Lost in the Movies: Just because you are a character, doesn't mean you have character...

Just because you are a character, doesn't mean you have character...

Foolishly, I set out to tackle the 10 Characters meme, started by Squish (I was tagged by Jason Bellamy); only recently have I managed to narrow it down to forty. And even that's sort of a cheat, but you'll have to wait until the end of my list to find out why. In four parts, over nine categories, I revel in the great characters of film history. This list is full of my own prejudices. Hardly any of these people are folks you'd want to invite over for dinner. All but five are men (indeed, there are more non-humans than women), and many of my choices may seem rather arbitrary (especially given all the truly legendary, iconic characters who aren't on the list). I could easily justify a completely different list (well, some names would simply have to remain), but for now, this will suffice. Or, as someone once said to a character I almost included (before my non-human quota ran over): "That'll do, pig..."

PART 1: "He's a loathsome, offensive brute...yet I can't look away."

Or "she's a loathsome," etc. The first quartet, two women, two men, reminds us that you don't have to be nice to hold the screen...in fact it's probably better if you aren't. The second group of sociopaths goes a bit further: murderers, rapists, child poisoners, gangsters, drug dealers, crooked cops, hit men, psychopathic sadists...even a hood fond of tossing wheelchair-bound old ladies down stairwells (they tend not to survive). If the first group is selfishly unconcerned with social mores, the second group makes it a hobby to trample all over said mores (only one non-killer in the bunch). Were you or I to run into these folks under the wrong circumstances, they would doubtlessly do us in without hesitation. Coincidentally or not, this category is by far my largest...it was hard to narrow it down.

Chapter 1 - Sociopathic charisma

Lulu (Louise Brooks) in Pandora's Box (1929, Germany, dir. G.W. Pabst)

Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) in Gone With the Wind (1939, USA, dir. Victor Fleming)

Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) in Sweet Smell of Success (1957, USA, dir. Alexander Mackendrick)

Johnny (David Thewlis) in Naked (1993, UK, dir. Mike Leigh)

Chapter 2 - Really sociopathic charisma

Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark) in Kiss of Death (1947, USA, dir. Henry Hathaway)

Harry Lime (Orson Welles) in The Third Man (1949, UK, dir. Carol Reed)

Cody Jarret (James Cagney) in White Heat (1949, USA, dir. Raoul Walsh)

Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando) in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951, USA, dir. Elia Kazan)

Alex (Malcolm McDowell) in A Clockwork Orange (1971, UK, dir. Stanley Kubrick)

Tony Montana (Al Pacino) in Scarface (1983, USA, dir. Brian DePalma)

Frank (Dennis Hopper) in Blue Velvet (1986, USA, dir. David Lynch)

Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) in Goodfellas (1990, USA, dir. Martin Scorsese)

Alonzo (Denzel Washington) in Training Day (2001, USA, dir. Antoine Fuqua)

Chigurh (Javier Bardem) in No Country for Old Men (2007, USA, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)

PART 2: Not Quite Human

We are not yet done with the villains. Not by a long shot. But now we're moving into the realm of the supernatural, or at least the suprahuman. The first five otherworldly characters (villains, all) are embodied by real people (in various shades of disguise) and the next six (some villains, some quite notably not) are so outside the human scale that the human actors were cloaked in costume, reduced to voice recording, or otherwise absent from the proceedings. After all, just because you have personality, doesn't mean you are a person, right?

