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How Important Is The Bad Guy?


OllieTSB
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When you consider your favorite crime-drama or bad-guy films, how important is the Bad Guy in rating the film?

 

Can a mediocre bad guy result in a great film?

 

Do great or perhaps "highly/most memorable" films have the same quality of bad-guy - ?ber memorable?

 

FrankG brought up THE BIG HEAT and Glenn Ford's his typical self. Gloria Grahame does a fine job. But it's Lee Marvin as the totally reprehensible character that makes me remember the venom of this film. And he does it again in MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, along with Lee Van Cleef and the sniveling whiner Strother Martin - all of whom turned in some of their finest performances in albeit limited roles.

 

Ava Gardner escapes most of THE KILLERS' attention but, at the end, I realize just how BAD she really is. Same with Kathleen Turner in BODY HEAT - I know she's ba-a-a-d, but WOW - who knew she'd be THAT bad?!!

 

And even Mother Bates takes a distant, distant backseat to maybe the Baddest Character of all, Ma Iselin (Anglea Lansbury) in MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE - boy, allowing your own son to be subjected to her web of intrigue. Wowser. But that film stands on other merits, as well. Angela's truly a frightful character in retrospect, but that's a film where even her Badness might not be forefront in my ratings for the film.

 

Cagney in WHITE HEAT - we see he's a ruthless fellow early in the film, but we see how much he enjoys it later. "Stuffy in there, you say?" Sinatra's SUDDENLY assassin starts off cold and calculating, but we see he's a psycho in sheep's controlled clothing. He plays the bad guy very very well.

 

So, how important is the bad guy in your ratings of memorable or unmemorable films?

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It's funny. I think a strong villain is probably more important in a western. That's why I like "Shane" over "High Noon" or "The Far Country" over "The Tin Star."

 

In a gangster/noir context, the bad guys don't stand out as much, because the badness seems to be spread around a bunch of people. Take "On Dangerous Ground." The actual killer in that film turns out to be a messed up teenager, but the film is powerful because Robert Ryan is the "hero" with real inner demons, and Ward Bond is tremendously scary as the father of the murder victim.

 

Sometimes too, it seems to me, that in noir you have very colorful/grotesque characters who aren't exactly part of the main hero vs. villain plot but add tremendously to the overall feel of the film.

 

Still, I have to admit that no film can go too far wrong if it cast Dan Duryea or Robert Ryan as the bad guy.

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I think "Mask of Dimitrios" is an example of the kind of noir film where the minor characters, such as Victor Francen's retired spy, are more interesting/colorful than the film's "villain" Zachery Scott. Of course, this is a weird case in that Lorre and Greenstreet are the good guys. (At least Lorre is the good guy, and Greenstreet is ambiguous.)

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Hi, Ollie -- A very interesting question and thread.

 

When you consider your favorite crime-drama or bad-guy films, how important is the Bad Guy in rating the film?

 

I tend to prefer films that feature dynamic bad guys/girls, so it's definitely a factor for me in potentially loving a film. Cape Fear is actually my favorite classic film and the primary reason is Robert Mitchum's "Max Cady." Cady is downright terrifying to me. I also love Mitchum's "Reverend Harry Powell" in The Night of the Hunter and Orson Welles' "Hank Quinlan" in Touch of Evil. I could go on and on with powerful villains that really lift a film to a very high level for me.

 

Can a mediocre bad guy result in a great film?

 

I think so. I'm not very enamored by Henry Brandon's "Scar" in The Searchers but I really like the film. I believe it to be a great film. The film isn't about "Scar" to me, though.

 

Do great or perhaps "highly/most memorable" films have the same quality of bad-guy - ?ber memorable?

 

I don't think so. M is my second favorite classic film and Peter Lorre's "Hans Beckert" is a far cry from Max Cady in terms of types of bad guys. They elicit much different feelings from me.

 

And even Mother Bates takes a distant, distant backseat to maybe the Baddest Character of all, Ma Iselin (Anglea Lansbury) in MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE - boy, allowing your own son to be subjected to her web of intrigue. Wowser. But that film stands on other merits, as well. Angela's truly a frightful character in retrospect, but that's a film where even her Badness might not be forefront in my ratings for the film.

