While working my way through The Blacklist on Netflix, I came across an episode featuring Tom Noonan as (surprise!) a creepy psycho killer. Some guys are just born to be bad guys and he is one of those guys.
It got me to thinking about some of the underrated baddies in the world of film and television. I've always had a great appreciation for villains. The hero is the star, while the villain is the character actor. It makes sense from a storytelling perspective. Heroes often are saddled with the burden of being the bland "neutral mask" that the audience can project themselves onto. Most times that means they have to adhere to a strict set of guidelines. They have to be accessible, relatable, non threatening, and appeal to as wide an audience as possible. The villain meanwhile, gets to colour outside the lines.
Now, before I get started, I want to set a few ground rules. First of all, I'm interested in villain performances here. That means I'll be looking at monsters of the human (or humanoid) variety only. Sure giant monsters, slasher movie stalkers, werewolves, vampires, Sharktopusses...er Sharktopi can be fun, but they are not performance driven villains. I'm interested in monsters that inhabit human bodies. That means minimal prosthetic or computer generated assistance (at least for this list).
Secondly, I want to focus on the unsung villains of moviedom and tv land. So you won't find Norman Bates, James Moriarty, Loki or Hannibal Lecter in this feature. In fact, for this series, I am immediately disqualifying anyone appearing on AFI's Top 100 villains list. I want to talk about the ones that haven't been done to death.
And most importantly, I must stress this is merely my own list. If I leave someone off, it's because my frame of reference is only so wide. I know anytime you make a list, people get combative or want to argue. It's just my own opinions here. This is also going to be a recurring feature so this list is only the beginning.
So, with the rules out of the way. Let's get on with the business of breaking them.
I see no better way than to begin where we began...with Tom Noonan.
Francis Dolarhyde in "Manhunter"
Just because I won't be including Hannibal Lecter in this list doesn't mean I won't be giving a shout out to his first co-villain. While Ted Levine's portrayal of Buffalo Bill in "The Silence of the Lambs" is certainly creepy, Tom Noonan set the tone with his more nuanced, terrifying turn as "The Tooth Fairy" in "Manhunter".
"Manhunter" is the often forgotten child of the Hannibal Lecter family (like A&W's Burger Family, but with more cannibalism). This is a shame because it actually has a lot to offer. The cast is tremendous. William Peterson ("C.S.I.") and Brian Cox round out the trio of leads as Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter respectively.
While Sir Anthony Hopkins made Hannibal Lecter a household name, I've often felt his portrayal veered a little cartoony at times. It's hard to be terrified of someone when you're laughing at them. William Peterson's Will Graham is my favourite incarnation of the character in any medium (sorry tv verion...close but no cigar).
And looky what I happened to find on youtube...
Noonan's turn as Dolarhyde was fascinating for a lot of reasons. While he was undoubtedly a bad guy, we see another side of Dolarhyde in the film during his attempts to romance his blind co-worker Reba (played wonderfully by Joan Allen). We see him as a horrible person, who is completely mystified when something good happens to him.
While Ralph Fiennes took a turn as the character in "Red Dragon" (and did a fine job as well), I recall Noonan's portrayal as the more nuanced of the two. There was a glimmer of humanity in his performance (I felt Fiennes played it more straight up villainous) and that made his horrible actions all the worse. We truly get the sense that Francis Dolarhyde and The Tooth Fairy are two battling sides of him.
Also, as though Iron Butterfly's "Inna Gada Da Vida" wasn't creepy enough, this film turns it into a Manson Family Sin-a-long..
Sheriff Cooley - "O' Brother Where Art Thou?"
If I had to describe Daniel Von Bargen's Sheriff Cooley from "O' Brother, Where Art Thou?" it would be "presence". This is a character, who with only a minimum amount of screen time, manages to still leave one hell of an impression (pun abso-fucking-lutely intended).
"O' Brother" is an amazing mix of elements that should not go together. The individual ingredients read like a recipe consisting of: "Bake chocolate cake, cover chocolate cake with guacamole, dunk guacamole cake in au jus sauce, drizzle with Sriracha, eat and try not to vomit." Yet it works so beautifully. Take Homer's epic poem "The Odyssey", mix in depression era setting, a sountrack comprised of spirituals, hymns and dirges, a trio of moronic protagonists and a collection of bizarre characters and you get this beautiful pastiche of a film.
As with most Coen films, it draws heavily on symbolism and allegory, but it never veers into pretentious territory. The film itself maintains a whimsical tone. Even villains of the movie such as the "Cyclops" ("Big" Dan Teague played brilliantly by John Goodman whose scene gives us the great line "We was beat up by a Bible salesman."), corrupt Governor candidate Homer Stokes and George Clooney's rival Vernon T. Waldrip (a couple of which were actual Klansmen) all play pretty much for laughs, even in the most dire of circumstances.
All of that changes when, after we think the plot has wrapped up, the denouement Devil comes back to collect his due.
I say the Devil because Tommy pretty much describes him as such when he describes meeting the Devil at the crossroads. The story mirrors real life bluesman Tommy Johnson who legend has it, sold his soul to the Devil at the crossroads in exchange for talent on the guitar. The story was later also attached to bluesman Robert Johnson (no relation) proving that pissing off religious folks has always been a viable PR tactic for a young musician.
