Verbal: “Who is Keyser Soze? He is supposed to be Turkish. Some say his father was German. Nobody believed he was real. Nobody ever saw him or knew anybody that ever worked directly for him, but to hear Kobayashi tell it, anybody could have worked for Soze. You never knew. That was his power. The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. And like that, poof. He’s gone.” [Kevin Spacey in “The Usual Suspects” (1995)]
Villains! Evil Doers! Bad Guys! Monsters! These are staples in all forms of art especially for movies and TV. An antagonist must be confronted for good to triumph. Whether it be Godzilla doing his version of Urban Renewal with his radioactive Bad Breath French frying Tokyo or Meryl Streep as The Boss From Hell slicing her subordinates throats with a tongue sharper than a razor blade in “The Devil Wears Prada”, Evil is to be feared. This month’s post will discuss bad guys (or gals). However, it will not go into just the general category of bad guys. I will discuss a sort of sub-category of bad guys. That category is something that I have labeled “The Big Bad”.
This type of so called “bad guy” is someone (or something!!) that you do not actually see for most of a film or Cable or TV show but you know about or see their effect or presence beforehand which elicits foreboding, fear, unease, and terror along with general all around suspense until they finally make their presence known. Such villains are in horror films, monster films, crime films of every shape and size, and other types of films but, I feel, that some of the best ones are those where you do not really see this object of evil until very late but their exploits are already so pronounced previously that when they finally do appear, you are already dreading what they are about to do next.
One of the best examples of this is the unseen criminal mastermind whose previous misdeeds set the story in motion. Two of the better ones (and on an international level) are the films “Cornered” (1945) and “To the Ends of the Earth” (1948) which both starred Dick Powell. Dick Powell was originally a 1930s star in boyish, musical, romantic comedies where he sang and danced. However, by 1944 he wanted to completely change his career. He just turned 40, his boyish good looks were gone, the sappy musicals that he did were passe, and he just went through his second divorce. He wanted to take on serious dramatic roles so he pushed to do tough guy film noirs along with other types of hard drama. And he succeeded in a big way when he played Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe in the Noir classic, “Murder My Sweet” (1944) which was a big hit. From that point on, his new career took off and with that change he made “Cornered” a year later.
“Cornered” has Powell as Lawrence Gerard, an ex-Canadian RAF fighter pilot hunting Jarnac, the man who ordered the execution of his 20 day old bride who was a member of the French Resistance and who he married shortly after he was shot down in Vichy France. Jarnac, a French collaborator, managed to keep his identity secret from everyone while committing numerous crimes with the Nazi occupiers. Gerard chases his quarry all the way to Buenos Aires where more twists and double dealing ensue. The mysterious Jarnac is never shown until the very end and his ties to a secretive world wide Fascist organization makes the paranoia and suspense all encompassing. Powell’s earnest performance, the fine screenplay with an uncredited assist by the great Ben Hecht, fine direction by Edward Dmytryk (who previously directed Powell in “Murder My Sweet”), and a brief powerful performance by (the actor playing Jarnac) make this movie well worth watching (you didn’t think I’m going to reveal who he was, do you?).
“To the Ends of the Earth” has Powell as a US Narcotics Agent who goes on the hunt for the head of an international narcotics ring after a freighter suspected of smuggling drugs escapes into international waters. This thriller takes Powell almost completely around the world where he works with numerous international law enforcement officials as they confront different members of the drug ring who almost always commit suicide rather than be captured for fear of the retribution they might receive from their powerful ring leader. Once again, you never discover who the drug kingpin really is until the very end of the film. Crime movies in the late 40s liked to use real locations and be directed in a semi documentary style to heighten authenticity while also obtaining the cooperation of different law enforcement organizations at times. Unfortunately, in this particular film’s case it had a tendency to reduce the suspense and drag down the overall action. It also didn’t help that the Director was Robert Stevenson of future “Absent-Minded Professor” and “Mary Poppins” fame. Despite his inadequacies the film is still enjoyable in a pulpy way and the big reveal at the end (although a little ridiculous) still doesn’t totally spoil the fun. However, maybe Powell could have saved time by just following Fred MacMurray in his flying jalopy and Mary Poppins flying through the air when they were acting as drug mules for the drug kingpin instead of running all the F*&k around the world.
Two other more recent crime films with an evil mastermind that you never truly discover who their real identity is until the very end are “The Usual Suspects” (1995) and “Slow Burn” (2005). “Suspects”, the more successful of the two films, is a re-telling by one of two survivors of a massacre of 27 people during a fire on a freighter docked at the Port of Los Angeles. That survivor “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey) recounts through flash back and narration to a U.S. Customs Investigator (Chazz Palminteri) how it happened, how his fellow bunch of four criminals, now deceased, came to be involved; and how they were basically threatened by a mysterious, terrifying, and unidentifiable international criminal mastermind named Keyser Soze (who they unwittingly stole from) into destroying the ship’s cargo of drugs which was owned by a competing criminal organization. Soze is not seen but Kint’s recollections of tales of Soze’s frightening brutality and evil permeates the entire film. When one of his four criminal partners flees and is immediately mysteriously killed along with others later on suffering the same fate you feel like there is nowhere that you can escape or hide from this almost supernatural monster. The complex original screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie and a spectacular performance by Spacey won both of them Oscars and made the name Keyser Soze synonymous with pure evil.