 

Great point on The Manchurian Candidate. There is more to the film than just "Mrs. Iselin." If Mrs. Iselin were to be played "softer," the film would definitely lose a lot of its powerful impact, but it could still be a very good film.

 

My favorite classic films:

 

1. Cape Fear (Max Cady)

2. M (Hans Beckert)

3. Once Upon a Time in the West (Frank)

4. Scarlet Street (Johnny Prince & "Lazy Legs" Kitty March)

5. 12 Angry Men (no villain, social commentary film)

6. Pickup on South Street (Joey/Communists)

7. Psycho (Norman Bates)

8. Out of the Past (Kathie Moffat)

9. Inherit the Wind (no villain, social commentary film)

10. The Body Snatcher (Cabman Gray)

 

Of those ten films, I'd say Max Cady is the only driving-force villain for me. He's center stage.

 

Hey, MikeBSG -- Still, I have to admit that no film can go too far wrong if it cast Dan Duryea or Robert Ryan as the bad guy.

 

Amen!

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As MikeBSG pointed out, the Good Guy/Bad Guy dichotomy may be of less importance in films noir generally. Or, to be less gender specific, the Good Person/Bad Person may be of lesser importance (mustn't forget our Stanwycks, Bennetts & Grahames). One of the attributes of film noir is the key role of Fate and, if Fate is in control (or the characters lack control), can a character be truly good or truly bad? Whether the performers can portray a sense of ambiguity is probably more important.

 

That said, Duryea, Mitchum and Ryan sure can play good Bad Guys.

 

And, as you force me to reflect further as I type (I hate it when that happens), I will stand (at least temporarily) on viewing the dichotomy as being of less importance. Perhaps, however, that is not because of a lack of Bad Persons; it is because of a lack of Good Persons. Some characters may be truly Bad (Marvin in *The Big Heat* or Widmark in Kiss of Death, anyone?), but none (or few) are truly Good. Add Fate and Alan Rhode's observation on characters who start out screwed -- and it goes downhill from there -- and you have film noir.

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Frank,

 

When Meryl Streep reprised Lansbury's role as Mother Of All Mothers, she repeated many of the same lines, had many of the same scenes - as while she's a harder-faced woman (sharper featured), her Mrs. Iselin never takes on the frightening character that Lansbury created. Maybe Lansbury's "dichotomy" of being rounder, softer-faced but this incredibly evil brain made her more startling for those reasons alone.

 

Your point about M is well taken, too. That's NOT a vicious monstrous character like Mitchum's many bad-guys were, but no less effective and no less memorable.

 

I have real problems watching Mitchum-As-Bad-Guy in both CAPE FEAR and NIGHT OF THE HUNTER because he's SO bad and SO convincing, I suspect. I just don't care to watch those films - but that's not a reflection on my rating of them. I find I don't re-watch them - whereas many other Mitchum films do get re-watching time, and they're usually Mitchum As Good Guy films.

 

Those 10 Film Villians is an interesting set - thanks for those.

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It's interesting that, looking at my Willingness To Rewatch A Film, I discover my Mitchum-As-Bad-Guy films get almost no re-watchings. Sterling Hayden and Robert Ryan as bad guys, however, get a lot of rewatchings. Sterling's films get a lot of rewatches, period - he's hardly ever the centerpoint in those, but is an effective character in those ensembles (from Suddenly to Asphalt to Dr. Strangelove to even "9 To 5" where his appearance always is a hilarious shocker.

 

Raymond Burr is another character that is SUCH a despicable (where's the Daffy emoticon when I need it?) character in his bad guy roles. Heck, his bleached-out wife-killer in REAR WINDOW is probably his nicest bad-guy performance of all!

 

I've never understood why the Calif Bar gave him a law license for the Perry Mason series after seeing him do all those terrible things to so many people!

 

Lee Marvin puts out a lot of vicious bad guy and hard-edged good guy roles, and I tend to view those films equally.

