Wednesday, June 03, 2009

10 Favorite Characters (or, I'm Just Wild About Harry)

I don't remember where I saw this particular blogging meme--it's not my idea, and I apologize to its originator for not remembering who you are--but I thought I'd try my hand at it. Ten of my favorite characters in film. Oddly enough, several of them are named Harry. Starting with:

Reverend Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter, a man with love and hate tattooed on the knuckles of his hands (cue The Clash's "Death or Glory"). This is one of Robert Mitchum's best roles. Mitchum always seemed a flawed hero, but as a villain, he was second to no one. Harry Powell is every child's nightmare parent, and the film around him seizes this bete noir and amplifies it with a dark poetry of shadows. I confess, though, that he's not the only villainous Harry close to my heart. There's also:

Harry Lime in The Third Man, a character who's mostly a rumor through the majority of the film's running time, but that just makes his introduction into the film that much more striking. Like Harry Powell, Harry Lime is a creature of the shadows, a monster from the chthonian depths of the earth--in the film incarnated as Vienna's sewer system. When Lime ascends into the heavens on a ferris wheel, it's to regale Holly Martins with his toxic philosophy of life.

"Don't be so gloomy. After all it's not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

There's a touch of Cesare Borgia in Harry Lime, which I presume that Orson Welles brought to the role from his work on The Prince of Foxes the same year. He's known to have written his own dialogue in this scene. Like all of the monsters of middle Europe, Harry Lime is hounded to death by angry villagers.

But for sheer screen menace, I turn to another Harry:

Mr. Harry Roat from Scarsdale in Wait Until Dark, as played by Alan Arkin. At first, he's innocuous. Almost a buffoon. But the movie peels away that veneer over its running time until you have raw, murderous, id raging on the screen. Again, Harry Roat is a creature of shadows. During the last act of the movie (the movie is very much a filmed play), this is literally true, as champion blind lady Audrey Hepburn has smashed all of the lights in her house to put herself on an even footing with Roat. But she forgot one. And he finds it. For sheer, white-knuckled terror, it's hard to top the end of Wait Until Dark, and as hard as I search, I can't think of a more terrifying villain.

In a somewhat less sinister vein:

We have J. J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success, who never the less may be more thoroughly destructive than any of my villainous Harrys. Hunsecker's sadomasochistic taunting of lickspittle Sydney Falco is the kind of part actors drool over, and Burt Lancaster sinks his fangs deep and thrashes around a bit with it. As he says to Falco: "I'd hate to take a bite outta you. You're a cookie full of arsenic." Hunsecker is a walking, talking metaphor for the corruption of big media, and he's as relevant today as he was then. And he's more credible than similar characters like Lonesome Rhodes in A Face in the Crowd or Howard Beale in Network. This is partly because the filmmakers have based Hunsecker on real life columnist Walter Winchell, but in his conception, he's the equivalent of the Marquise de Merteuil in Dangerous Liasons, all wrapped up in one bitter, brutal, queer package.

And since I seem to be attracted to rogues, let me offer one more before moving on to my favorite female characters:

Tuco in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. I'm not even sure Tuco is a villain, though he's certainly amoral and uncouth. But he's wise, too. Wiser than Angel Eyes, and possibly wiser than Blondie, who outwits him in the end. That's a matter of cunning, though. Not necessarily wisdom. In any event, Tuco's rule is something that all movie villains and some movie heroes should take to heart: "When you have to shoot, shoot, don't talk." Which explains, perhaps, why Eli Wallach never played a Bond villain.

Moving on to women...

Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley in the Alien movies is, of course, the great female action hero. She's a bit more than that, though, because, if she's an action hero, she's certainly not a typical action hero. I mean, in Hollywood parlance, action heroes are supposed to be loose cannons, who get their best results once they're off the reservations and the rules don't apply to them anymore (after they've turned in their badges, as it were). Ripley is the complete opposite. In the first film, she's the only character who demands that they run the ship by the book and she's completely right about it. This is positively unheard of. More than that, though, she's not weakened by her femininity, even though the first film would have you think that she is when she goes back for the stupid fucking cat. But her inherent femaleness is what really stands out, especially in the second movie, which is an ode to motherhood run amok. In Aliens, she comes into her own as a character that might have stepped out of a novel by Joanna Russ.

Still, I'm a sucker for villains:

Kathy Moffet in Out of the Past remains the gold standard for fatal femmes. You can have your Barbara Stanwycks and your Jeanne Moreaus, Jane Greer is a dame to kill for, and she devours Robert Mitchum AND Kirk Douglas. From the moment she appears, backlit by the Mexican sunlight, she's every promise ever made by duplicitous women. Men? They're pawns to her, and she plays them mercilessly. Here's the touchstone, though. One of my problems with Barbara Stanwyck's Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity is that I have a hard time believing that sad sack Fred MacMurray would kill for her. With Kathy Moffet, though, you believe it from the instant you see her. Kill, sell your soul, anything she asks.

I think I might actually kill for either Green Snake or White Snake in Tsui Hark's Green Snake. Maggie Cheung plays the title character, with Joey Wang as her sister. Both are snake spirits who have assumed human form as a leg up on their spiritual development. Green is still very much serpentine, and she's my favorite from this movie for two reasons: one, the Indian serpent dance that the newly human Green Snake performs, naked (though you never see anything) is just about the sexiest thing anyone has EVER put on film. Two, I'm totally infatuated with Maggie Cheung. It's fun watching her character try to be human. Every time she tries to emote, it fails, and it's fun to watch, until she actually does find emotions at the end of the movie. This has been set up with expert rhythms, and when it happens, it's a stunning development amid the sturm and drang of the special effects maelstrom around her. If I'm honest, I'll admit that this isn't one of her best performances (for that, I would direct you to Wong Kar Wai or to Clean). But this is about favorite characters, not performances, and this is one of mine.

Lulu in Pandora's Box is another kind of femme fatale, though of a more benign temperament than Kathy Moffet. She's equally destructive, I suppose, leaving a trail of broken men (and women!) in her wake. But she's liberated, and that's very appealing. Incarnated in the person of Louise Brooks, you have an actress who more or less WAS the character she played. Sexually profligate and not caring what men think of it, she was not the kind of girl you introduced to society, but she was the girl everyone was drawn to in spite of that. And, of course, she's punished for it. She has an appointment with a serial killer, making the film, perhaps, a prototype of the slasher film. Be that as it may...

Finally, we have the irrepressible Poppy, from Happy Go Lucky. She's the kind of Polyanna-ish character that would ordinarily send me screaming from the theater, but this is a Mike Leigh film, so it's NOT all sweetness and light, even if Poppy is. Sally Hawkins gives the character just enough of a twist that she doesn't come off as saccharine at all, even if her foolhardy optimism drives those around her insane. But then something odd happens. She overwhelms those around her, the audience, and even her normally dour director. Anyone that can corner Mike Leigh into making a genuinely happy movie has something on the ball.


Miss Kitty said...

oooh! I'm so right there with you for Arkin's performance in Wait Until Dark. Love him in this! You pegged it right on the head. He and his little girlfriend he keeps in his pocket!

Sonora Sage said...

I like cuckoo clocks...

And I notice that Harry Potter was not included in your list ... not surprisingly!!!

Thanks for the recommendations. I see Netflix in my future. Or something.

Word verification: saddiaper. Not gonna go there...

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Actually, I like the Harry Potter films, but Harry himself isn't particularly interesting when weighed against the loonies around him. My favorite character from that series is probably David Thewlis's Professor Lupin, possibly because I'm used to seeing Thewlis play complete rat bastards in other films. It's a shock to see him play kind and gentle.