Chapter 3 - Villains from beyond

Nosferatu (Max Schreck) in Nosferatu (1922, Germany, dir. F.W. Murnau)

The Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) in The Wizard of Oz (1939, USA, dir. Victor Fleming)

Death (Bengt Ekerot) in The Seventh Seal (1957, Sweden, dir. Ingmar Bergman)

The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in The Terminator (1984, USA, dir. James Cameron)

The Mystery Man (Robert Blake) in Lost Highway (1997, USA, dir. David Lynch)

Chapter 4 - Animal, creature, and computer

Dumbo in Dumbo (1941, USA, prod. Walt Disney)

Balthazar in Au Hasard, Balthazar (1966, France, dir. Robert Bresson)

HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, USA, dir. Stanley Kubrick)

The shark in Jaws (1975, USA, dir. Steven Spielberg)

The alien in Alien (1979, USA, dir. Ridley Scott)

E.T. in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982, USA, dir. Steven Spielberg)

PART 3 - It's complicated

Just in case you're wondering, I don't think all great characters necessarily need to be either criminals or animals/fantastical beings. Some are more mixed than that: they exist on the blurry line between sanity and madness, they embody grand gestures, outdated modes, and a brooding loneliness which set them apart...on occasion they may even be heroic. This grouping does contain some characters who could fall into earlier categories, yet all of them inspire something more than gleefully antisocial identification or mindless terror. Their complexity and intensity is what makes them compelling.

Chapter 5 - On (or over) the edge

Blanche Du Bois (Vivien Leigh) in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951, USA, dir. Elia Kazan)

Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in Psycho (1960, USA, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

Karin (Harriet Andersson) in Through a Glass Darkly (1961, Sweden, dir. Ingmar Bergman)

Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) in Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972, Germany, dir. Werner Herzog)

Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) in Taxi Driver (1976, USA, dir. Martin Scorsese)

Chapter 6 - Living myths

Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) in Citizen Kane (1941, USA, dir. Orson Welles)

Colonel Blimp (Roger Livesey) in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943, UK, dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)

Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) in The Searchers (1956, USA, dir. John Ford)

T.E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) in Lawrence of Arabia (1962, UK, dir. David Lean)

Falstaff (Orson Welles) in Chimes at Midnight (1965, USA, dir. Orson Welles)

George S. Patton (George C. Scott) in Patton (1970, USA, dir. Franklin Schaffner)

Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) in The Godfather and The Godfather Part II (1972/1974, USA, dir. Francis Ford Coppola)

Chapter 7 - The common man as tragic hero

Abraham Lincoln (Henry Fonda) in Young Mr. Lincoln (1939, USA, dir. John Ford)

George Bailey (James Stewart) in It's a Wonderful Life (1946, USA, dir. Frank Capra)

PART 4 - The Big Lebowski

One could come up with an alternative list entirely composed of characters from this movie. The Dude represents the common man as tragic...well, tragic something (if you must have a tragic hero, how about poor Donnie?). The "big" Lebowski, the other Jeffrey Lebowski, is a living myth (at least in his own mind), Walter Sobchak even more so. The Jesus has the ultimate sociopathic charisma, and we could swap David Thewlis' character in Naked for the same actor's cameo here, as the snivelling video artist. The far-out nihilists could plausibly be "villains from beyond" while the sycophantic Brandt would fit snugly into "Animals, Creatures, etc." as cinema's funniest lapdog. And what character in this movie isn't on (or over) the edge? So instead of just choosing one, I'd like to pay tribute to the whole durned human comedy...

Chapter 8 - The Big Lebowski

The entire cast of characters in The Big Lebowski (1998, USA, dir. Joel Coen)

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The Film Doctor said...

An enjoyable list, Movieman. Why is it that sociopaths make for such great characters? I also like your inclusion of not quite humans. It is about time someone included the wicked witch.

Joel Bocko said...

FilmDr, I don't know...perhaps it's that we're all secretly sociopaths looking out for ourselves, our selfishness tempered only by the realization that other people are, underneath, much like us? Movies allows us a form of identification forbidden in real life - the untrammeled Id? (There's a nice thought for you on Easter Sunday!)

On a completely different note, this is probably fodder for a separate post but instead I'll offer it here: isn't it amazing how many critics missed the boat on Lawrence of Arabia? I mean, Pauline Kael thought it was just a shallow spectacle. But Andrew Sarris' review is even worse. (I've been reading a lot of early 60s criticism lately).