 

Duryea represents a level of Sinisterness that must be present because he's not the phyiscally imposing character. But oh so vicious. Lee Van Cleef does that, too, but he's SUCH a mean looking person to begin with. Duryea, Louis Jean Heydt (Joe Brody in Bogart's BIG SLEEP), Peter Lorre, Elisha Cook Jr - there are a lot of actors who were able to use sinister looks and sidelong glances to convey their villainy so successfully if or when the cameraman wanted to.

 

I don't know why Mitchum-As-Bad-Guy makes me unwilling to rewatch those films? Is he just too believable? Too frightening?

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Hey, ChiO the Mann -- As MikeBSG pointed out, the Good Guy/Bad Guy dichotomy may be of less importance in films noir generally. Or, to be less gender specific, the Good Person/Bad Person may be of lesser importance (mustn't forget our Stanwycks, Bennetts & Grahames). One of the attributes of film noir is the key role of Fate and, if Fate is in control (or the characters lack control), can a character be truly good or truly bad? Whether the performers can portray a sense of ambiguity is probably more important.

 

I totally agree with Mike and you. I was mentally going over my favorite noirs and many of them didn't have a bad guy that really drove the film for me. They Live by Night is one that quickly comes to mind for me. Films such as Pickup on South Street and Fallen Angel feature bad guys but they are not the driving forces in the those films for me. It's usually fate and circumstance that pull me in with noir.

 

Then there are films where the bad guy/girl is the major reason why I love the film, such as Detour and Decoy.

 

And, as you force me to reflect further as I type (I hate it when that happens), I will stand (at least temporarily) on viewing the dichotomy as being of less importance. Perhaps, however, that is not because of a lack of Bad Persons; it is because of a lack of Good Persons. Some characters may be truly Bad (Marvin in The Big Heat or Widmark in Kiss of Death, anyone?), but none (or few) are truly Good. Add Fate and Alan Rhode's observation on characters who start out screwed -- and it goes downhill from there -- and you have film noir.

 

I completely agree with this. I hate it when that happens. ;) The protagonist in many noirs is very grey and sometimes borderline black. Raw Deal, They Live by Night, The Asphalt Jungle, The Killing, and Pickup on South Street, to name only a handful, are noirs that are driven by grey/black characters.

 

Hi, Ollie -- When Meryl Streep reprised Lansbury's role as Mother Of All Mothers, she repeated many of the same lines, had many of the same scenes - as while she's a harder-faced woman (sharper featured), her Mrs. Iselin never takes on the frightening character that Lansbury created. Maybe Lansbury's "dichotomy" of being rounder, softer-faced but this incredibly evil brain made her more startling for those reasons alone.

 

I haven't seen the remake of The Manchurian Candidate, so I can't comment on Streep's performance, but I do agree with you about Lansbury's "Mrs. Iselin." Angela's evil is cold, quiet, and decisive and she delivers this through a quiet voice. She's in complete control. The face of evil should not look like Mrs. Iselin. It's why many can be fooled by those like her. Hitchcock is someone who loved the "presentable" villain. The charming Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) in Shadow of a Doubt is definitely one of my favorites.

 

Your point about M is well taken, too. That's NOT a vicious monstrous character like Mitchum's many bad-guys were, but no less effective and no less memorable.

 

Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) is not an in-your-face menace as Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) is. He must hide in the shadows. Cady is the exact opposite. He's not hiding, he's taunting Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck). He's fearless. Both are memorable, but I believe Cady is far more memorable because he's omnipresent.

 

I have real problems watching Mitchum-As-Bad-Guy in both CAPE FEAR and NIGHT OF THE HUNTER because he's SO bad and SO convincing, I suspect. I just don't care to watch those films - but that's not a reflection on my rating of them. I find I don't re-watch them - whereas many other Mitchum films do get re-watching time, and they're usually Mitchum As Good Guy films.

 

I'm also the same way. Psycho is my favorite Hitchcock film but I watch Rear Window and To Catch a Thief more. It's tough to watch horrifying characters over and over again.

 

It's interesting that, looking at my Willingness To Rewatch A Film, I discover my Mitchum-As-Bad-Guy films get almost no re-watchings. Sterling Hayden and Robert Ryan as bad guys, however, get a lot of rewatchings. Sterling's films get a lot of rewatches, period - he's hardly ever the centerpoint in those, but is an effective character in those ensembles (from Suddenly to Asphalt to Dr. Strangelove to even "9 To 5" where his appearance always is a hilarious shocker.

