During a conversation yesterday at my favorite pub, Mark Prof. and I discussed a question he was analyzing about villainy. He advanced the following question: “Who is the most evil of all cinema villains”. At first, I took the anti-absolutist route, skirting any commitment to one personality or character in the cinema, a ploy which always makes one look reasoned and scholarly – even philosophic. But I promised I’d revisit the issue on the blog. You can’t simply evade responsibility by blithely dodging it lest it come back later in life to gnarl at your hindquarters. At a minimum, you should explain why you are non-committal………But, I’m not. I truly believe that I can explain why British villains are the best – followed, of course, by German ones.
Look at any average American hero produced by the script factories of Hollywood. A Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger (he’s Austrian!), Steven Seagall, Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone, Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, Glen Ford (Canadian born but an American hero), and all the rest. Inevitably, they play roles which possess the audiences to like them for qualities such as modesty (aw shucks), self-effacement, loyalty, honesty and all the other silly, impractical ways heroes present to the world. American heroes, unlike British ones, such as Sherlock Holmes, generally don’t have refined tastes. (Cf. Holmes’ pipes and Kojac’s lollipops). If they did, they’d turn off the American audience which views such things as sissified, affected, even effete.
Even evil characters meant to be other than British are best played by Englishmen. Take Dracula, for example, played by Christopher Lee. Even American actors who play Dracula don’t hide the fact that he’s Romanian with a British accent. (Example: Frank Langella, Jack Palance) Even when Dracula is played by an Englishman who puts on a Romanian accent, he’s just better at evil and villainy. (Gary Oldman as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Dir. Coppola)
Think of the villains in the James Bond franchise. Start with Dr. No. Joseph Wiseman plays a half-Chinese madman bent on blackmailing the world. He, of course, has a British accent.
Wow, doesn’t he look Chinese? He’s looks about as Chinese as Gielgud in Lost Horizon. But, he is exceptionally evil. I know, James Bond, is not American. But, he’s a Scot played by Sean Connery in Dr. No. Connery was probably picked to further enhance the maliciousness of Joseph Wiseman’s Dr. No.
It’s the accent! Americans know their heroes are simple-talking boys who are comfortable helping a neighbor clean up his carburetor. But, our hero is also wily, resourceful, athletic and creative. That only comes out when those strength are absolutely needed, because, you see, the Englishman always speaks as though he graduated from Oxford or Cambridge – he has to in order to exude that sense of superiority which our plucky American protagonist must overcome. Audiences will ask, when they find out the villain, early on in the movie, is an elegant, stuffy, articulate dilettante: “Oh, my God, how will our crude, middle class jock be able to overcome the smooth, subtle cunning of that English fiend?”
To most Americans, the Oxonian and Cantabrigian accents impart a mysterious dimension to the villain with whom the soddy, seedy, shoddy suds-busted American hero must lock horns. In all our movies, at first, the English villain has the advantage and even looks upon our hero as though he were some trivial pest. It is only through American tenacity that he finally proves himself worthy and instills terror in the heart of the evil-doing Englishman. At the end of the movie, the English baddie is defeated – usually killed in some spectacular fashion befitting a man of his education and stature.
German wrongdoers are also horrifying – but almost always in a manner that stereotypically fits American notions of their culture. Germans are seen as mechanical, disciplined, scientific, dispassionate and down right cruel. Take all the war movies of the 40’s and 50’s – you can’t deny that German officers are inevitably cunning, super-loyal and without principle. Take “Lifeboat” (Dir. Hitchcock) where Willi is a German U-Boat survivor played by Walter Slezak who pretends to be something else. In the movie he dupes his fellow non-Germans into a feeling of trust as he works to impede their progress. In the movie, Sahara, with Humphrey Bogart, his New York accent in full display, the German officer constantly plots to kill the desperate allied soldiers even though they spared him and gave him water. The German Luftwaffe officer is blond-haired, blue eyed and as arrogant as they come. He’s really evil.
Germans of course make great villains in science fiction movies. Whether its toying with “Ze Brrrain” or calmly informing a victim he’s about to be a part of a major new discovery in science which, unfortunately, will require his death, German scientists take the cake when it comes to distemper in the laboratory. Scenes requiring exasperating discipline while experimenting on humans is viewed as the monopolized domain of the Teutonic villain. Even non-scientific movies glitter when a German is going about the business of sanely annihilating civilization, e.g. Auric Goldfinger played by Gert Frobe.
Gert Frobe, seen here in Goldfinger, sips a mint julep as he calmly plans Bond’s death. “Do you want me to talk?” asks a spreadeagled Bond waiting to be lasered in twain by Goldfinger’s new scientific gadget. “No, Mr. Bond, I want you to die!”, responds Mr. Frobe in perfect German- accented English.
The fusion of the English villain and the German may afford the best avenue for a decision on who is the best cinema villain of them all. I know, some might suggest Peter Cushing, a very elegant Englishman playing Frankenstein in one of the many Hammer films produced by Sir Michael Carreras. It’s perfect, it seems: you have Cushing’s very fine British accent but cocooned in the style of a German mad scientist. But, all Cushing does in the movie is try to give life to a monster whose parts are stolen from the local cemetery – hardly the kind of evil we associate with the very best.
No. I have a different German-English devil for my readers to ponder. I want Mark Prof to think about this incredible character from Hollywood whose British provenance and German characterization make him the most plausible of all for the title of “MOST EVIL VILLAIN IN HOLLYWOOD HISTORY”.
I think, Christian Szell, (Marathon Man, 1976) the Nazi war criminal who clearly played a role in the deaths of millions; who probably experimented on concentration camp inmates; who escaped justice by his sheer meanness; who wound up possessing millions of dollars worth of diamonds for the Odessa Organization; who kills with that uniquely Hollywoodish-German style; who tortures our protagonist, played by Dustin Hoffman as Thomas Levy in a scene that is now iconic for its sheer subtle brutality. No, my friends, the greatest villain is:
What more could you ask for? Olivier: English to a fault, with his Shakespearean diction implied in the ersatz German-accented dialogue that makes this character the most horrifying of them all. English and German. It’s perfect. Playing against Hoffman’s understated Jewish-American dweeb-cum-history-student-cum-graduate-student-victim – oh! it’s just made in Heaven. My vote goes to Olivier who is now in Hambone Paradise. I’ll write more about this subject but I have to go and have a cocktail about this time. Go Syria. ZAF