12 April 2011

Touches of Evil, Interesting Villians


Awful people who you want to see vanquished, killed, put in their place, exposed, got rid of, reformed, defeated or just given their comeuppance.

Thankfully films are full of them. Sadly the vast majority are veritable cardboard cutouts. Sneering Simon Lagrees or moustache twirling Captain Hooks. Not really odious at all. The truly frightening or sickening ones feel quite genuine. They either recall actual people we have known or who are infamous enough for us to have heard of. Or there's something in them that strikes a chord. A chord of doom, disaster or dastardly diabolical deeds.

What makes a vivid film character, whether good or evil, is the same thing that makes  for a good movie -- truth. Art is best when it is shining a light on the reality of our existence. The truth is that evil, however we choose to define it, lurks everywhere. There are small doses of it in everyone. By infusing characters with a more evident evil, we can understand better that which we have experienced or even, perhaps, felt within ourselves.

I've been blogging frequently enough these past three years that I've actually already written a post on some of film's best villains. Indeed I followed up with another post focusing on evil women. Suffice it to say there are plenty more worth looking at, which this writing I hope will prove.

Bishop Edvard Vergerus as portrayed by Jan Malmjso in Fanny and Alexander (1982). Worse step father ever. Strictness squared. We come to love the title characters of the film. They are two children who excel at just being kids. Exploring, laughing, discovering and playing. Then their widowed Ma marries this repressive oppressive man of the cloth. He specializes in stifling imagination and meting out punishment.
Hans Landa as portrayed by Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds (2009). Nazis were some of the worst creatures to walk the Earth but they've been a positive boon to films. They're ready made villains. The evil Nazi has been a film staple since before the second world war even started. Remarkably, Waltz was able to bring the arch type to a whole new level. He was charming, intelligent -- spoke four languages -- and other than the uniform, a handsome bloke. That sort of skill set in the service of evil is particularly frightening.
Anton Chigurh as portrayed by Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men (2007). Glory be to first Cormac McCarthy and then to the Coen Brothers that they didn't kill him off. Chirgurh is ever so much more interesting still out there. He is also destined to be an iconic character for generations to come. What the deuce is he? A relentless, merciless and uncompromising killing machine for one. A killer with his own peculiar moral code who cannot be bargained with. He's like a great white shark: equally fascinating and frightening.
Hans Beckert as portrayed by Peter Lorre in M (1931). Like many of those who commit heinous acts, Beckart is pitiful. It doesn't serve to make him any less awful, just adds creepiness to the package. This is as bad a package as exists, someone who preys on little girls. An able bodied adult would have nothing to fear from Beckert, but it is our children he makes us fear for.
Done Lope de Agurirre as portrayed by Klaus Kinski in Agurirre: The Wrath of God (1972). A little megalomania brings out the worst in anyone. Kinski's Aguirre is utterly mad with evil. His lust for gold and power and his willingness to sacrifice others in the pursuit of it, make Aguirre deserving of the fate that ultimately befalls him.
Dan Logan as portrayed by Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast (2000). This is the same guy who played Ghandi, for crying out loud. It's a striking performance because it verges on being over the top. As a lesser actor would have made a meal of it. Sir Ben's Logan is one scary m*therf*cker and his raw anger and eccentric persistence is a personification of evil.
Marcus Licinius Crassus as portrayed by Laurence Olivier in Spartacus (1960). He may have plied his trade in Ancient Rome, but this is a textbook power mad dictator the likes of which still walk the Earth. He rules his people ruthlessly and cruelly. And Antoninus unhesitatingly exploits anyone at his disposal. For him, this is virtually everyone. Olivier gives the character dollops of rage to go with an articulate and even philosophical evil man.
Hank Quinlan as portrayed by Orson Welles in Touch of Evil (1958). The corrupt cop. There is very little in this world as distasteful. And my goodness Quinlan, the fat mumbling slob, is as noxious as they come. Welles the actor was surpassed only by Welles the director in this film.
Senator Ralph Owen Brewster as portrayed by Alan Alda in The Aviator (2004). There's one moment alone in The Aviator that qualifies Alda's Brewster for this list. Knowing that Howard Hughes, who he's about to have a business lunch with, is germophobic, he methodically places a large finger print on Hughes's drinking glass. What a rat. Brewster is of course based on the real Senator of the same name. He is portrayed as being in the pocket of a major corporation. Now I ask you, who ever heard of such a thing?
Judah Rosenthal as portrayed by Martin Landua in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). One of the worst things about Rosenthal is that he suffers no consequence for his actions. Indeed at the end of the film he is still a happily married wealthy and highly respected member of his community. With a clear conscience no less. He's the kind of evil who really commits only one horrible act (okay, two if you count the infidelity) and is otherwise clean as a whistle. Director/writer Woody Allen asks: How many of us are capable of the same? Chilling.


Tudor Queen said...

Hate to be nit-picky about such a terrific post - and I agree with you about each and every name here, as well as your reasons - but Olivier didn't play Antoninus in "Spartacus" (that was Tony Curtis), but Crassus. Still a fabulous performance. Also, as villains go, his Nazi Dentist in "Marathon Man" was pretty damn good, and nicely underplayed. I mean, Nazi Dentist... come on!

I'd also like to add Forest Whitaker's Idi Amin in "Last Emperor of Scotland", in which Whitaker uses his innate likability in the service of illuminating a monstrous madman; Joaquin Phoenix in "Gladiator" (a frightened, jealous boy gains absolute power and an empire suffers); Daniel Day Lewis in "There Will Be Blood", Alan Rickman in "Die Hard" and if TV movies are allowed, Kenneth Branagh's chilling, affable Heydrich in "Conspiracy"

And given that Christoph Waltz made Hans Landa such a hyper-competent, charming Nazi, I can't wait to see what he does with a rather different character on the villain spectrum in "Water for Elephants"

Richard Hourula said...

Thanks for pointing out my silly mistake, it has been corrected. I had Christian Szell in a previous post about movie bad guys, which is linked in this one.