Yesterday I listed ten of the twenty most memorable bad guys from the history of cinema (as I have experienced it). Today I finish the job.
These ten here are some real fuckers:
Number 10: William Atherton as Walter Peck in Ghostbusters.
What can I say that hasn’t already been said by Big Bad Bill Murray? This slot was a dead heat between Peck and Stay-Puft and then I realized that even though he stepped on a church, Stay-Puft is way less of a prick. It takes skill (and courage) to play the comedy villain so convincingly, to be the steadfast brick wall at which the comedy hero can lob their anti-establishment volleys. In the 1980s, William Atherton had the market cornered, along with another colossal cinematic prick, the late great Paul Gleason. Both of them moved into TV pretty much entirely after dominating the 1980s with a common judgmental Caucasian swagger. To reacquaint yourself with these two brilliant creeps in their glory, go back to the alpha and the omega of 1980s asshole-dom, Die Hard, where both appear, alongside the legendary Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber.
But let’s give Walter Peck his moment to whine. Just recall that moment where he smirks and leans forward – “Can I please see this storage facility, Mister Venkman?” – and feel your relaxed hands involuntarily tense into fists.
Number 9: James Hong as Lo Pan in Big Trouble In Little
One of my personal favorite villains ever. It would be one thing if all the character of Lo Pan were about were the imperial majesty of the ten-foot-tall
Number 8: [Unbilled Big-Name Actor] as John Doe in Seven
In case you somehow haven’t seen this movie yet, I’m not going to ruin the surprise of who the killer turns out to be. At the time, it was fairly mind-blowing because while he wasn’t yet as big as he’d become, he was then steadily becoming more and more recognizable. His name wasn’t listed in the opening credits, and the studio and advertisements did the now-impossible job of not blowing the surprise. What’s most shocking, though, is how he plays the role: low-key, matter-of-fact, and chillingly logical. John Doe is disturbing because for a moment there, in the back of that cop car, he makes you think that he might be right. But he isn’t, of course. He’s the villain, and to me, one of the most memorable in modern movies. “John Doe has the upper hand” is one of the most upsetting admissions ever uttered by a movie’s hero.
Number 7: Kevin Gage as Waingro in Heat.
Michael Mann describes the character of Waingro as a virus, a disease, a sickness that once Neil McCauley and his crew allow into their meticulously-planned process, they are all of them slowly doomed. (Neil, Trejo, Breedan, and Cheritto end up dead and Chris’s fate is arguably worse.) Not only is Waingro a Nugent-esque bad-luck charm, but he’s a rat. In his spare time, he’s a serial murderer of underaged prostitutes. His deck is heavily-stacked in any Satanic card game. It’s a measure of how damned McCauley has become that in their final confrontation, Waingro’s sleepy-gator eyes fly wide with fear, for the first and last time, at the awful determination in McCauley’s cold homicidal glare.
Number 6: Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood.
With all that has been written in such a short amount of time about this immediate classic, I feel like this simple observation went unmade: There Will Be Blood is a horror movie. The opening shot announces as much – the score conjures a terrifying atonal buzzing reminiscent of the opening of The Exorcist, and soon the camera descends into the earth to find our protagonist. No doubt in my mind: There Will Be Blood is a horror movie called
In close competition for this spot was the same unbelievable actor in his portrayal of Bill The Butcher in Gangs Of New York, a character that leaps off the screen and scares the shit out of almost every other villain in movies. I don’t care what you think of the movie surrounding him – Bill the Butcher is a bad guy for the ages. The fact that the somewhat-fey-in real-life Day-Lewis played both of these very different but equally scary characters really qualifies him as one of the greatest screen actors of all time. No hyperbole there; just the facts.
Number 5: John Vernon as Dean Wormer in Animal House.
Marmalard and Neidermeyer are classic film comedy villains in their own right, but even those little shits must bow before their boss, this guy. John Vernon was a tremendous actor with a tremendous voice who was more than man enough to hold the screen against such giants as Lee Marvin in Point Blank and Clint Eastwood in The Outlaw Josey Wales. In Animal House, he took on Belushi, and every last person reading these words knows how wonderfully that turned out. As funnyman Artie Lange once asked, “Where’s that guy’s Academy Award?”
