Tommy Udo: “You know what I do to squealers? I let ‘em have it in the belly, so they can roll around for a long time thinkin’ it over. [Richard Widmark in “Kiss of Death” (1947)]
Have you ever been in a situation where someone, just by their sheer physical presence alone can make you apprehensive or invoke a feeling of true fear inside yourself? They do not have to say a word. They do not even have to make a sudden movement. Maybe they even give you nothing more than a fleeting glance if they bother to give you any glance at all. Yet you find your own heart beating faster, your gut tightening up, your breathing constrained, your body starting to sweat, and your eyes starting to look for the nearest exit or something to either hide behind or, at least, to put between the two of you just in case. That person is truly Dangerous and someone nobody wants to F**k with! Movies, TV, cable, etc. have always made such individuals an integral part of a storyline. Criminals, psychopaths, tough guys, mean guys, bad guys, etc. it doesn’t really matter. The whole idea is to invoke that feeling inside of yourself. This month’s post will discuss such characters both good guys and bad and the actors who played them.
Sometimes it’s not one individual but two who combined together make for a truly terrifying duo. As an example, for the underrated pulp movie, “Street Kings” (2008) which is a down and dirty tale of corrupt murderous cops in Los Angeles, a not so corrupt cop named Ludlow (Keanu Reeves) on an elite law enforcement team that bends/breaks rules, investigates the murder of a former partner by two criminals. However, later when the criminals’ bodies are found and that they were dead before Ludlow’s partner’s murder he has to find out who the actual two killers really were. After pretending to be a dirty cop and using someone to arrange a night time meeting with the actual two killers (Common and Cle Shaheed Sloan) it all goes south when they recognize Ludlow as a witness to his former partner’s killing, and with Ludlow mistakenly asking who they really are. One of them (Common) then replies, “Who are we detective? We straight nightmares. We the walking, talking exigent circumstances!” … and then an explosive gunfight begins. Although Common and Cle Shaheed Sloan do not have much screen time, they portray a pair of the scariest coldblooded psychotic killers that I have seen in quite a long time. Straight nightmares indeed!
Another example of a nightmare duo can also be found in the even better crime film, “One False Move” (1992) directed by Carl Franklin. This tale involves the hunt for two stone cold killers, Ray (Billy Bob Thornton) and Pluto (Michael Beech) after they, along with Ray’s girlfriend murder six people while stealing a large cache of money and cocaine one night, in L.A. (seems like a popular destination spot for murderous duos). The movie follows a dual track storyline. One involves the killers’ murderous journey east to rendezvous in Star City, Arkansas. The other involves two LAPD Detectives heading to Star City to set up a trap for the two fugitives with the help of the local “good old boy” police chief (Bill Paxton) who seems to know a lot more about the fugitives and the girlfriend than he’s first let on. Thornton co-wrote the screenplay and it is terrific along with the direction by Franklin. Ray and Pluto are a mismatched pair. The hulking ponytailed Ray is not too bright, quick-tempered, and violent. The quieter and calmer Pluto is an African American who is a former college graduate with an I.Q. of 150. However, he is also a sadist with an affinity for using a knife to kill anyone at a moment’s notice. You can feel the tension and suspense build between these two volatile killers, especially, the nearer they approach Star City for a final confrontation with all of the principal parties involved. For “One False Move,” you won’t forget Ray and Pluto anytime soon!
A dangerous personality can be measured, not necessarily by one’s physical size, but by the sheer presence that they can project towards others. As a case in point let’s look at the famous crime film, “Kiss of Death” (1947). “Death” starred Victor Mature as Nick Bianco, a career criminal who is arrested, tried and convicted after a jewelry heist goes wrong. Refusing to become an informer to obtain a reduced sentence, he changes his tune when his wife commits suicide after being assaulted by a fellow criminal who Nick entrusted to help his wife while Nick was in prison. Once Nick is released on parole to work undercover for the District Attorney, he is utilized to try and obtain evidence to help convict a dangerous criminal. It is at this point that you are about to witness one of the greatest first-time screen-acting debuts in the entire history of motion pictures with actor Richard Widmark’s remarkable terrifying portrayal of gangster, Tommy Udo.
