Showing posts with label Once Upon A Time in the West. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Once Upon A Time in the West. Show all posts

20 December 2018

And Be A Villain


by Eve Fisher

When it comes to mysteries, my favorites are really those where I love the detective, from Miss Marple to Maigret to Inspector Brunetti to the collective of New Tricks.  But the villains matter, too.

And my favorite villain of all time is Count Fosco in Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White: Fat, witty, with the head of Napoleon and a taste for sugar-water and cigarettes, he can tame anything:
"Mind that dog, sir," said the groom; "he flies at everybody!" "He does that, my friend," replied the Count quietly, "because everybody is afraid of him. Let us see if he flies at me." And he laid his plump, yellow-white fingers... upon the formidable brute's head, and looked him straight in the eyes. "You big dogs are all cowards," he said, addressing the animal contemptuously, with his face and the dog's within an inch of each other. "You would kill a poor cat, you infernal coward. You would fly at a starving beggar, you infernal coward. Anything that you can surprise unawares—anything that is afraid of your big body, and your wicked white teeth, and your slobbering, bloodthirsty mouth, is the thing you like to fly at. You could throttle me at this moment, you mean, miserable bully, and you daren't so much as look me in the face, because I'm not afraid of you. Will you think better of it, and try your teeth in my fat neck? Bah! not you!" He turned away, laughing at the astonishment of the men in the yard, and the dog crept back meekly to his kennel.
His conversation is brilliant, deviant, erudite, misleading, and his decisions are never the expected ones. This is not the serial killer, the mastermind, the thug, the common criminal, or anything else you have ever heard of. Count Fosco is unique.

But that's not what I want to talk about. Not this time. I want to talk about surprising villains, surprising because of brilliance, because of sheer surprise, because of who they are.

!!!!WARNING - MAJOR SPOILER ALERTS AHEAD!!!!

And I'll start off with the one that stunned me the most - one of the few who took me totally by surprise - is Angela Lansbury in the original The Manchurian Candidate. Brilliant portrayal, and I didn't know that she'd played villains before. When I saw it for the first time, I hadn't yet seen Gaslight on TCM, and she wasn't yet Jessica Fletcher, but she'd done Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and played the heroine of The Lady Vanishes, so I assumed she was always pretty nice. Boy, was I wrong. She was just always pretty great.



Sheer brilliance is one thing. Another is... Well, have you ever watched the Thin Man series with William Powell and Myrna Loy? The first is a classic, but the chief virtue of the rest is the chemistry and playfulness between Powell and Loy. But After the Thin Man has the most unexpected villain in movie history, simply because

- SPOILER ALERT!!!! -

it's played by Jimmy Stewart. Yes. America's male sweetheart was a murderer. To be honest, he really didn't know how to play it. He was only 26, and I figure they were experimenting, and the script wasn't that good. And granted, back in 1936, people wouldn't have been surprised to see Jimmy Stewart as the killer, because he hadn't had decades to solidify his stardom as the good guy. But watch it now, and... wow!

And the director of After the Thin Man was no Alfred Hitchcock, who did indeed know how to use Jimmy Stewart's wholesome reputation, drawl, and All-American good looks to up the ante of playing men who aren't above a little voyeurism or stalking (Rear Window), or downright obsession, possession, kidnapping and assault (Vertigo). And still remain a hero. But then I've always felt that Alfred Hitchcock was trying to live through Stewart in both roles.

"Vertigo" James Stewart 1958 Paramount  "Vertigo," James Stewart and Kim Novak. 1958 Paramount  "Vertigo" James Stewart, Alfred Hitchcock, Kim Novak 1958 Paramount
(All photos from IMDB)

I think it always catches you by surprise when an actor who's always played the hero suddenly turns into a villain.  I'll never forget seeing Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West, chowing down on Claudia Cardinale with gusto, while discussing how much he'll regret killing her.  And you could tell by the gleam in his eyes that he was having fun. The story is that Sergio Leone convinced Fonda to play stone cold killer Frank by telling him: "Picture this: the camera shows a gunman from the waist down pulling his gun and shooting a running child. The camera tilts up to the gunman's face and...it's Henry Fonda."

Henry Fonda in C'era una volta il West (1968)
Henry Fonda in "Once Upon a Time in the West" - photo on IMDB
It works.

I think a lot of actors who have always been stuck playing good guys really enjoy a chance to be a villain.  Charlton Heston certainly had the time of his life playing Cardinal Richelieu in The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers (1973).  "One of my best parts" he said in this interview on YouTube:



Charlton Heston and Faye Dunaway in The Four Musketeers (1974)
With Faye Dunaway, playing Milady - IMDB
BTW, doing some research, I found a blog post by a man named Graham Daseler in which he said, "Charlton Heston was not a protean performer, like Marlon Brando or Paul Newman, playing someone new in every film: to see one Heston performance is, more or less, to see them all. He didn’t play romance especially well. Humour seemed to be completely beyond him (a deficit that, oddly enough, made him perfect for the role of Cardinal Richelieu in Richard Lester’s campy adaptation of The Three Musketeers)."  (read the whole HERE)  I tend to agree.  He always played everything straight, and in the two Musketeer movies, he had some of the best lines:
"I love you, my son. Even when you fail."
"I have no enemies.  France has enemies."  (Mr. Heston's own contribution to the script, from historical records.)
D'Artagnan: "By my order and for the good of the state, the bearer has done what has been done."
Richelieu: "Hm. One should be careful what one writes... and to whom one gives it. I must bear those rules in mind."

