02 April 2009

What Was that Character's Name? The One DeNiro Played in Taxi Driver?

The other night I as watching The Daily Show (as is my wont to do). Jon Stewart's guest was Seth Rogen who in the course of their chat mentioned Travis Bickle. A character in a film known by one all and indeed an archetype of the troubled loner turned vigilante. But Rogen then added that Bickle was the main character from Taxi Driver. I guess a few folks watching might have required the clarification.

It got me thinking about film characters who the vast majority of the movie-loving public know by name. So of course I had to compile a list for this here blog and in it write a bit about why these characters are such an indelible part of our culture.

I decided to exclude characters who were first known in another medium such as literature. Sorry Attitcus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) (literature) or Stanley Kowlaski of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) (theater). Also eliminated were characters based on and named for real people, sorry Clyde Barrow of Bonnie & Clyde (1967). Lastly I'm not including characters who had recurring roles in films, one timers only, sorry Indiana Jones of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

I'm also confining this list to men. A list of famous female characters will follow in a future post. So here are 11 notable film characters (11? why 11? Why not 11!?).

Travis Bickle played by Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver (1976). Its a name synonymous with troubled loners. It has creeped into our culture. Assassins, vigilantes, ex military types, creepy cab drivers. Of course if his name was Tom Buckman instead of the more distinctive Travis Bickle (rhymes with pickle) it might be more easily be forgotten. But Travis Bickle will live with us for a long time.

Fred C. Dobbs played by Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).
On the other hand...I suppose part of the allure of Fred C. Dobbs is the striking ordinariness of the name. I mean you've got the frickin' middle initial there in between a Fred and a Dobbs. And look who Dobbsie is, a down on his luck American in Mexico who goes searching for gold. And look what happens: he finds some, then goes nuts with paranoia. A priceless Bogart performance and a name that everyone remembers, for all its banality and maybe in part because of it. So sometimes for some reason a name needn’t be unusual to be remembered.

Alvy Singer played by Woody Allen in Annie Hall (1977). I still haven't figured out why Tony Roberts' character keeps calling him, Max. Anyhoo, the name Alvy Singer is immortalized if for no other reason than its being repeated by the two "gentlemen" outside the theater. Remember the ones who Singer himself referred to as the cast of The Godfather? And part of a teamsters meeting? "Alvy Singer! From the Carson show!" It was a great scene in a great film and one of the few times Allen gave himself a distinctive name.

Jefferson Smith played by Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Anytime there's a Smith anywhere near Washington D.C. this name comes up. Anytime someone new and fresh comes along who's headed for the nation's capital its Mr. So and So Goes to Washington. The movie is a classic and Stewart was utterly magnificent. Plus the combination of the patriotic sounding Jefferson along with the salt of the earth Smith sticks with us.

Rufus T. Firefly played by Groucho Marx in Duck Soup (1933). Sure I could have gone with other Groucho characters like Otis B Driftwood, Wolf J Flywheel or Hugo Z Hackenbush, but Firefly is the best of the names in the best of his films (in my most humble opinion). Groucho, like fellow comic W.C. Fields invented or was given funny character names for many of his roles. Firefly was the wise cracking ruler of Freedonia who had to lead his country into war against Sylvannia. What a glorious struggle it was!

Charles Foster Kane played by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane (1941). Everything about the film has become legendary. The name of the lead character itself is bigger than life and is shown that way on screen and spoken that way as well. Charles Foster Kane was the perfect moniker for a man who did so much and aspired to so much more. A rose by any other name would have smelled as sweet but wouldn't have had the same ring.

CK Dexter Haven played by Cary Grant in The Philadelphia Story (1940). Cary Grant is so distinctive an actor its not always easy to remember what the devil his character's name was. But how do you forget a name with three parts, the first one of which is initials? Especially such an elegant sounding name. And most especially when a drunken Jimmy Stewart repeats the name over and over outside his house? You don't. Anyway the nonplussed CK is one of Grant's more memorable roles in one of his more memorable pictures.

Crash Davis played by Kevin Costner in Bull Durham (1988). This is at the very least a famous name in baseball circles. Career minor leaguers are often referred to as Crash Davis types. Crash was someone a lot of folks could root for. More wise than talented. Fun loving and the rare man who's a match for the savviest dame. Costner has been okay in a lot of films but he was great as Crash and the name has taken on a life of its on.

Liberty Valance played by Lee Marvin in the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1961). Having your character name in the title of a movie is a sure fire attention getter. And if you're meaner than a rattlesnake with a hangover and if your death is the stuff of legends, well by gum you’re somebody all right. Lee Marvin played this cussed Western outlaw to the hilt. And the varmint was not only handy with a gun but with whip too. Talk about mean! Having Liberty as a first name when your a cutthroat is ironic and unforgettable.

Sidney Falco played by Tony Curtis in The Sweet Smell of Success (1957). Curtis was more than a pretty face as he proved on numerous occasions particularly in his role as the oily, creepy publicist. What a performance! What a character! Oozing up, that is sucking up, to super powerful columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) vainly trying to slake his thirst for success. Indeed the imperious Hunsecker could qualify for this list as well.

Norman Bates played by Anthony Perkins in Psycho (1960). He loved his mother in a most unusual way. On the other hand he didn't much care for beautiful blonds in showers or nosy detectives creeping around the house. What a completely “Normal Norman” he seemed at first. Turned out he was handy with a knife and in all the wrong ways. One wonders if there was a precipitous decline in naming babies Norman after Psycho's release.


Colt said...

I enjoyed this post, but I wonder if Liberty Valence should be listed. The song "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence" written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David and made a top ten hit by Gene Pittney made the name Liberty Valence as common place as the amazing John Ford film?

MovieNut14 said...

Love love LOVE the inclusion of Sidney Falco, even though he wasn't one I was expecting.