Udo is small and lean in appearance, hyper, animated, unpredictable, loud, rude, always wildly grinning, giggling, and extremely and unapologetically dangerous. A murderous and sadistic psychopath who often wears his clothes one size too large, he is so unstable and explosive that it almost looks like his attire is too small for his personality to be constrained. Maybe the scariest thing about him is not his outbursts but his ice-cold stare at someone which literally feels like he is walking on your grave. In real life, Widmark was a big fan of Batman comics so he patterned Udo’s character after Batman’s arch enemy, the Joker, even incorporating a Joker deranged cackling laugh. Amazingly, director Henry Hathaway originally didn’t want to cast Widmark because he thought Widmark looked too intellectual due to his high hairline. Even after Hathaway was overruled by Darryl F. Zanuck, the Head of 20th Century Fox, Hathaway, a good, but never great director (as well as an Asshole who was also a well-known bully towards actors), made Widmark’s life a living Hell on set until Widmark finally threatened to quit the film and Hathaway backed down. Widmark’s performance got him his only Oscar nomination for his career (for Best Supporting Actor). However, it made such a lasting impression with the general public that College fraternities formed Tommy Udo fan clubs, and when actor Frank Gorshin played The Riddler on the old “Batman” TV show he even mimicked Udo’s laugh for his character. Even actual gangsters loved the character. Supposedly, New York mobster “Crazy Joe” Gallo so idolized the Tommy Udo character that he not only started wearing similar clothes (suits with black shirts and white ties), but he also tried to act even crazier than he already was. In Gallo’s case it didn’t help him stay alive. He was gunned down in 1972.
Speaking of memorable dangerous characters, a more recent character was on one of the greatest TV cable series ever. That series was “The Wire” (2002-08) which chronicled the Baltimore City drug trade and local law enforcement’s efforts against it. There were many great characters portrayed on this series but maybe the most memorable one of them all was the character of Omar Little personified by actor Michael K. Williams. His Omar was a notorious and feared stick-up artist who predominantly robbed street-level drug dealers. He wore a bulletproof vest and was armed with a shotgun and a large caliber handgun which he hid under a long duster. He was also distinctive for his long facial scar and whistling “A-Hunting We Will Go” whenever he stalked someone. On the show he was so legendary that whenever the local population either saw him or heard that tune, they ran while announcing his presence. He was also unusual in that, although he could be a ruthless stone-cold killer, he was also a homosexual with a private tender side who maintained a strict moral code by his refusal to either harm innocent civilians or to even use profanity (usually). Although he was orphaned at a young age and basically raised by his grandmother, he was exceptionally close to her as well as his other lovers and close associates. On “The Wire” he survived so long due to his cunning survival instincts, his skill at surveillance, and having an exceptionally high I.Q. which he utilized to constantly outwit and outsmart his opponents. Williams is absolutely mesmerizing in the role making Omar almost like some sort of modern-day Robin Hood of the “Sherwood” Ghetto except that he robs from the rich drug kingpins and gives to his poor self. It’s a well-known fact that “The Wire” never won a single Primetime Emmy Award nor even received any major nominations except for two nominations for writing (maybe if it was located in California and involved drug dealing criminals’ surfing in Malibu, the Academy would have showered it with nominations and awards). This also included the Emmy idiots ignoring Williams unforgettable performance too. Oh well, Dear Reader, there’s always prior Emmy Award winning shows to savor instead, like “Cagney and Lacy” or “L.A. Law” (Gag! Barf!!)
The character of Omar could possibly be construed as not so much a bad guy but more akin to an antihero. Antiheroes can be extremely dangerous too. Two examples that I want to highlight are for the films “Hell is for Heroes” (1962) and “Sicario” (2015). “Heroes” takes place on the World War II front lines in 1944 near the German Seigfried Line. Before a small group of soldiers are sent up to the front line to act as a decoy unit to deceive the German front line in their sector into thinking that there is a much larger Allied force facing them, they are joined by Private John Reese (Steve McQueen) who is as dangerous as they come. Reese was a former decorated master sergeant (winner of a Distinguished Service Cross) but demoted to private after a court martial for flagrant insubordination. McQueen’s Reese is morose, sullen, internally tense, maybe suffering from PTSD, and a man of few words. He is a quintessential and antisocial Lone Wolf who can never fit into civilian life, and McQueen physically plays him in a relaxed almost fatalistic manner until, like a coiled spring, he can burst into violent action in an instant. In real life McQueen was a serious practitioner of martial arts which probably helped to instill a natural limberness and fluidity in his physical movements almost like a feline. His Reese is also an outsider in his choice of weapons. Unlike the other soldiers he carries a butcher’s knife for close in fighting along with an M3 submachine gun (AKA a “Grease Gun) with extra ammo clips taped to its stock and to which he uses for deadly effect in the short violent action scenes ably directed by the great action Director Don Siegel (“Dirty Harry”). When you think of the lauded acting performances in Steve McQueen’s career, you never hear much mention of his performance in “Hell is for Heroes” which is a shame. His character of John Reese is someone you’d never want as an adversary. However, unlike the classic antihero that McQueen so often played, you’d probably never would really want him as a friend either!
