Heroes are OK but when it comes to memorability, villains tend to piss all over ’em. This glaring divergence has long plagued creators and can be traced back at least as far as Shakespeare. Take The Merchant of Venice. Shylock’s vengeful demand for a pound of flesh ensures his status as an all-time bad guy, but as soon as he’s defeated and drops out (leaving the entire fifth act to the good guys) everything lapses into boredom.
The problem’s no different hundreds of years later in moviedom. Just have a gander at the American Film Institute’s list of 100 Heroes and Villains. Atticus Finch, Virgil Tibbs, Rooster Cogburn and Erin fucking Brockovich are no match for bad-asses like Hannibal Lecter, Darth Vader, Nurse Ratched, Michael Corleone, Gordon Gekko, Travis Bickle and the Terminator. I mean, who would you rather watch? Lassie running across a sun-dappled field or that great white munching machine in Jaws?
In short, movie villains are cool. The nastier, the better.
Grand Moth Tarkin puts on a show in Star Wars (1977)
The not very nice Amon Goth in Schindler’s List did his best to help wipe out an entire race, but you have to say his attempt at genocide looks a bit half-arsed next to Tarkin’s showboating.
For this guy destroys planets.
There’s an awful lot to enjoy about the original Star Wars and one of its pleasures is Peter Cushing’s formidable performance as the gaunt Death Star commander. He’s mean, really, really mean, a handy characteristic when you need to get pertinent info out of an uncooperative prisoner like Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher). She’s one overconfident lady, which is a bit of a surprise considering she’s a handcuffed prisoner facing imminent execution.
“I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board,” she tells Tarkin, as if holding all the cards.
Her brash demeanor quickly changes, though, when her interrogator says he’ll destroy her home planet of Alderaan unless she reveals where the rebels are hiding.
“Alderaan is peaceful!” she protests. “We have no weapons!”
“You would prefer another target? A military target? Then name the system.” Tarkin steps forward, towering over her. “I grow tired of asking this. Where is the rebel base?”
When Leia finally coughs up a name, he smugly orders the operation to continue anyway, leaving her to watch in horror as the battle station’s super laser fires up and unleashes its awesome destruction.
“You’re far too trusting,” he tells her, almost jovially.
The Vietnamese ‘ref’ in The Deer Hunter (1978)
Whenever my Asian vicar comes round for tea, I tend to repeatedly shout ‘Mao!’ in his face. I don’t think he understands why, but it’s clear he’s far too polite to object. Plus, he knows I usually tire of the verbal assault after about three minutes. Perhaps one day I’ll explain it’s the shoot command the VC dude keeps yelling at The Deer Hunter’s cowed, unwilling Russian roulette participants. Then again, tormenting men of the cloth is one of the few things I enjoy in life so I’ll probably carry on for a while yet.
This legendarily tense and memorable sequence has to be one of the greatest episodes in 70s cinema, although back in the day director Michael Cimino had to fend off accusations of racism. Apparently, it’s fine to depict white Americans behaving badly but not the VC. Now the Vietnamese were greatly wronged in that appalling conflict, but I imagine one or two of them were a bit naughty when it came to the treatment of American POWs, even if they never forced them to play games with loaded weapons for money. Perhaps such oversensitive critics would’ve preferred Cimino portraying things so the native guy had an earnest discussion with De Niro about the American government’s wrongheadedness and the benefits of communism before they all shook hands and went their merry way. Or maybe they could’ve played Monopoly with the odd snide remark about capitalist aggression. Coz that would’ve made a more exciting flick, eh? It always amazes me how some moviegoers insist on total accuracy, seemingly unaware such demands would make films either grind to a halt or head straight into blandness.
Fuck accuracy, just give me plausibility.
Anyhow, our main bad guy (Somsak Sengvilai) is only onscreen for a few minutes but he sure as shit seizes his chance to make an impression. He really is a vicious-looking bastard. He sits between the contestants, inserts bullets into the gun, spins it on the table to see who goes first, doles out encouraging slaps and, of course, barks ‘Mao!’ He does not smile, laugh or congratulate the temporary ‘winners’. In other words, he’s all business.