 

I think Robert Ryan's villains were more psychologically complex than Mitchum's and were far more vulnerable, which makes them, at times, sympathetic figures. Mitchum's "Max Cady" and "Reverend Harry Powell" are relentless psychopaths, which is what truly scares me about each. Ryan's best villains don't "scare" me, so I believe they are far more watchable.

 

Sterling Hayden's two famous "bad guy" roles, "Dix Handley" in The Asphalt Jungle and "Johnny Clay" in The Killing, show him as a guy looking for that one last big score that would allow him to live the life he wishes to live. Both characters elicit some feelings of sympathy and compassion from us, the audience. We NEVER feel this way about Max Cady and Harry Powell. They are to be feared and hated from start to finish.

 

Raymond Burr is another character that is SUCH a despicable (where's the Daffy emoticon when I need it?) character in his bad guy roles. Heck, his bleached-out wife-killer in REAR WINDOW is probably his nicest bad-guy performance of all!

 

I love Raymond Burr's brand of villainy. He certainly has screen presence.

 

I've never understood why the Calif Bar gave him a law license for the Perry Mason series after seeing him do all those terrible things to so many people!

 

:D America is the land of second, third, and hundred chances.

 

Lee Marvin puts out a lot of vicious bad guy and hard-edged good guy roles, and I tend to view those films equally.

 

I also love Lee Marvin's hateful villainy. He's a "teeth-clencher" to me. He's so damn determined. His deep voice really provides him with screen presence.

 

Duryea represents a level of Sinisterness that must be present because he's not the phyiscally imposing character. But oh so vicious.

 

Dan Duryea's villains are often "jokers" or "riddlers." He's the fair-haired, beady-eyed smiler who will shoot you in the back. He's on the cartoonish-side. Duryea is easily one of my favorites.

 

Lee Van Cleef does that, too, but he's SUCH a mean looking person to begin with.

 

Van Cleef's squinty, dark-eyed stare and deadly silence is what really makes you fear him. You just feel he's gonna flip the switch on you but you just don't know when.

 

Peter Lorre, Elisha Cook Jr - there are a lot of actors who were able to use sinister looks and sidelong glances to convey their villainy so successfully if or when the cameraman wanted to.

 

Peter Lorre is also a huge favorite of mine. He can also be on the cartoonish side at times because of his big eyes and nasally, accented voice.

 

I think I've only seen Elisha Cook Jr. in pushover roles. He's seemingly always getting stepped on and used by someone whenever I see him.

 

Frank, one quick note... thanks for the mentioning of ONCE UPON A TIME. I should start building a list of Western Noirs for use in debating those films' place in Noir-dom.

 

I consider Once Upon a Time in the West to be a western opera. It's my favorite western of all-time. Anyone who loves this film is all right in my book. ;)

 

Dewey and Arkadin are two board members who could probably name some western noirs. I think Monte Hellman's The Shooting is very noirish. It's a very underrated, low-budget western.

 

Raymond Burr in Raw Deal

 

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Dan Duryea in Scarlet Street

 

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Robert Mitchum in Cape Fear

 

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Lee Marvin and Lee Van Cleef in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

 

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Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate

 

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Elisha Cook Jr. in The Killing

 

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Sterling Hayden in The Killing

 

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Robert Ryan in Act of Violence

 

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Peter Lorre in M

 

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Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West

 

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Lee Marvin's bad guys always make me want to laugh (even when I'm scared) because he seems to enjoy, to relish being nasty so much! There's something a little sad or mournful about the others, they've lost their hearts or consciences, but Lee is delighted to be villainous, it gives him real pleasure to be bad. It's quite unique.

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Frank, this is another beautiful and long-string of screen-caps that is getting a wall-sized presentation. JUST INCREDIBLE. Everyone was oohing and ahhing with each one. And someone's produced a deck of Queen of Hearts - I can't tell if their name is Iselin Brand or James Bond! Oh wait... that would be a deck of something else!!

 

I echo your sentiments on watchability - sometimes, bad guys (like Mitchum's psychopaths) just don't make me need to see them again.