For “Sicario” you have a different kind of dangerous “man of few words” antihero in this tale about U.S. law enforcement actions against the Sonora Mexican Drug Cartel. FBI special agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) and her partner are recommended to join a DOJ and DOD joint task force headed by CIA officer Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to capture a key lieutenant for the Cartel after a previous drug raid against the Cartel resulted in the death of two police officers. Assisting Graver is the silent and secretive Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro) who Graver later refers to as “The Tip of the Spear.” And boy, is he ever! As this suspense thriller proceeds, you discover just how lethally sharp, that “Spear” actually is! Del Toro fought to preserve the mystery of who his character really was by cutting out substantial parts of his dialogue which director Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners”) wholeheartedly agreed with. His Gillick is a brooding presence emanating potential lethal menace and a cold sardonic attitude. At times he is quietly in the background but you always feel a need to know exactly where he is at all times. It’s not because he’s creepy. It’s because he’s really scary! As Blunt’s character slowly discovers the real reason for this task force’s mission along with why she was tasked to be a part of it, you also slowly find out more about who Gillick really is, why he is part of this task force, and how “matter of fact” capable he is of doing absolutely any horrific thing to achieve this task force’s real mission even if it means Kate’s possible elimination in the process. The only sign of any real human feeling that Del Toro conveys in his character is, remarkedly, with just his eyes alone throughout the entire movie. “Sicario” was justly nominated for a number of Academy awards but Del Toro was unjustly ignored in the Supporting Actor Oscar Nomination category that year (He should have been both nominated and winner of the Award). As a true Angel of Death with an “Eye for an Eye” view of Justice, his Alejandro Gillick is the stuff of nightmares!
The last two “dangerous” examples that I want to discuss pertain to two actors who have done a series of portrayals of dangerous characters in their long-acting careers. One specialized in portraying dangerous villains while the other gave some incredible performances of both villains and formidable good guys/antiheroes that you would never want to mess with. That first person was actor Lee Marvin. When Marvin won a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar in 1965 playing a dual role in the comical Western “Cat Ballou” he became a big-time movie star who, from that point on, did a wide variety of roles for the rest of his life and with very few of them being outright villains. However, before his Oscar win, he played some truly scary and dangerously evil men, predominately, on television. Like Steve McQueen, Marvin also had a natural fluidity in his physical body movements which made him equally scary and dangerous whenever he suddenly moved which, at times, made his performances so unpredictable that you just couldn’t take your eyes off of him. In a previous Post, I mentioned a chilling performance he gave for an episode of “The Dick Powell Theatre” called “Epilogue” (1963) where he played a psychopath who murdered individuals in gruesome ways whenever he thought they escaped Justice. However, that’s nothing! Here are three other memorable “dangerous” individuals that he portrayed just in the year of 1962 alone:
- Bonanza (“The Crucible”): Marvin plays demented and sadistic Peter Kane, a lone prospector of a mine in the desert who psychologically torments and brutalizes Adam Cartwright (Pernell Roberts) as his own personal slave while trying to drive him to murder.
- The Virginian (“It Tolls for Thee”): Marvin plays sadistic and loathsome Martin Kalig, who shoots outlaw leader Sharkey in the back to take over his gang to later kidnap Judge Garth (Lee J. Cobb) who previously sentenced Kalig to prison for robbery and murder while tormenting Garth every step of the way. Best scene in the entire episode is when Garth fails to convince Kalig’s chief sidekick, Quinn, to turn against Kalig and who instead, slugs Garth off of his horse. Kalig then rides up to Quinn and says with a big smile on his face, “Feels good to hit a Judge doesn’t it?” When Quinn nodes his head in agreement Kalig says, “Kind of gives you a nice warm, tingly feeling inside, doesn’t it?” I literally burst out laughing at that one!
- The Untouchables (“Element of Danger”): My favorite one of them all and the one that he should have won an Emmy for. Marvin plays quick-thinking, hyper violent “Mad as a Hatter” gangster Victor Rait, who is so out of control that his boss (Victor Jory) decides to have him killed. Bad career move, Victor! Marvin is so scene stealing over the top here that you almost flinch while watching him dominate this episode.
To conclude, no one could do the dangerously crazy quite like Lee Marvin!
