long to test their thespian chops by portraying the heavy.
The phenomenon is doubly effective when the actor in question
is already ensconced in the public consciousness as virtuous.
Some of the more villainous portrayals in film history
were delivered by actors who later became known to audiences
the world over as good guys. The evil portrayals they
assayed early in their careers were far meatier roles
than those for which they won acclaim:
Neville Brand in D.O.A. (1949)
Neville Brand landed at
Normandy in July 1944 and saw combat in France, Luxembourg,
Belgium and Germany. Following his discharge, the decorated
veteran traveled to New York and took up acting using his
G.I. Bill allotment. Migrating to Hollywood, he found himself
typecast as one of the most bloodthirsty psychos in cinema
history. As the drooling henchman of crime boss Luther Adler
in the noir classic D.O.A., Brand's sadistic torment
of protagonist Edmond O'Brien is all too convincing. Brand
later portrayed a variety of crotchety good guy sidekicks
with a degree of civility, but here he is grizzled, grinning
and altogether unwholesome.
Basil Rathbone in DAVID COPPERFIELD
Despite several well-etched, intervening portrayals,
one actor is most identified as Conan Doyle's immortal detective
hero Sherlock Holmes. Yet prior to embodying fiction's pre-eminent
super-sleuth, Basil Rathbone was the big screen's supreme
cad, delivering a string of villainous portrayals unequaled
in the annals of film. Quintessentially cultured and unctuously
distinguished, Rathbone's masterfully menacing delivery
was riveting. Some may argue that his turn as Sir Guy of
Gisbourne in The Adventures of Robin Hood is his
most evil impersonation, but for my money, his performance
as the sadistic Mr. Murdstone in this top-notch production
of Dickens' classic takes the prize. The explanation he
offers to young foster son David (Freddie Bartholomew) of
how he disciplines his horses is dastardly and disturbing.
Marvin in THE BIG HEAT (1958)
Lee Marvin was the scruffy, leering henchman par excellence.
Making his initial Hollywood inroads via the intervention
of such film immortals as John Ford, Marvin was cast in
any number of noteworthy bits as thugs, bikers and toughs.
It took a good fifteen years for his screen persona to evolve
into that of the hard-bitten leading man we all remember.
Peppered throughout that 15-year gap are some of the most
striking heavy portrayals on film. Shack Out On 101
and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance are sadistic
standouts. But his treatment of pitiful gun moll Gloria
Graham in Fritz Lang's The Big Heat qualifies Marvin
as the biggest heel on reel. Audience shock is undiminished
by the years when Lee heaves a scalding pot of java into
Raymond Burr in RAW DEAL (1949)
Raymond Burr and Perry Mason are inseparable to audiences
the world over. No matter how many adaptations have been
or will ever be filmed, Burr will always be that paragon
of jurisprudence in the minds of drama lovers. From 1957
until his death, Burr continued to appear as Earle Stanley
Gardner's righteous defender of the accused. But Burr had
begun his film career putting his imposing bulk to good
use as a villain. In Raw Deal, Burr pulls out all
the sadistic stops in his growling turn as the cast-iron
crime boss with the heart of putty. Casually, he roasts
a lackey's earlobe with his cigarette lighter and only moments
later, tosses a bowl of flaming cherries jubilee into a
nagging gun moll's face.
Richard Widmark in KISS OF DEATH
It is a minor filmic miracle that Richard Widmark was
ever able to live down his fiercely sadistic portrayal in
Kiss of Death. As Tommy Udo, the grinning gunsel without
a conscience, Widmark perfected a snarling delivery and
otherworldly cackle that by rights should have typed him
forever as an irredeemably evil hoodlum. But call it a testament
to versatility, for within a year or so, Widmark was enjoying
heroic roles of every description -- doctors, soldiers cowboys,
you name it -- the same Tommy Udo who chuckled as he shoved
a wheel-chair bound old woman down a flight of stairs just
for the hell of it.
Robert Mitchum in NIGHT OF THE
Early in his career, Robert Mitchum, the embodiment
of cool, turned in a consistent string of B movie performances
as dusty cowpokes and menacing gunsels. It was several years
before the laconic lothario emerged as the laid-back anti-hero
everyone could love. As the rumpled, good-hearted Jeff in
Out of the Past, or the naively virtuous marine in
Heaven Knows Mr. Allison, audiences identified
with his taciturn resolve. But Mitchum blows a gasket in
Night of the Hunter, wherein his ferocious portrayal
of a psychotic, murdering, fortune-grubbing "preacher"
remains as effective today as it was when this viscerally
poetic film premiered. His turn as Max Cady in the original
Cape Fear will repulse you as well. These two performances
establish Mitchum as a big-screen bad guy without peer.