Saturday, August 19, 2006

The Art in Villainy

However much the fact may offend some people’s more puritanical sensibilities, nobody enjoys a wimpy villain. I learned as a small boy that “conflict is the heart of a good story,” and if that proverb is true it must follow that: No hero can visibly elevate himself much beyond his supplied villain.

This is why it is such a terrible sin for Hollywood to continually equip its heroes with cut-and-paste bad-guys. So here, in honor of great evildoers everywhere, is a list of ten of the most delightful from the cinematic world.

1. Feathers McGraw (The Wrong Trousers - 1993) | The true master of disguise, this silently brilliant criminal mastermind goes almost the entire (short) film identified only with the alias “Penguin” (no relation to the noisy Danny DeVito). And he’s only righting an ancient religious wrong done to his people by the imperialistic Capt. Cook. To date, Feathers remains the great Gromit’s only worthy criminal counterpart.

2. Elliott Marston (Alan Rickman in Quigley Down Under - 1990) | This western is almost universally horrid, bearable only for Rickman’s singular masterful performance. Marston, the evil ranch owner intended to personify the word “empire,” brings a chilling and laidback calm alongside paired Colt Model 1860 revolvers to his private battlefield. Oh, and he enjoys using straggling troopers for target practice. I still say that had Rickman’s icy Marston and Tom Selleck’s wussy Quigley met without the interference of massively dumb writing, the Q wouldn’t have managed to walk away.

3. The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor in Serenity - 2005) | Deeply religious in his dedication to State, downright cheerful in the unruffled peace he brings to killing, the Alliance’s recordless Operative is one of the scariest people you’ll hope never to see. That says it all.

4. Primer - 2004 | Sorry, the name doesn’t appear here so as not to spoil this excellent film. Suffice it to say that the bad-guy in writer/director Shane Carruth’s independent drama paints a convincing portrait of humanity itself and proves along the way to be the most deeply chilling character I’ve ever seen anywhere. Haunting might be the word. In truth, this one should be at the head of the list.

5. Tom Dunson (John Wayne in Red River - 1948) | I debated losing the name here as well. Basically, Wayne starts out at his truest blue but evolves into a vengeful psychopath bent on ending his son‘s life. Convincing and poignant, this will prove to any skeptic that John Wayne could act (something he never did half so well as here, even in a Ford cavalry epic).

6. Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington - 1939) | Rains’ varied work is almost universally brilliant, and here (in perhaps both Frank Capra’s and James Stewart’s best film) he doesn’t miss a beat. Just try remaining detached as his aging, corrupt senator, still convinced his heart is made of gold, rends Stewart as his idealist young follower to shreds through hypocritical prosecutions.

7. Judge Roy W. Bean (Walter Brennan in The Westerner - 1940) | While this Judge Bean has nothing to do with the historical character (virtually nothing available today does), it manages to be the best acting job Brennan was ever allowed to do. Nuanced, psychopathically brilliant, and even vulnerable, Brennan’s Bean will “steal your heart” even as you… Well, you’ll see.

8. Dr. Rene Belloq (Paul Freeman in Raiders of the Lost Ark - 1981) | Surely Indiana Jones’ paramount adversary, Belloq even calls himself Indy’s “reflection.” A scholar and a skilled manipulator, few crooks can be so much ruled by their passions yet remain so cool-headed in their antagonistic pursuits. Only a Frenchman... Or, better yet, a Frenchman collaborating with Nazi Germany.

9. Calvera (Eli Wallach in The Magnificent Seven - 1960) | The great Eli Wallach will always be best remembered to western aficionados as Tuco, Sergio Leone’s “Il Brutto (Ugly),” but Tuco is a mere ant beside the great Mexican bandit Calvera. Stylistically “magnificent,” pettily controlling, compassionately patriarchal to his own, Calvera revels in his hypocrisy and tsks at others’ up-swellings. No one must miss this fine Broadway thespian at his gold-toothed best.

10. Matchstick Men - 2003 | This one also had to be heavily trimmed due to spoilage issues. Let’s just call it required viewing and leave it at that.

And I suppose that Honorable Mention of some sort should go to James Earl Jones’ vocal talent in the role of Darth Vader. No other villain has become quite so synonymous with the term, or so fully captured the imagination of a nation’s young people.

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