 

But something like THE RACKET, where Mitchum's the good guy and Ryan's the ultra vicious bad guy, all the while the most ruthless of the lot is the corrupt cop William Conrad. That's a film where the villainy just keeps going and going... and going...

 

I'm sorry that Ryan didn't make it to this day and age where he could have endured endless interviews and website forum invitations from Moira! He's had just a FEW perspectives to lend us.

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George C. Scott's comment about James Cagney relishing his bad guys makes me believe your take on Lee Marvin's enjoyment over his villainous roles, too. We all hear actors commenting about playing the bad character can be 'so much fun', and while that could be true, some actors do it so much better.

 

Peter Lorre worked at his villainy because, as noted, he can be almost cartoonish, physically. Charles Laughton suffers from so many physical limitations - ugly, ungainly, ungraceful - that I often dismiss him as a serious character in films until he imposes his will on the screen. And if he's a serious buffoon (like the great HOBSON'S CHOICE), he's so wonderful. Or if he's the serious student of people (as in WITNESS FOR THE P), he is a compelling screen presence. Or the loathsome Bligh. Good grief. As much as I like Trevor Howard, he just can't match Laughton's Bligh.

 

MUTINY's an interesting Good vs. Evil, just as several of THE KILLING and ASPHALT JUNGLE heist-caper films are - we don't really see 'good' guys - we see 'bad' and 'badder' guys. MUTINY shows us some perhaps good fellows who do a bad thing. We see a bad guy suffer for it but gets the chance to do even worse. It's not a film filled with sterling characters and heroic deeds, but a compelling story, just as FrankG's Elisha Cook Jr. "I love you, Sherry" photo from THE KILLING shows. (What a GREAT choice for a single capture, FG. Wow.)

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Hey, Ollie -- Frank, this is another beautiful and long-string of screen-caps that is getting a wall-sized presentation. JUST INCREDIBLE. Everyone was oohing and ahhing with each one.

 

Wow! I'm very flattered. And I also feel like this:

 

rearwindow2.jpg

 

And someone's produced a deck of Queen of Hearts - I can't tell if their name is Iselin Brand or James Bond! Oh wait... that would be a deck of something else!!

 

:D

 

manchuriancandidate3.jpg

 

 

But something like THE RACKET, where Mitchum's the good guy and Ryan's the ultra vicious bad guy, all the while the most ruthless of the lot is the corrupt cop William Conrad. That's a film where the villainy just keeps going and going... and going...

 

I'm sorry that Ryan didn't make it to this day and age where he could have endured endless interviews and website forum invitations from Moira! He's had just a FEW perspectives to lend us.

 

You are very correct. Ryan would find much love in today's classic film enthusiast world.

 

This is what I wrote about Robert Ryan in the "Winchester '73" forum:

 

No other actor really "turns me on" like Double R. I say this while acknowledging Jimmy and Cary as my two favorite actors... although something inside of me is telling me that Robert Ryan is truly my favorite actor of all time. It's probably because he often plays psychologically-complex villains and he does so with such nuanced care. He was a uniquely-gifted actor who could speak to you and touch you without ever saying a single word, ala Gary Cooper. He was also a gentle, loving family man away from the big screen, which makes his on-screen performances to me all the more impressive.

 

Charles Laughton suffers from so many physical limitations - ugly, ungainly, ungraceful - that I often dismiss him as a serious character in films until he imposes his will on the screen. And if he's a serious buffoon (like the great HOBSON'S CHOICE), he's so wonderful. Or if he's the serious student of people (as in WITNESS FOR THE P), he is a compelling screen presence. Or the loathsome Bligh. Good grief. As much as I like Trevor Howard, he just can't match Laughton's Bligh.

 

The Laughton villains that I enjoy used words and intellect as weapons. He played powerful, "immovable" objects rather well.

 

Robert Ryan in The Racket

 

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William Conrad in The Racket

 

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Charles Laughton in The Big Clock

 

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Charles Laughton in Jamaica Inn

 

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Charles Laughton in Advise & Consent

 

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Peter Lorre in Mad Love

 

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Robert Mitchum in Cape Fear

 

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