Friday, 28 October 2011

100 Greatest Fictional Villains: Harry Lime

Appears in: The Third Man (1949)
Setting: Post-war Vienna, Austria.
Villain type: Amoral businessman, hardened criminal.

Harry Lime’s claim to fame is his charisma. Lime is remembered as a dashing villain, whose popularity outlasted and outgrew his relatively brief screen-time in celebrated classic The Third Man. Even if memory of the actual plot is a little hazy, the average cinephile can probably at least paraphrase That One Quote about Borgias and cuckoo clocks, which has seared itself into popular culture. Orson Welles put his star power to good use in stealing the film away from the actual protagonist, Joseph Cotton, making Harry Lime a sly, knowing rogue, with a perpetual twinkle in his smiling eyes.

Yet Harry Lime is a monster. For all his patter about Michelangelo and the Renaissance, his idea of artistic flourish was selling dodgy, stolen penicillin to the desperate, in order to make some fast cash at the expense of the lives of children. Everyone remembers him talking up his devil’s bargain to Holly on the Ferris Wheel; less people remember the pivotal scene where British officer Major Calloway (representing the unrelenting forces of Law and Order), shows Holly the children wasting away because Mr. Lime thought getting rich and filling up his monthly smugness quota was more important than the children of war-ravaged Austria getting proper medicine. This is the moment that Holly makes the painful yet morally-correct decision to set aside the bonds of friendship in favour of justice, and help set Lime up to be caught or killed.

The sneaking desire to see him escape in that climactic sewer confrontation, to see such a watchable character melt back into the sheltering gloom like some trickster-god bent on endless mischief, is a perverse desire. It’s a testament to Welles that he was able to put such a deceptive gloss on such a hollow character, whose amiable disposition and slick justifications ultimately fail to conceal the pettiness of his ambitions or his total ruthlessness.

The cuckoo clock was invented in Germany anyway. Not such a killer argument after all…

Friday, 14 October 2011

100 Greatest Fictional Villains: John Doe

Appears in: Se7en (1995)
Setting: The City of Destruction, 1990s.
Villain type: Religious fanatic and depraved killer, diabolical schemer.

From one of the most memorably-executed villain defeats ever, to one of the most memorably-executed villain victories ever. The effectiveness of John Doe lies in how sparingly he is used; the detective protagonists spend most of the film tailing in his wake, only ever seeing the aftermath of his horrific crimes, until he makes a mockery of their detective work by simply turning himself in (Kevin Spacey kept his name out of the opening credits, to increase the impact of the reveal). He oversees religiously-themed atrocities, forcing his victims (selected for supposedly embodying various unpleasant vices) to do terrible things to themselves at gunpoint, usually involving extreme mutilation. The film classily leaves the most grisly details of these set-pieces to the viewer’s imagination, but this only adds to the demoniacal creepiness of the investigation.

John Doe is a faceless terror for the bulk of the film’s running time, a shadow flitting around a sprawling metropolis leached of virtue, where civic pride, community spirit and everyday decency have withered away and left only pettiness, apathy, and passionless, selfish hungers behind. Spectacular disgust at the banality of this bleak place prompted an unassuming man with a blank past (and oozing meat where his fingerprints should be) to begin a meticulously-planned mission to shake things up. His evil acts are jet-black exclamation marks of satanic violence, slashed across the grey back-drop of the city’s everyday wickedness.
Spacey plays John Doe as smugly confident and strangely collected; the eye of the legal storm that swirls around him. Watch his measured movements in the police station while everyone else explodes in fear and rage. Focus on the faint smile and the steady gaze, and forget the blood soaking into his bland shirt, and the deformed fingertips. And the endless diaries full of hatred for the human race. And the torn-up bodies, swollen and shrivelled with calculated sadism.

Yes, the crimes are wildly over the top. Yet part of the reason why the film’s violence works, while being played utterly straight, is Spacey’s performance. Both the dialogue and his physical mannerisms emphasise that John Doe isn’t some pantomime Lucifer, but a cipher, deliberately self-effacing, obviously hiding massive reserves of sadism behind a composed mask and a sing-song voice, only creeping out for a moment as his voice quivers with misery and rage at the wretched state of the world; the existential horror his acts of physical horror were intended to highlight. Earlier in the film, Morgan Freeman’s character comments how the killer being revealed as anyone less than Satan would be an anticlimax. The John Doe character cleverly evades this problem by being anti-climactic by design, flipping the depressing real-life phenomenon of the infamous, narcissistic killer and the forgotten victims. He is an enigma, who lets the gory tableau of his victims do most of the speaking for him. Which was his demented point, all along.

100 Greatest Fictional Villains: Warden Norton

Appears in: The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Setting: New England, 1940s-1960s
Villain Type: Greedy, abusive, corrupt authority figure.

Obviously, the smirking, sanctimonious, viciously genteel Warden Norton (character actor Bob Gunton’s best role) is not the main antagonist of The Shawshank Redemption. That honour goes to the grim presence of Shawshank itself; vast and stern and pointlessly, pitilessly cruel towards the wretches caught up, rightly or wrongly, in its grip. Norton is more that unhappy institution’s human sidekick, a figure of towering hypocrisy whose fa├žade of righteousness and discipline is a mask for the most banal of motives. He doesn’t care about an orderly prison beyond the minimum needed for convenience (indifferent towards the sadism of guards and inmates alike) and he certainly doesn’t care about instilling moral values. For Norton, Shawshank is a means to an end; that end being nothing more than a corrupt buck. There are few things more simultaneously despicable and pathetic than a man prepared to lie, threaten and kill for the sake of getting rich, but a man prepared to lie, threaten and kill for the sake of getting rich who ALSO engages in totally insincere religious posturing has got to be one of them.

In retrospect, Norton was actually the perfect foil for good old Andy Dufresne. While Andy is a degraded convict in spite of his innocence, the Warden is a thriving pillar of the establishment, despite his guilt. Where Andy has to survive by his wits with scarce resources, the Warden has the full backing of the state, and addresses his problems with brutal directness (the cause of his richly-deserved downfall, as he overestimates his ability to simply break anyone in his path). Whereas Andy has a yearning for freedom that leads him to a transcendent redemption, Norton is quite comfortable to stay ensconced in his prison office and hoard his fraudulent gains. The chilly glare and severe glasses don’t make him some kind of evil mastermind; his effectiveness as a villain stems from the prosaic nature of his plan. He’s a figure of worldly, everyday evil, and that look of dull shock on his face when he realises Andy has vanished into the howling night, where someone like him can never follow, makes the film’s climax all the sweeter.

One of the many, many things to like about the Shawshank Redemption is that it pulls off one of the most perfect movie revenges ever. It makes the total defeat of the bad guy seem satisfying and earned; Andy completely DESTROYS the Warden, and he does it without ever doing anything as dull-witted as sinking a fist into him or ridiculing him. He just takes his licks in solitary, absorbs the fact that the Warden has had a young man killed (thereby scotching any chance of proving Andy’s innocence, in order to keep him in prison doing the Warden’s crooked finances), and calmly, confidently sets about arranging the means to blow open Norton’s massive fraud, setting up his own escape at the same time. That put paid to the obtuse son of a bitch.