“Slow Burn” revolves around an investigation by big city DA and potential mayoral candidate Ford Cole (Ray Liotta) of his assistant DA and sometime lover Nora (Jolene Blalock) after she confesses to killing an attacker named Isaac (Mekhi Phifer) in self-defense while he was assaulting her. However, when an associate of Isaac tells Ford that she is lying and when Ford discovers evidence that she may be tied in with a mysterious unidentifiable gang leader named Danny who has a criminal empire across eleven cities, Ford starts to worry that his mayoral chances, along with his life may be at risk. This film version of a mysterious criminal mastermind in charge is a little different in that, along with the unreliable narration and flashbacks to prior events, the actual identity of the criminal mastermind may not even be who is actually pulling the strings. This movie was panned by critics, performed poorly, and had production problems which delayed its release for 4 years. However, the complex storyline anchored by fine performances by Liotta, Blalock, Phifer, and others along with the surprise reveal(s) at the end make this film worth seeing despite some overall problems in logic.
Another type of Big Bad is the ever dependable, always reliable, and ever popular serial killer. This stereotype has been around forever and is always popular with the movie going audiences. From “Scream” and other slasher movies to adaptions of Agatha Christie novels like “And Then There Was None,” the mysterious disturbed killer who is killing a number of people until they are vanquished in the end is always a treat if done well. Some of the better earlier film versions of this genre were “The Spiral Staircase” (1946) and “Follow Me Quietly” (1949) where our psycho was either killing disabled women, or just people who were considered generally worthless or immoral. More recently, we have had good versions of this sort of film. One of the best (even if it was borderline gruesome) was “Seven” (1995).
“Seven” starred Morgan Freeman as soon to retire Detective William Somerset who is partnered with David Mills (Brad Pitt), a young idealistic detective new to the city. They are hunting an unknown John Doe serial killer who is inspired by the “seven deadly sins” and who murders individuals in graphic and horrific ways to mimic a specific one of the sins. Director David Fincher with expert assistance by cinematographer Darius Khondji directs the film in a distorted way which captures brilliantly the distorted and disturbed world that a diseased mind would inhabit. The city where the story takes place is dirty, dark, depressing and perpetually raining. The killer (I won’t mention who it is either) is every bit as terrifying as the carnage he has previously wrought even if he seems calm, unemotional, and unthreatening in manner. Although this Big Bad appears a little earlier before our eyes then at the very end of the movie (around 90 minutes in) he takes over the movie from that point on and never let’s it go. If you do not mind a dark film with a downbeat ending, then “Seven” is a great movie.
Sometimes, a Big Bad does not even have to be human. Two prime examples are the movies, “The Thing” (1951) and “Curse of the Demon” (1957). “The Thing” was based on a S/F novella written by John W. Campbell, Jr. and the film version was about a group of Air Force crew and Arctic scientists forced into a fight for survival against an escaped alien life form from a destroyed flying saucer while they are trapped at a remote Arctic research outpost during a major snowstorm. The novella really wasn’t very good and the Alien was originally a shape shifter that could take on the identities of the living things that it killed. Because of budget constraints they decided that the Alien would just be a huge humanoid plantlike being and because the make-up was unable to hold up to close scrutiny no close-ups of the creature were shown. This resulted in the creature never being actually seen except in darkness and shadow (and for a brief moment when a door is opened earlier in the film). In the final confrontation at the end of the film you finally get to see the creature (in semi-darkness) and it turns out to be acted by James Arness (Yep, Marshall Dillon as a Giant Carrot). The film is great fun and still much better than its remakes made many years later. It definitely is still scary and is also a favorite of the skeleton crew at the South Pole Telescope station to this day (I’m not kidding)!
“Curse of the Demon” starred Dana Andrews as John Holden, a psychologist arriving in Britain to attend a symposium denouncing witchcraft and Satanism as a fraud belief, and especially, by the practitioners of a cult led by a Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis). Unfortunately, before his arrival the head of the symposium is shown being killed by a monstrous Demon after failing to have Karswell stop the imminent attack. Now Holden is the new head of the symposium and the next target for elimination.