Daniel Von Bargen does a lot with very little screen time. He is cold, detached, and his slight southern drawl provides just the right amount of menace without going into cartoon territory. I think the power of this character lies in the tightly controlled use of him. This could have easily been the main antagonist of the film, yet the Coen's were smart enough to see that overuse would dilute the character. He doesn't monologue, he doesn't chew the scenery, his appearances are kept few and far between and he is singularly determined to carry out his course of action.
Where the other antagonists are broad and goofy, Cooley is as serious as it gets. You can't reason with him, you can't talk him out of his chosen path, and if you want to stop him, you need an "act of God".
Of course, being that this story is also based off of a Greek myth, another interpretation is that Cooley is an allegory for Hades, Lord of the Underworld, who had his own vicious hound Cerberus.
The clip below is one of my favourite parts of the movie. When informed that the boys had been pardoned and that hanging them would be contrary to the spirit of the law, Cooley coldly replies "The law? The law is a human institution." Thankfully, George Clooney was able to pray a flood onto him, or things could have gone really badly.
Edgar from "Men in Black"
Alright, so I'm breaking my own rules here, as Edgar doesn't exactly qualify as human. In the original "Men in Black", a giant space cockroach comes to Earth and borrows the skin of hillbilly Edgar and wears him like...well...an Edgar suit.
This is probably one of the funniest villains I will cover here, while still being legitimately disturbing. I give full credit to Vincent D'Onofrio who goes all out with bizarre mannerisms and facial ticks, twisting his features in very unpleasant ways to give the impression of a giant bug wearing a skin suit. While D'Onofrio goes over the top with this character, it's exactly what was needed to balance out the ticket so to speak when played against Will Smith's smart ass and Tommy Lee Jones deadpan.
Also, a shout out must be given to the make-up artist who designed Edgar. As the film goes on, Edgar gradually starts to decompose and look more and more sickly.
This is the perfect example of special effects serving the performance of the actor without upstaging it. Something the later Men in Black sequels would forget.
Mrs. Carmody from "The Mist"
Some villains you love to hate, and some you just plain hate.
Marcia Gay Harden's chilling portrayal of religious nut turned cult leader Mrs. Carmody is both infuriating (in a good way) and terrifying.
Frank Darabont's film adaptation of Stephen King's novel of the same name, I felt was a great horror film. It centers on a small town in Maine that is suddenly overrun with a mysterious mist one day. A collection of townspeople barricade themselves inside a supermarket to hide from the monsters lurking outside. Meanwhile the biggest monster of all is right inside the store, taking the appearance of an unassuming pious woman.
As the situation becomes more dire, two factions develop within the store, leading to the central conflict in the film. The faction led by Mrs. Carmody believes that it is the beginning of Armageddon (sans smirking Bruce Willis) while the other faction, led by David (Thomas Jane) try to remain rational.
If the thesis of this piece (monsters in human form being more terrifying) was personified, Mrs. Carmody would be that. She has no super powers, no magical abilities. She's not even that smart or devious. She merely capitalizes on the fear and desperation around her and creates a bloodthirsty mob eager to do her bidding, even if that means killing a soldier or attempting to kill a small boy as a sacrifice.
Warning: The scene below contains violence, course language and big honkin' spoilers (SHE DIES!!! SPOILER ALERT!) if you haven't seen the film yet.
Never has a comeuppance been so satisfying. There are a couple of interesting points about this scene.
One is that Carmody singles out Laurie Holden's character Amanda as retaliation for an earlier incident when Amanda slapped her. Coupled with Carmody's tone and body language at the beginning of the scene, to my interpretation, she is enjoying the power that her new congregation has brought her.
Another particular point of interest in the clip is one of Carmody's followers screaming at her killer "You murdered her!" despite the mob having taken part in already killing one man and having been ready to kill a young boy. Enough irony for all of us there.
The Caller from "Phone Booth"
While recently watching "Grand Piano" aka "Phone Booth with a piano", I was reminded of the underrated thriller. (Grand Piano does have the novelty of having Alex Winter playing a murderous thug, so I can find some pleasure in pretending that Bill S. Preston became a hitman for hire. Now, that's a sequel to Bill and Ted I would watch!)
Phone Booth centers on Stu (Colin Farrell) an arrogant, philandering, publicist who is taken hostage by a mysterious sniper and told not to leave the phone booth he is in or he will be shot. Keifer Sutherland provides the menacing voice on the other end of the phone and in doing so creates one of the more enigmatic villains in movie history.
NOTE: I'm fully aware that I'm spoiling the big ending reveal of The Caller, but anyone who has watched even an episode of "24" would have picked it out instantly, since Jack Bauer spends so much time growling into a cell phone. Besides, this came out in 2002. You had time to see it.
We never find out exactly who The Caller is, further adding to the mystery.
At first he seems like a garden variety psychopath, but in many respects I would compare him to Jigsaw from the "Saw" franchise. Yes he is a killer, but he also has a very specific methedology and only targets those who refuse to tell the truth about who they are. We learn through the conversation between the two that The Caller's previous two victims (a pedophile and a shady stockbroker) were killed when they refused to come clean about what they really were.
Sutherland manages to infuse every word he says with meaning. Be it sarcasm, wit, menace or malevolent glee, the Caller never lapses into boring.
A helpful youtuber has cut together some of the best exchanges bits from the Caller. Fair warning, it will spoil some of the big moments in the film.
Well, there you have it. The first edition of Rogue's Gallery is in the books.
Let me know in the comments if you have a favourite underrated villain performance. Your suggestion just might be featured on a future installment.
Until next time...