Cimino directs remarkably well, initially showing us a riverside hut on stilts with shell-shocked prisoners in a barbed wire enclosure beneath. It’s clear this is a place of rats, monsoon rain, floating corpses and very little hope. We don’t know what’s going on at first, but it involves captives being hauled up through a trapdoor, lots of slaps and shouting, and the occasional burst of gunfire. Stevie (John Savage) is already near breaking point with the sound of every gunshot and empty click of the chamber threatening to induce a heart attack. Mike (De Niro) is coiled and waiting for his chance, but still doing his best to console Stevie while Nick (Christopher Walken), as usual, looks plain unhinged. Then Mike peeps up through the floorboards and we see a detainee holding a pistol against his temple. He pulls the trigger; the gun goes off and blood spurts out horizontally. Once he hits the floor a foot is jammed against the cranial hole to slow the flow.
Then it’s Mike versus Stevie, who’s barely got the strength to lift the pistol. This guy needs some serious R&R. His half-hearted participation results in him getting chucked into a four-fifths-submerged bamboo cage, no doubt with whatever the Vietnamese word for wimp is ringing in his ears. Even a passing rat doesn’t hesitate to show its contempt for his yellow streak by immediately latching onto his nose.
Next, it’s Mike versus Nick. Mike wants three bullets in the gun, which leads our VC villain to stare at him. We’re caught between the amazing intensity in Mike’s eyes and the sweat-beaded, suspicious face of our ‘referee’ as he chews over the proposal. Honestly, this is electric moviemaking. He eventually goes for it, leading Mike to declare: “Now we have got ourselves a game.”
And a riveting piece of fucked-up cinema, too.
The foot-whipping prison chief in Midnight Express (1978)
Do you know what falanga is? Well, I had no clue such a grim practice even existed until I watched this prison classic. Turns out falanga (aka bastinado) is an established form of corporal punishment, especially in prisons, that involves whacking the soles of the feet with a big ol’ stick.
Our main proponent is the chief guard Hamidou (the six-foot-four Paul L. Smith). He’s a man with a give and take sort of personality in that he’ll give you a hernia and take a testicle. This is a pitiless, hulking brute who likes to wander around the prison’s dingy corridors with a club in hand. His sadistic authority is beyond question. A flick of the head is all that’s required to get minions to obey. Oddly he never seems to enjoy the abuse, although you suspect it’s appeasing some deep-seated need.
We first get to see him in action when the newly convicted drug smuggler Billy Hayes (Brad Davis) steals a blanket to try to keep warm. Hamidou backhands him to the floor and loosens him up with his trusty club. Next Billy’s naked on his back as his roped ankles are hoisted into the air to expose those lovely, oh so tender soles. Hamidou really thwacks his feet, only pausing to flick the sweat off his brow as the screaming Billy spins in agony.
Good grief, undergoing this falanga lark doesn’t look like any fun at all.
At least Billy’s dad has shown up in Turkey to offer support, but Hamidou doesn’t seem too bothered when the father bawls at him: “You take good care of my boy, y’hear? Or I’ll have your fucking head, you Turkish bastard!” Hamidou merely grimaces and slams a door shut, obviously secure in the knowledge that he’s king of the castle.
His best moment arrives when he has to publicly discipline four alleged rapists, which is a bit of a joke as he’s a rapist himself. The other guards put the offenders on their backs, slip off their shoes and arrange their upturned feet on a bench. For some reason Hamidou arrives smartly dressed hand-in-hand with his two fat children. Why he’s in a three-piece suit and brought along the kids is never explained, giving the hushed courtyard scene a slightly surreal slant. He takes off his jacket and hat and duly administers the agonizing beating while his kids squirm. You can just tell they have the most fabulous home life.
Christ, has anyone ever deserved a spike through the back of the head more?