“Demon” had a checkered history from the very beginning. Screenwriter Charles Bennett owned the rights to the story but sold them to hack producer Hal Chester. Then Director Jacques Tourneur was brought in to direct. Tourneur had a great track record of directing a number of low budget black and white horror films for RKO Studios such as “Cat People” (1942) and “The Leopard Man” (1943). He used darkness, shadows, and the power of suggestion in the viewer’s mind to induce fear, unease, and terror while showing almost no actual violence at all or even the actual thing that was causing such concern. Tourneur, Bennett, and Andrews all had big problems with Chester and Andrews finally threatened to walk out if Chester kept meddling with the film. Unfortunately, Chester made one change that seriously harmed the movie. He immediately showed the monster at the very beginning.
Originally Bennett and now Tourneur wanted to leave it as a question as to whether the Demon actually existed or not. At the very least Tourneur wanted to not show the monster till the very end while slowly ratcheting up the psychological suspense, fear, and dread as time is slowly running out for Holden to save himself. He was still able to develop this unseen “Big Bad” through the rest of the film until it was re-revealed to terrifying affect at the very end even though it was seen at the movie’s beginning. He is helped by fine performances by Andrews as the skeptic who is slowly convinced that the supernatural is actually real and, especially, by MacGinnis as someone who seems to be a placid, almost jovial, intellectual gentleman who dotes on children and his kindly mother while really hiding his own monstrous intentions. As the years have gone by, this movie has gotten better and better with age even with it’s poor beginning.
My last example of a “Big Bad” and one of the greatest films ever made was for a Western. You do not see the “Big Bad” outlaw until near the end. Evidence is shown everywhere of how this outlaw and his gang had, in the past, affected everyone in this town that he terrorized. His opponent, a US Marshall and a team of Deputies, ultimately captured and brought him to justice where he was tried and convicted. Unfortunately, the verdict was overturned. Now he is coming back for revenge and this time the Marshall does not have his Deputies available or anyone else to help him. And he is coming in on the train with his gang waiting for him at the train station in a little over an hour. Does this ring any bells Dear Reader?
Yeah, you and everybody knows that the picture is “High Noon”!
There are so many things great about this film that I do not know where to begin. However, one of the many great things is how the film is basically shot in almost real time (which wasn’t the intention originally) which ramped up the tension and suspense due to spectacular direction by Fred Zinnemann. Oscar winner Gary Cooper as Marshall Will Kane wore little or no make-up on his face to help show his fear over the upcoming showdown along with the rejection of all of his supposed friends to help him. Cooper also was unwell at the time due to a bad back and a bleeding ulcer which added to his look of discomfort and unease. The constant editing of the pendulum of a wall clock with time running out until the Noon day train’s arrival to close-ups of the faces of everyone from the different town people showing fear, shame, concern or anticipation mixed in with either the faces of outlaw Frank Miller’s gang or Kane’s wife or Kane’s former girlfriend just ratchets up the tension even more. “Noon” won additional well earned Oscars for film editing (Elmo Williams and Harry W. Gerstad) and music score (Dimitri Tiomkin) and it should have won many other awards (but that’s another story). However, if I have to have one real quible with this great film it’s with what this Blog post is all about: “The Big Bad” here is a Big Letdown!
Outlaw Frank Miller was played by actor Ian MacDonald. MacDonald was a veteran character actor who usually played cops, criminals, cowboys, outlaws, and assorted bit roles (Fun fact: Both MacDonald and Cooper were originally from Montana). However, his portrayal of Miller was a disappointment. As Frank Miller, he definitely had the physical presence along with a sneering pot marked face that could definitely show menace. However, from the entire buildup of the Miller character in the movie up till when you finally see him you were expecting so much more. The townspeople are terrified of Miller. Someone previously mentioned that Miller is “crazy” and one of the few people that want to help Kane is an old drunk with an eye-patch (a previous souvenir from “crazy” Frank Miller maybe?). At noon, Miller exits the train and Zinnemann shoots the scene from Miller’s back so you do not yet see his face. You can surmise that he is intelligent because he is unarmed, disguised almost like a businessman or a “dude”, and from how his gang members originally traveling from different geographic locations meet up just outside of the town and immediately ride a short distance to it’s train station to await Miller’s imminent arrival (he planned it very well). When he exits the train his gang rushes up to greet him where he then takes off his dude coat and puts on his guns which his gang held for him. At that moment both Kane’s wife and Kane’s former lover (who was also once Miller’s former lover too) arrive at the train to leave town which is when Miller looks up at them and you can see his full face for the first time.
It is cold and lifeless with a slight sneer. Beyond that, there is nothing else. Miller’s character never radiates insanity, or explosive anger or unpredictablity, or really much of anything. Supposedly, other actors originally proposed to play Miller were Walter Brennan or Ward Bond. Bond had the physical size to be threatening but couldn’t convey the psychotic side while Brennan could convey the psychotic side but he was not physically large enough to be as threatening. Over all of these years I’ve wished that when you see Miller’s face for the first time you could have seen Lee Marvin, or Robert Ryan or Jack Palance. I guess some people were born to be bad guys while other people were naturally born to be the “BIG BAD GUY!”