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Thank Goodness, We'll Always Have Villains
by Jon Schuller

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Jack Palance in his first featured role in Shane shoots down Elisha Cook, Jr. in cold blood with a wide evil grin on his face. Gifted English actor, Sir Laurence Olivier, creates a whole new persona - completely against type when he becomes the sadistic Nazi dentist in Marathon Man. Veteran character actor from the 1930's and '40's Charles Middleton creates the definitive science fiction villain, Ming the Merciless, in the comic strip-turned-serial, Flash Gordon.

I could go on and on (and will cite a few more examples) but we've enjoyed hating movie bad guys since The Great Train Robbery in 1903. I daresay every male actor (and many actresses) throughout movie history has wanted to play a heavy, a gangster, a mastermind, a serial killer, a psychopath or just an everyday weirdo at one time or another in their careers.

Major movie books and authors have centered on why and how the movies have created so many evil people and why we, the movie-going public, just cannot get enough of them. Just think about all the films you've seen with unforgettable
performances from your favorite stars. In many cases we're surprised at who is playing the heavy now. If the actor is great then the role he plays becomes a classic. We need someone to cheer for, but we want someone to dislike.

Many actors didn't choose their roles: the Hollywood studio system wasn't democratic. Your part was chosen for you or you didn't work. Some actors quickly became associated with their evil "twins" and were typecast forever. Bela Lugosi only had one lifetime role. Lon Chaney, Sr., who could become anyone he wanted, was particularly adept at portraying society's outcasts. Joseph Calleia was always the suave, mustachioed, "continental" 1930's villain who usually winds up losing everything he stole including the leading lady. Ernest Thesiger was the consummate mad scientist. In the 1940's we have George Zucco, Henry Daniell and Edward Arnold featured in a variety of same-plot, same-ending films. In the '50's Herbert Lom from England and American George MacCready were always dependable as some sort of sociopath. Marc Lawrence whose underworld
career spanned more than forty years.
If you were typecast as a good guy many actors still wanted the chance to be naughty instead of nice. The list is long, mind you. Greats like Spencer Tracy, Richard Widmark, Peter Sellers, Basil Rathbone, Joseph Cotton, Edward G. Robinson and Charles Boyer, just to name a few, could thrill and frighten their audiences as easily as making them cheer. Jimmy Cagney went in the opposite direction. He was usually the gangster, but could easily become a hero, like George M. Cohan. But his memorable Cody Jarrett in White Heat took his bad guy persona to new heights for cruelty and nastiness. Lionel Barrymore, usually the kindly, gentleman who wouldn't hurt a fly gets cast as the nasty Mr. Potter in It's A Wonderful Life.

I enjoyed Alan Rickman as the sophisticated terrorist in Die Hard, John Malkovich as the assassin in In The Line of Fire and Christopher Walken as the shell-shocked sergeant in Biloxi Blues. . Whatever the role, Al Letteri epitomized evil, as in Mr. Majestyk. There's a group of bad guys in Donnie Brasco who you want to
make nice with.But their performances, though somewhat predictable, carry the films through and make the heroes look good over and over. Without the bad guys there'd be no good guys. Try to imagine The Dark Knight without Heath Ledger, No Country For Old Men without Javier Bardem, Dirty Harry without Andy Robinson, Silence of the Lambs without Anthony Hopkins, Brute Force without Hume Cronyn, The Professional without Gary Oldman or The Manchurian Candidate without Angela Lansbury.
The bad guys will always be with us. It's somehow re-assuring that, like old friends, we can count on new films (like the great old films) helping us to stay in touch with them. Unfortunately, today there are real life villains who can make us truly scared. Everyday news about someone using a gun to shoot innocent people makes movie psychopaths seem tame in comparison. We live in a violent world that doesn't go away as opposed to films that always have an ending and closing credits.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

Have You Been Spying On Me Lately? For How Long?

But Can She Act? That's What I Want to Know

They're Not the Same People They Used To Be

Time Does Fly When We Watch Movies

Before Minimum or Maximum, There Was Only Prison

All Columns

Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 30 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.

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