino. Mitchum is controlled madness, Pesci is a psychopath with no control whatsoever. Mitchum's lizard looks and Pesci's compulsive explosions are what we hear about on the news today. For instance, in NYC yesterday a man ran his car into a traffic agent about to give him a parking ticket; a few days ago a man tore out his small son's eye; a woman threw her four month old baby out the window of a speeding car.

The other night I quoted Robert Bloch about his crime novels and how he tried to cope with "The terrible inability to understand the irrational behavior of certain human beings, what is it that impels that sometime senseless sadistic cruelty."

There's been a merging of horror and crime fiction and you'll find many examples in both genres. The stuff of this merger scares me (as a reader and viewer) far more than the traditional approach of haunted houses and spooky trappings. Stephen King is largely responsible for this. Carrie terrified because the emotional center of the fear was Carrie's reaction to the horrors of high school, horrors many us us have suffered.

A fair share of King's short stories give us nightmares because they're rooted in reality. Even a complete fantasy such as The Mangler--about a laundry press machine with murderous intentions--gives us the creeps because many of us are luddites and suspect that we aren't using machines, they're using us. Hell, look at our relationship with our computers. A fair share of us work every day at their mercy. They can take a day off and tell us to shove it. They just might be be able to do a lot of to do a lot of other things, too. Things we don't like to think about especially when we see what the Japanese are starting to do with robots.

All this bears on the villains we create today. The original Cape Fear had the power to shock because audiences had rarely seen a madman like Mitchum on the screen. And each decade since then has built on that Mitchum icon, trying to put him in a more contemporary setting without losing any of his animal lunacy. Some of these versions work; far too many don't. The Bad Guy has become a cliche. But true villain--the real Boogeyman--has likely been with us since (in whatever form) we crawled from the sea.

I grew up with men like Robert Shaw--dangerous and unpredictable Irishers. Scary men. I also knew a few guys, later on, who were at least shirttail kin to the Mitchum icon--breathtakingly cruel. One of them ended up being stabbed to death by the wife he'd beaten over the course of many years. She had her leg in a cast thanks to him the night she killed him. He came at her and she picked up a butcher knife and that was that. The jury was out less than an hour. She walked. It was way past time.

To me the most haunting villains have this streak of almost inhuman cruelty in them, a king of cruelty that makes them unrecognizable as people. . I think that's what Robert Bloch was talking about. Think about Lou Ford in Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me.

Hell just take a minute and study Dick Cheney's face. It's all there.

How do you folks feel about villainy?

for the rest of the Michael Hann article go here:


Anonymous said...

I am always horrified by true believers, whose ideology compels them to do anything against anyone. Major Heinrich Strasser, played by Conrad Veidt in Casablanca, is one. When darkness is rationalized for the sake of ideology, it is especially horrible. Dick Cheney does that, and if his face could be transposed over Veidt's Casablanca would suffer no loss. Cheney was a year or two ahead of me at the University of Wisconsin, and one wonders how that liberal university failed to impart its civilized values.

Richard Wheeler

Anonymous said...

My vote for top cinematic heavies would be Henry Fonda as Frank in "Once Upon A Time In The West". Hackman in "Quick and the Dead" comes a close second. And Ben Kingsley as Don Logan AND Ian McShane (especially McShane) as Teddy Bass from "Sexy Beast" were also very effective in creepy out audiences (I was a theaer manager at the time and I would watch audiences watch the film and they would cringe when Kingsley was on screen).

Brian O'Connor

Anonymous said...

Good post, Ed. I'll always be scared to death by another Mitchum character; Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter.
Cheney doesn't scare me so much as disgust me. What scares me ABOUT him is that he is such a protoypical fascist, weaseling his way into the favor of so many of the poor uneducated slobs who take him for a patriot. He is the farthest thing from that.
Terry Butler

Elizabeth Foxwell said...

For me, it's David Warner as Jack the Ripper in "Time after Time". Had a chance to tell this to Nicholas Meyer, the director of the film, who said, "But he's such a sweet man" (in real life, he meant).

Michael Padgett said...

Another vote here for Mitchum as Harry Powell in "Night of the Hunter". Not only is Powell even creepier than Max Cady (although he's among the best movie villains), "Night of the Hunter" is an infinitely better movie than either the Thompson or Scorsese versions of "Cape Fear".

Bob Levinson said...

Add candidates:

Eric Roberts as Paul Snider in "Star 80"

Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo
in "Kiss of Death"

to previously noted Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh in "No Country for Old Men"

RJR said...

Anybody ever notice how much of Stephen King seems to come out of The Twilight Zone?