Number 4: Mario Brega as Wallace from The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly.
In case you don’t recognize the name, Wallace is that giant glass-eyed bastard who administers the insanely brutal beat-down to Tuco (Eli Wallach) at the behest of Angel-Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) to the angelic tunes of the prison orchestra. Watch that here, if you got the guts:
You can almost smell the sweat off that mean grizzly just from watching that clip. His Wikipedia entry doesn’t say so, but I suspect this guy put his eye out just to look more intimidating for the role. Damn, just imagine being in Tuco’s shoes, being handcuffed to that beast, or having to stare him in the eye, or Clint help you, not telling him what he wants to know. And just observe how much he enjoys doling out the torment. Definitely one of the great unsung evil henchmen in movies.
Number 3: Henry Fonda as Frank in Once Upon A Time In The West.
It’s impossible for today’s audiences to understand what an impact seeing Henry Fonda in this role must have had upon its release in 1968 – particularly because today’s audiences sadly don’t know much about Henry Fonda. But it was absolutely shocking to them to see the ultimate good-guy actor play the ultimate villain, and in many ways it still is. Frank is one of the meanest sons-of-bitches ever to don a black hat.
After he and his men gun down an entire red-headed family, Frank comes upon the little boy who they missed in the initial slaughter. He stares the kid down with clear blue eyes. A henchman asks him, “What are we gonna do with this one, Frank?” Frank calmly replies, “Well now that you called me by name…” Sorry, kid. If he had a chance before, he’s a goner now, and Frank probably doesn’t feel at all bad about it. It’s just business. If only for that introduction, this character would make this list, but he does a whole lot more nasty things in this movie besides child murder.
It’s also worth noting that of the three badass male leads in this movie (Bronson and Robards being the other), Frank is the only one to get the unreal Claudia Cardinale. It’s been proven throughout films as different as Goodfellas and King Kong, but Bill Hicks said it clearest – “Chicks dig jerks.”
Number 2: Hitler.
Very probably the worst person who ever lived, Hitler makes me want to believe in Hell, just to know that he is being eternally roasted and butt-fucked there. If given the chance through time travel, I wouldn’t want to punch Hitler in the face because I wouldn’t want to get my fist dirty on that greasy little moustache. But I probably would shoot him. In the uni-ball.
Hitler has been put on film countless times. I can only really tolerate it when a Jewish filmmaker finds a reason to do it. The least infuriating episode has to be when Moe Howard puts on the jackboots. [Watch it here.] The Three Stooges were the best at making a joke of a hateful wretch who all too many took seriously. Of course, Spielberg and Lucas put Indiana Jones face to face with the little dictator once. [Watch that here.] It’s a good gag, but you have to feel bad for the guy in the Hitler suit. That poor soul. Just imagine: The movie studio is casting around for someone who looks like the worst person ever, and you get the call. When this guy goes into the local deli, how many “Hey, anybody ever tell you that you look like Hitler” comments does he get? Resembling the definitive evil dictator: Truly tragic.
All of that said, Hitler doesn’t even get to be number one on my list. Why?
Because fuck Hitler.
Number 1: Lee Van Cleef as Angel-Eyes in The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly.
Angel-Eyes, also known as Setenza, also known as The Bad, completes Sergio Leone’s utter domination of my top five. Angel-Eyes is obviously one of the great villains of all time, but I don’t want to punch him in the face. I just want to admire that face, in a totally hetero way of course. I could stare at that face for an hour. Just look at it! Sergio Leone said that he cast Van Cleef because he thought he looked like a hawk. Far from me to disagree, but I also see the hawk’s reptilian ancestors there – in this movie in particular Van Cleef looks like a great coiled snake, always ready to strike. Superlative voice, too.
It’s pretty astounding when a movie bills its three leads so promisingly – “The Good”, “The Bad”, and “The Ugly” – and they all rise to the occasion in such a definitive way. None of the three portrays his title character so thoroughly as Lee Van Cleef does, though. While Clint’s Blondie is bad almost as much as he is Good, and Eli Wallach’s Tuco is good almost as much as he is Ugly, Lee Van Cleef ain’t nothin’ but Bad.
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