The other “dangerous” actor that I want to highlight is actor, Robert Mitchum. Mitchum conveyed a laconic, relaxed manner in his acting style while incorporating a “don’t give a Damn attitude” that made him perfect for playing both villains and heroes/antiheroes. I will highlight two of each. Maybe his greatest villainous role was his Oscar worthy performance as the murderously insane bogus Depression era preacher in “Night of the Hunter” (1955). However, what I want to do is praise two of his other villainous roles where he sent chills down your spine. The first, was his performance as Max Cady, an intelligent, but brutal, and murderous rapist in the suspense thriller, “Cape Fear” (1962). Cady initiates a slow reign of increasing terror against Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), a happily married lawyer who provided key testimony that originally put Cady in prison after a brutal rape he perpetrated against someone. Mitchum plays Cady as a stoic, relaxed, and sardonic menace, with a mild Southern drawl, a slight smile on his face and a calculating leer especially at Sam’s wife and young daughter who you just know is in his future plans for revenge. It’s a very naturalistic performance and his Cady is a monster just slowly waiting for the right moment, like an alligator gliding through the water at night, to strike. Mitchum’s other great menacing performance was late in life (at age 66) when he starred in the made for TV movie, “Killer in the Family” (1983). “Killer” is based on the true story of Gary Tison who was serving two consecutive life sentences for murder, and who manipulatively used his three sons to break him and another convict out of an Arizona prison. Ultimately, during his flight from the law, Tison and his partner conducted a murderous rampage which resulted in disaster for all of those involved. This downbeat tale with an “In Cold Blood” vibe is anchored by Mitchum’s incredible performance as Tison. His Tison is a cunning psychopath easily willing to throw his children’s lives away if they serve his purposes even while acting like a loving father to them (like complaining about people leaving trash at a picnic site, or complementing one of his children for his academic achievements, etc.). Here, Mitchum’s famous stoic manner is what’s really frightening in this movie. Unlike a Tommy Udo, his Gary Tison acts with no emotional or physical change at all, whether it’s doing something as simple as pumping gas or killing someone who might identify him. The concept of “Banality of Evil” is a belief that what one is doing is not evil, but rather what they are engaging in is a behavior that is, or has been, normalized by the society in which they reside. Mitchum’s Tison is a walking and talking living nightmare of that belief!
On the opposite side of the spectrum, Mitchum gave two fine performances as a “dangerous” hero/antihero in the films, “Man with a Gun” (1955) and “Thunder Road” (1958). In “Gun”, a western, he plays Clint Tollinger, a “town tamer” (AKA a professional gun for hire who cleans up lawless towns). He takes on that role for the town of Sheridan City even though he originally rode into town to find his estranged wife, now a madam for the town’s brothel. As a “town tamer” unlike a sheriff, he has no limits and he can enforce justice however he sees fit. In his case, he soon does so in brutal fashion. The old storyline of a hired gunfighter coming in to clean up a lawless town but who, as a “cure” may be worse than the “disease”, has been done many times over the years. However, Mitchum’s character is different by his moral ambiguity. He may appear to be upright as he walks down the town’s streets with his head constantly on a swivel looking for any sign of trouble. However, his Tollinger is angry, bitter, and ruthless which, at times, make it hard to differentiate between him as being any different than the outlaws he has to face even when he’s shocked by what he has done. This is apparent when, later in the movie, his inner rage culminates in a reckless outburst, when after he finds out a shocking secret, he immediately sets fire to a saloon (while having to kill the saloon owner in self defense), and as the townspeople try to put out the fire, he stands against the wall of a nearby building in a state of almost catatonic shock. Although, “Man with a Gun” is a little film, there is nothing small about Mitchum’s powerful performance.
“Thunder Road” starred Mitchum as Lucas Doolin, a Korean War vet who, after returning home, gets back into the family moonshine running business in Appalachia while being menaced by Federal agents and organized crime muscling in on his family’s territory. His Doolan is another morally ambiguous but “dangerous” antihero. His character sees no difference between the mob and the Federal Agents. Both want to restrict his idea of the freedom to do whatever the Hell he wants, legal or otherwise, and Mitchum is never cooler here with his constant and open defiance. As some examples: (1) when he tries to originally see the mob boss but is told that he is not currently around but the boss’s hat was left on a table, he nonchalantly walks over to the table and crushes it, (2) when later he finally meets the mob boss and is arrogantly told something to the effect that the mob is taking over and what are you going to do about it, Doolan calmly and unemotionally cold-cocks the mob boss with a karate chop to the boss’s face and then nonchalantly re-crushes his hat, and (3) when running a load of moonshine at night with a lit cigarette in his mouth while being chased by one of the mob’s henchmen who tries to run him off a cliff, he outmaneuvers the guy onto the cliff side of the road and then, without batting an eyelash, flicks his cigarette out of his open window and into the guy’s face before running him off the cliff to his death. Mitchum’s character of Lucas Doolan just might be the coolest and most dangerous hero/antihero of them all.
Well, that sums up this month’s Blog Post. So, if any of you want to act dangerous, you don’t have to act like any of the examples that I have listed here. All you really have to do is just…
“NOT WEAR A MASK!”