That last one - well, there's words of wisdom for us all, right?

holly-berries
And, as an early Christmas stocking stuffer, The Two Ronnies Christmas Special 1987 Full!  With special guest star, Charlton Heston (around 35:00):















18 June 2015

Having Fun Being Bad


by Eve Fisher

Frank Underwood - House of Cards.jpgI have, like so many people, been watching House of Cards via Netflix DVDs.  The first season was hypnotic.  The second season not so much.  I may not watch the third season.  Why? It's real simple: Nobody seems to be having any fun. Not the President, not his wife, not the staff, not the Secret Service guys, and especially not Francis and Clare Underwood.  I mean, what's the point of pursuing power by any means, if you're not going to have a good time screwing everyone over?  Even the sex romps are grim. More on that later.

Think about prime-time TV these days.  Who's enjoying the game on Game of Thrones?  Did Walter White ever kick back and watch trash TV on Breaking Bad?  I experienced the world of Mad Men, and the people I remember had a lot more fun drinking and screwing than Draper and pals ever did. Do The Americans ever just go fishing? Wayward Pines is so dark you can't see the road, much less the actors.  Every plot is convoluted, everybody is up to their necks in conspiracies, everyone is always plotting their next move, and everyone is soooo serious...

But that isn't the way the real world works.  People go fishing.  They relax.  They get hooked on Candy Crush or Triple Town.  They binge-watch anything they can.  Joseph Stalin liked cowboy movies, Charlie Chaplin, Georgian wine, and billiards.  The man knew how to relax.  So did others: Mao Zedong was a master calligrapher and a fairly decent poet. He also really enjoyed women. Hitler loved listening to Putzi Hanfstaengl play piano, and apparently had a fondness for dogs.  Osama bin Laden wrote love letters in between calls for jihad. Napoleon loved Josephine and cheating at cards. In other words, in the real world, even totalitarian monsters take a break once in a while and have a good time.

Meanwhile, Francis Underwood even gave up ribs.  (And considering how solemn everyone was before and after, that three-way didn't do much to loosen anyone up.)

Nathaniel Parker as Harold Skimpole
in the 2005 BBC production of
"Bleak House"
I miss the villains of yesteryear.  Count Fosco, hugely fat, delighting in pastry, the endless cigarettes his wife hand rolls for him, great glasses of sugar water, and playing with his tiny little mice while he works [successfully] to have Lady Glyde declared dead after he imprisons her in a madhouse.  And all despite his deep admiration, love, passion, for her sister, Marian Halcombe. Now there's a villain who is not only ruthless - read The Woman in White and see - but knows how to have fun while doing it.  Or there's Harold Skimpole, the middle-aged "child" who cannot understand why people are so cruel and harsh as to not supply him with his daily needs, gratis, so that he can live like the charming butterfly he is, while betraying everyone in Bleak House in the worst possible way.  (He is the reason that the child street-sweeper Jo dies.)  You want to kill him, but he's certainly having a great time.  Of course, Dickens really knew how to write hand-rubbing, chuckling, glint-in-the-eye villains:  Ebenezer Scrooge, the Marquis St. Evremonde, Fagin, and that ultimate hypocrite, Josiah Bounderby.

Or, on screen:
  • Henry Fonda's Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West,
  • Basil Rathbone's Andre Trochard in We're No Angels
  • Lionel Barrymore's Harry F. Potter in It's A Wonderful Life
  • Peter Ustinov's Nero in Quo Vadis, and, of course, 
  • Charlton Heston's Richelieu in The Three Musketeers/The Four Musketeers.
  • The late, great Christopher Lee in The Man With the Golden Gun.

Now granted, there was a lot of over-acting in these - Henry Fonda and Charlton Heston were obviously having the time of their lives as they FINALLY got to play the villain!  But I think there's a lot of over-underacting today.  It's the latest style:  very self-controlled, laser-serious, apparently clinically depressed villains who don't take pleasure in anything, even power once they get it (if they ever do). But if you go back a few decades, and you find villains who smirked, sneered, sauntered, and basically acted like Bette Davis in The Little Foxes.

Francis Urquhart.jpg
Or you can always go back to the original:  Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart in the original, UK House of Cards, who was ruthless, deadly, witty, with a smile like a silver-haired Puck.  "You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment."  Watching Richardson's Francis, I always felt that, while he'd definitely sold his soul to the devil, he got full price for it. (And it was a hell of a lot more than one shared cigarette a night...)  And he enjoyed everything he got.

Still available on Netflix, here's a preview of Francis Urquhart's best monologues to whet your appetite:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zRNNhcQutTQ