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."
"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.