Thursday, February 17, 2011

Great movie villains

I don't know about you, but I'm always perplexed when someone asks me something like "What is your favorite movie," or "book," or "rock album," or "foreign city."  Equally impossible are Top Ten Lists and the like.

I fall in love with so much art that I can't adhere to something as confining as a list.  And, anyway, there is only art and imitation.  Art always succeeds.  Imitation never does.  That distinction is how you tell them apart.

So, these are not "The Top Movie Villains of All Time."  These are successful performances.

And among my favorites.

Eli Wallach as Tuco in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

More clown than villain, Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez is the ultimate pragmatist; a survivor in a hard world.  His way out of any dilemma is dictated by the answer to a single, unvarying question:  What is good for Tuco?  Illiterate, superstitious, but curiously moral (and decidedly not free of his Catholic heritage), Tuco manages to retain his humanity as he roams between Union and Confederate lines in Civil War Texas, chasing after stolen gold.

Hand it to Sergio Leone.  His masterful direction in this 1966 classic brought out the very best in his dynamite cast.  And Leone let Eli Wallach run.  Taking nothing away from Lee Van Cleef and (young) Clint Eastwood, who both turn in great performances, Wallach quite simply steals the show. 

Jack Nicholson as The Joker in Batman

Comic book villains are always a little over-the-top, and Jack Napier is no exception.  Jack is an ambitious gangster in a powerful gang in Gotham City.  That makes him dangerous.  But after he has an horrific accident involving chemicals in a heist gone bad, he becomes even more so.  His motivations are incomprehensible, insane.  They make no sense.  Not to anyone, anyway, other than the Joker, which is the personality Napier assumes after the accident.  The Joker is a complete sociopath, delighting in chaos and death, and in the disfigurement of beauty.

No actor is better suited to portray a psychotic clown than Jack Nicholson.  And his portrayal of the Joker is masterful.  I'd argue that it is among his best.  Nicholson conveys the Joker's macabre and twisted sense of humor, his catlike sadism, with such seeming ease that one suspects script-writer Bob Kane knew who would be cast in the role before he ever sat down at the keyboard.

Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men

Anton Chigurh is one scary dude.  (I mean, my God, look at that face!)  Governed by an absolute conviction in the inevitability of fate, Chigurh is a pitiless and chillingly effective killer.  Part of what makes Chigurh so terrifying is his lack of passion.  He isn't driven by anger or hate.  In fact, throughout this Coen Brothers classic, Chigurh displays only the mildest shades of emotion:  irritation, when one victim can't see why her murder is necessary; disappointment, when another, a man who should know better, tries to make a deal for his life. 

I had seen Javier Bardem in other flicks before I came to know Anton Chigurh.  But his bone-chilling performance in No Country has defined him for me.  And I hope and pray that there aren't too many people out there in the world like Anton Chigurh.

Christopher Walken as Max Zorin in A View to a Kill

Max Zorin is another in the long tradition of eccentric James Bond villains.  The product of Nazi medical experiments involving injecting pregnant women with massive amounts of steroids, Max is super-intelligent and utterly psychotic.  He embodies all the arrogance and delusional superiority one would expect of a manufactured Übermensch.  He is loyal only to himself.  He's the best that humanity has to offer, after all.  In many ways, Max Zorin resembles Alan Moore's Adrian Veidt, the villain in Watchmen.

This may have been the film that first made me aware of Christopher Walken.  Although, at this point in his career, he seems to be typecast as creepy-eccentric, Walken is a great actor with a diverse range.  Max Zorin is memorable in his long list of successful roles.

Anyway, those are some of my favorite movie villains.  There are plenty more...


"Shusli" Baseler said...

I agree with your choices (especially Bardem heh heh) and would add:

Chiaki Kuriyama as Gogo Ubari in Kill Bill! Along with Lucy Liu as O-ren Ishee and David Carradine as Bill. Badass.

Woody Harrelson Natural Born Killers.

Matthew Wall said...

Aye Blondie. Loving your blog Dade.

Nice post. Classic villains. Some of the most enjoyable... fascinating performances.

You think it is the performance? or the character itself that make these villains special? Both I suppose. Seems like so many film directors try- and fail - to capture that essence... whatever it is that makes a villain so captivating. I think it has something to do with that fear that we all have at some time in our lives.. that we are not that far from crazy ourselves. The fine line between sanity and insanity. Perhaps the appeal lies with this thought, and the accompanying conflict ... that we can barely care to imagine how far from human we could be.