Monday, May 14, 2007

Top 10 Noir Villains

Rules: Can not be the protagonist or a femme fatale.

Unfortunately for purists, my villain picks are a little eccentric. No stereotypical crime lords, casino kingpins or malicious gangsters here. However, evil comes in many forms and perhaps the reason my picks are so odd is because it’s the unexpected threats that scare me most.

1) Harry Powell played by Robert Mitchum in “Night of the Hunter” (1955)
Mitchum brings to life the creepiest creep to ever crawl (far exceeding his over-rated portrayal of Max Cady in “Cape Fear” (1962)) as a serial killing preacher. He knows that two country children have hidden a large sum of their father’s stolen money, and he slowly insinuates himself into the family to get at the cash. His frightful malice is only amplified when he tries to sing hymns, play with the children and dote on their mother. The gothic sets, noir lighting and moral extremes render him as a superhuman evil.

2) John Doe played by Kevin Spacey in “Se7en” (1995)
One of the most chilling and fiendish serial killers ever imagined is David Fincher’s “John Doe,” played by Kevin Spacey. Each of his murders takes its theme from one of the seven deadly sins and as the detectives close in on the killer, it begins to feel like system may play out to its conclusion regardless of his capture. Spacey’s deadpan precision is a brief though excellent performance, but he will always be remembered more for his deeds: hundreds of scrawled journals, seven (?) gruesome murders and one heck of a hellish plot.

3) Chief Hank Quinlan played by Orson Welles in “Touch of Evil” (1958)
Orson Welles turns his obesity to his advantage as the Texan border police chief whose corrupt practices have kept him on the top for longer than anyone would care to admit. Swaggering, mumbling and raging to get his way, Quinlan is the archetypical example of corrupted power and irresponsible manipulation. His role as a villainous police chief was not the first, but perhaps the most memorable of the popular conceit.

4) “The Long Good Friday” (1980)
When London crime boss Harold Shand loses one of his key men, he becomes outraged, but when bombs start going off throughout his underworld empire, he knows that something seriously wrong is going on. Who would dare challenge England’s top gangster and how could they do it so successfully? While British viewers may figure out the twist long before their American counterparts, the answer is a still a stirring and paranoid revelation. What makes it a great villain, however, is not the twist itself, but its frustrating tenacity and illusiveness, not to mention the reactions painted perfectly on Shand’s livid face.

5) Mrs. Iselin played by Angela Lansbury in “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962).
In a surprising performance from Lansbury, the whole idea of communist paranoia gets turned on its head. Few noir villains take advantage of things like Oedipal Complexes and hypnotism, but the “Manchurian Candidate” boldly and weirdly broke all boundaries for bizarre onscreen villains. A must see.

6) Agent Smith/The Matrix AI played by Hugo Weaving (and others) in “The Matrix” (1999).
The sentient technology that controls the Matrix, a virtual simulation of the real world used to occupy the minds of humans while robots harvest their bodies for energy, is one of the coolest concepts for a supervillain. Agent Smith beats out the computer Alpha 60 from “Alphaville” (1965) and the replicant Roy Batty (played brilliantly by Rutger Hauer) from “Blade Runner” (1982) as the best tech noir villain. The reason is a combination of his scene-chewing performance, overpowered combat abilities and complete abhorrence of humanity.

7) Earl Janoth played by Charles Laughton in “The Big Clock” (1948)
Although J. J. Hunsecker of “The Sweet Smell of Success” (1957) is probably the better known media kingpin villain, I prefer Charles Laughton’s Earl Janoth. Laughton nails everything from gestures to twitches, from his monotone drawl to his dastardly maneuvers. The sickening self-satisfaction and offhand evil are a great combination for a “love to hate them” villain.

8) No. 1 Killer played by Koji Nanbara in “Branded to Kill” (1967)
In Seijun Suzuki’s insane story of ranked assassins, the mysterious “No. 1 Killer” is the ultimate force to be reckoned with. So invisible that most people consider him a legend, yet when the protagonist, No. 3 Killer, realizes that he’s being hunted, who else could it be? A brilliant, off-kilter series of sniper battles and mind games ensue.

9) “The Naked Kiss” (1964)
Samuel Fuller’s tale of a prostitute trying to make a new life for herself is a film that works its magic by not letting on that a villain is even involved. I won’t spoil what happens, but let’s just say that the disturbing twist would be echoed in many later “shocking” thrillers, but never in such an effectively concise and creepy manner. Fuller’s imagery and atmosphere are always in opposition, leaving the viewer ever aware of the dark malice hanging over the sunlit idyllic suburb.

10) “Angel Heart” (1987)
While I can’t specifically name the killer for “Angel Heart” without spoiling some of the story, I can safely say he is just about the most evil character you can think of. This New Orleans noir film broods with a sense of supernatural evil, and it all gets fully unleashed in good time.


Patti said...

I like that you had to own up to the fact that you can't actually name all the villians without spoiling plots. Just kind of funny, or a difficult part of making such a list, but nonetheless I applaud.

Molly said...

Very interesting and creative list.

If I had to give you a malicious gangster, I would choose Mr. Brown (Richard Conte) in "The Big Combo."

My evil genius award goes to Jose Ferrer as David Korvo in "Whirlpool," for his line about bing more clever than his adversaries can possibly imagine.

FilmWalrus said...

Exactly Why,

Ha ha, I've very pleased with your picks. Mr. Brown was indeed my top pick for a malicious gangster although even he is far from a conventional depiction. It helps that he has two malicious and strange henchmen, too.

David Korvo was actually #11 on the list. I had a hard time with the villain list and he got eliminated right near the cutoff. Katie preferred to have No. 1 Assassin removed, but I couldn't part with him. Korvo scores lots of points in my book for being a criminal mastermind, a psychiatrist and a hypnotist all in one.

As I recall, "Whirlpool" and "Phantom Lady" were two of your picks during Splice. I enjoyed both quite a bit, especially the ways they defy some noir conventions. I think I'll write up a review of "Nocturne" for you sometime because it also qualifies as a highly unconventional classic era noir: 10 suspects all named Delores!

Feel free to write your own top tens for these categories or any other. You can post them into the comments or if you write up paragraph explanations, I'll put the whole thing in its own post.

Molly said...

ooooh . . . tempting.

Perhaps there should be a noir henchmen category for Fante and Mingo (Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman) from The Big Combo . . . They are indeed some of the best things about Mr. Brown's villainy.