04 June 2009

Why You No Good Low Down Dirty Stinking Rat!! The Most Despicable Characters of Film

You hate them. They are pure evil. As appealing as rancid butter. They're as cuddly as snakes. They make your hero's life miserable. They're up to no good and for selfish ends. They serve only themselves and the almighty dollar. You despise, loathe, detest, abhor, can't stand 'em. Yuck!

And of course without them a lot of movies wouldn't be nearly as entertaining.

They are screen villains.

An effective villain can make a good film great. He (I may use the masculine pronoun as this post will address male villains only) must be loathsome and must serve as a counterpoint to the protagonist. He's gotta be the yin to the heroes yang. A good guy without a bad guy is like a broom without dust.

It is my usual practice at this point in a post to introduce the idea of a list, perhaps of ten, related to the subject thus far introduced. I shan't disappoint you. Here now are ten great movie villains. All were memorable because they were so utterly despicable and all were integral to an outstanding movie.

Ronald Lacey as Major Arnold Toht in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Jeez, what a creepy looking Nazi. That rubbery face, that oily voice, a sadistic streak as long as the Rhine, that frickin' swastika for crissakes. He represented a purely evil regime and you could tell was bloody well proud of it. No doubt as a child he pulled wings of butterflies. Who didn't feel like letting loose with a hip hip hooray when he and his ugly mug melted? The quintessential Nazi of fiction. The role of a life ime for Lacey who had a long career in television but never anything to match Toht on film.

Lionel Barrymore as Henry Potter in It's A Wonderful Life (1946). Take that mean old neighbor who shakes his fist at you and hollers: "next time your ball comes on my yard I'm keeping it!" Okay multiply that by by 100 and you've got Old Man Potter. But what am I going on for? George Bailey said it best: "You sit around here and you spin your little webs and you think the whole world revolves around you and your money. Well, it doesn't, Mr. Potter. In the whole vast configuration of things, I'd say you were nothing but a scurvy little spider." Amen, brudder.

Barrymore was so good at playing the God awful Potter that when that's your first impression of him its hard to get used to seeing him playing sweethearts, as he did 90% of the time.

Edward Arnold as James Taylor in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). What is worse in a democracy than a supposedly respectable businessman who has complete control over a state's politicians? Not much. This is another villain, like Henry Potter, from a Frank Capra film. Arnold was later to play a similar skunk in Capra's Meet John Doe (1941). In both cases he was power hungry and would use or squash anyone who got in is way. He perverted some of the basic precepts of representative government and hoodwinked the masses in the bargain. Arnold was letter perfect as the bad guy cloaked in respectability.

Laurence Olivier as Christian Szell in Marathon Man (1976). Dentists have gotten a bad rap over the years. Sadly the type of medicine they practice has caused patients a certain amount of pain. What could be worse than a person using dental techniques to intentionally inflict pain? And as a form of torture no less. No one this side of Dick Cheney would find it anything but utterly reprehensible. Add to this the fact that he's a fortune hoarding ex Nazi who once plied his trade in a concentration camp and you've got something along the lines of a villain's trifecta.

Orson Welles as Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949). You know what sucks? When a a really, really bad guy is really really smart. Like, oh, say Harry Lime. You just can't help but wonder what good he could do for the world what with a cerebrum so well endowed. Plus he's got a good buddy who thinks him still a decent chap. Actually through most of the the film he grieves Lime a recently deceased old friend.This guy's gone so rotten in pursuit of money that he's faked his own death. it's actually worse than that, tampering with penicillin that can save children untold suffering. Don't take my word for it. Here's what Lime says: Youknow, I never feel comfortable on these sort of things. Victims? Don't be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax - the only way you can save money nowadays.

Joseph Cotton as Uncle Charlie Oakley in Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Yaah! Kids, Uncle Charley is coming to stay with us! Good ole Uncle Charlie. Boy will that bring excitement into our lives. Sure enough, affable Uncle Charley shows up and with gifts for everyone. But check this out, Charlie is staying with the family to hide out. You see, he's been bilking widows for their dough and killing them in the bargain. Well what, I ask you, is worse than that? And "using" his family like that. And what happens when his favorite niece suspects the truth? There is no one this skunk would not off in an effort to stay free and ply his awful trade.

Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). It's one thing if you're a thief and a killer but when you add silliness like tripping waiters and laughing at them, well that's adding insult to grievous injury. Valance didn't stop at using a gun either, he also had a whip handy. There's something particularly cruel about a whip and the association with American slavery play a large part in that. Valance was a criminal and he was mean about it, mocking his victims and engaging in infantile behavior. Just like a well armed playground bully.

Henry Fonda as Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Part of what makes Fonda so wonderful as a villain is the very idea of Fonda playing a villain in the first place. Henry Fonda was a beloved American actor who came to epitomize good solid wholesome Americans. From Abraham Lincoln in the Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) to Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine (1946) to Juror #8 in Twelve Angry Men (1957), Fonda was all you wanted: brave, honest and true. A boy scout for life. So imagine not just having him play a bad guy but the baddest of guys. He's a gunslinger. he kills for money and he seems to rather like doing it. Why, he'll even take down a little boy. And the way he kills one of his victims...the noose, the shoulders, oh my. Fonda as a rat. So revolutionary an idea it worked, or maybe it worked because Fonda was just that good of an actor.

Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh in No Country for old Men (2007). Seriously, can they get any worse? There's something about killing people -- lots of em, I mean this guy killed a lot of people -- with compressed air out of tank that's particularly awful. But he'd strangle or shoot or anything else available to terminate a life. Arguably he doesn't belong on this list because he wasn't so much a character as a metaphor or a symbol. Was he pure evil? Was he death itself? *Spoiler Alert* No wonder he couldn't be defeated, you don't terminate death itself and Tommy Lee Jones cannot conquer evil all by hisself.

Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter (1955). How low can a person get? How about a murdering thief who poses as a man of the cloth. Robert Mitchum as you never saw him before or would again -- a homicidal maniac who preys on widows. While in the guise of a minister! Boo! Hsss! But there's more! In pursuit of ill gotten gain he'll even attempt to beguile and then slay children. Talk about cads. He's as slick as an oil spill and about as appealing.

I can tell already I'll have a part two someday. Can't you?


Eleni said...

Great (or is it despicable?) list. Just thinking of Anton Chigurh (not to mention that hair) makes me cringe. So impassive. No remorse. *Shudders*. And still out there...

R. D. Finch said...

Riku, great idea and great list. But I hope you'll consider following up with a list of the most memorable female villains. Women can be "bad guys" too, and often are more fascinating characters than the female victims or saints more typically found in movies. If you do decide to write a follow-up on evil ladies, may I suggest you start with Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers in "Rebecca"?

Christopher55 said...

Terrific list. My favorites would be:
Michael Biehn as Johnny Ringo in Tombstone
Paul Freeman as Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark
Sidney Greenstreet as Kasper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon
John Huston as Noah Cross in Chinatown
Robert Mitchum as Max Cady in Cape Fear
Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy of Gisbourne in The Adventures of Robin Hood
Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber in Die Hard
Tim Roth as Archibald Cunningham in Rob Roy
Laurence Olivier as Christian Szell in Marathon Man
Eli Wallach as Calvera in The Magnificent Seven

Joel said...

Really great list. I especially liked the inclusion of Harry Lime. The fact that he's so charming somehow just makes him that much more menacing. And, genius casting aside, Henry Fonda's Frank may be the greatest baddie of all time (sorry Darth). Nothing like watching Juror #8 murder and scowl his way through the greatest Western ever made.