KISS OF DEATH (1947)
Richard Widmark arguably had one of the most astounding screen debuts in film history with his turn as vile gangster Tommy Udo in Henry Hathaway’s quintessential film noir. Much has been read into this performance, including Richard Dyer’s assessment of Udo as a repressed homosexual, and Widmark’s very first screen role remains his most canonical more than sixty years later.
Victor Mature stars as Nick Bianco, a former gangster who has done his time and is now on the straight path, but Bianco’s former colleague Tommy Udo forces himself back into Bianco’s life to enact revenge. This plot, however, is merely a rouse for a cat-and-mouse chase involving one of the most disquieting antagonists of the Production Code era.
It is doubtful that a character like Udo would need little more than a generic revenge scenario in order to enact psychological and physical torment onto Bianco and his loved ones. Like Ledger’s Joker, Udo is an ambiguous force of nature with no need for petty human qualities like emotion or sympathy. He simply hurts others for his own pleasure. And unlike many gangsters from this era, he has no code of ethics that prevents him from hurting the most vulnerable of innocents.
How this squeaked by the standards and practices of the Production Code in postwar Hollywood is beyond me. But the effectiveness of Widmark’s fear-inducing performance comes largely from its unique quirks, like his childish laughter, which renders Udo not an ordinary villain, but a bona fide homicidal maniac.
MARATHON MAN (1976)
Laurence Olivier’s disturbing turn as Nazi dentist Dr. Christian Szell in John Schlesinger’s paranoid thriller still has the ability to shock audiences that know Olivier better for reciting Shakespearean monologues rather than forcefully drilling through Dustin Hoffman’s teeth. Aspects of the film have not aged gracefully (Michael Small’s score, William Devane’s performance), but Szell remains as ruthless and terrifying as ever. When he kills a Holocaust survivor on a busy New York street in broad daylight, it becomes abundantly clear that unrepentant evil still has a profound presence no matter how many wars are fought to squelch it.
The famous “is it safe” scene where Szell uses his unique interrogation technique on helpless grad student Dustin Hoffman will make you never want to set foot in a dentist’s office again. The scariest thing about this scene, however, is that Hoffman’s character clearly has no information to give, but Szell proceeds nonetheless. Unlike Udo and the Joker, Szell has a distinct motivation for his actions (he desperately wants to find “it”), yet Szell takes an unmistakable (but stoic…like, Nazi stoic) pride and pleasure in the process.
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NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007)
I doubt I have to catch anybody up on the plot or context of Javier Bardem’s quietly intimidating performance in the Coen brothers’ thematically heavy thriller, but it’s worth mentioning that recently the Internets have been somewhat abuzz with thematic comparisons between this film and The Dark Knight, with a friend of mine going so far as to quip Christopher Nolan’s film with the alternative title, No Country for (Old) Batman.
Indeed, both the Joker and Anton Chigurh roam their respective filmic landscapes as unstoppable evil forces (rather than human beings) representative of the evil that inevitably pervades no matter (or, in Batman’s case, because of) the efforts of the good forces at work attempting to curb it. By the end of No Country, Sherriff Bell has realized that the evil embodied by Chigurh is hardly any different than the evil that haunted the world before him or will haunt the world for years to come. Just as Bell exists, evil must exist as well.
Likewise, the Joker exists naturally because of moralistic figures like Batman and Harvey Dent. Batman is only able to apprehend the Joker (it can hardly be called a defeat) by compromising his own standards, while the idealist Harvey Dent inevitably becomes a ruthless vigilante once his weaknesses have been exploited (screenwriter Jonathan Nolan said that Dent suffers because he was “too virtuous,” and I found some of Dent's resulting actions more disturbing than the Joker’s). While the Joker may be a vile proponent of anarchy, he sees himself as far less hypocritical than his moral avengers, because he at least has no morals to compromise in order to achieve his goals (and his own twisted ethic makes surprising, frightening sense).
As the Joker evasively explicated his behavior through reciting stories of his past that both overlap and contradict, it reminded me of Peter and Paul rambling off their ludicrous and clichéd motivations for their actions in the Funny Games remake. Both seemed to me an attack on simplistic causal motivations for evil characters in Hollywood, each film arguing that such manifestations of evil need no explanation—they simply exist.
While both the Joker and Chigurh benefit from their ambiguities of both origin and motivation, that the Joker explicates his anarchist philosophy so clearly makes him a far more specific, embodied character than Chigurh, but the parallels between all types of pure evil represented in Hollywood movies continue to make fascinating comparisons.
Photo art courtesy of Jack Price