Sarris' review grumbles that he prefers D.H. Lawrence to T.E. Lawrence, makes some half-hearted swipes at the film's historical accuracy, and then complains that too many movies are about masochistic males and he wants to see more pretty girls (I'm not kidding)!

I think a lot of smart people couldn't see the trees for the forest back then...their ability to engage with the work shut off when they saw the movie's form and marketing...oh, god another epic historical spectacle, spare me...and so they didn't allow their imaginations to be engaged. I mean, I love that movie on pan-and-scan VHS...these people were getting it on the big screen, an overwhelming vision, and they yawned!

Richard Bellamy said...

A great list that seems to include all the very interesting characters - and usually the interesting characters have something wrong with them - that's why Daniel Plainview made my list - also Ethan Edwards, who is on your list.

I love your inclusion of Scarlett O'Hara under sociopaths. I want to strangle her.

I considered Alex, Travis Bickle, and T.E. Lawrence, who is less a historical character than an examination of someone going off the deep end in a time of war.

I love your inclusion of the alien and HAL.

Fox said...

Sidney Falco is a great choice.

Sometimes I feel unsure about that movie, but I always find myself unable to take my eyes off the screen when it's on somewhere.

Joel Bocko said...

That's definitely true, hokahey - and isn't weird how the more sociopathic they are, the less your visceral frustration (I mean, do you really want to strangle Harry Lime, despite the far worse damage he does than Scarlett? It's totally a personal thing!).


Interesting - why the uncertainty about that movie? It is hard to take your eyes off of - and impossible to take your ears off of...

Fox said...


I generally like it, but for some reason Lancaster's manipulative powerman pulling the strings which lead to melodrama feels a bit dated to me. But I still enjoy the drama of it.

Richard Bellamy said...

MovieMan - There's serendipity for you. I was just showing clips from The Third Man to a class. We watched the scene when the light reveals Harry Lime. He's has no conscience about what he does. If governments can create mass destruction, why not Harry?

Also love your inclusion of the very creepy Nosferatu.


This list is brilliant. It doesn't go along with rules, but brilliant none the less.

I'm especially pleased with your inclusion of THE SHARK which immediatly made me ashamed of myself for not having Robert Shaw as Quint on my list.

Sidney Falco?! Damn right. Frank from BLUE VELVET?! Awesome. Aguirre, Bates and the ALIEN?! Holy smokes. I love this list...

Marilyn said...

Terrific compendium of characters, all worthy of mention.

As for why we like movies with sociopaths? I think it's pretty simple: we don't meet people like that every day, or even any day. It's like watching Hannibal Lecter in his cage.

I unabashedly love "Sweet Smell of Success," mainly for the script. It's so, so good!

Joel Bocko said...

hokahey, the fairground scene is certainly one of the greatest scenes in film history. Amazing that Welles has only three scenes in that movie - one in which he's only onscreen for a flash, one in which Lime's running for his life (and he's often replaced by a stand-in), and only one where he speaks. But what an impression. Welles loved to tell a story about the play where everyone speaks about a particular character for two hours and then at the end of the play they point offstage and say "here he comes!" Curtains close, and everyone remarks what an amazing performance the actor gave (who was only onstage for a minute at the end of the play). Welles tells it much better but I'm too lazy to invest much energy in it now. Perhaps later I'll transcribe.

Joseph, it made me guilty too. If I was re-doing the list I would probably include him. But who would I replace? Anyway, I like it as is.

Marilyn, that's another good point. They're DIFFERENT. Oddly enough, Hannibal is a sociopath who kind of irks me (as does the film he's famous for, though I initially liked it and still respect it). I it's because they sort of try to paint him as a sociopath with ethics, which seems a little hypocritical (it's ok to eat people if they're uncultured boobs...). Perhaps it's the lingering moralism of the lapsed Catholic in me, that I'm more ready to accept amoral sociopaths with no conscience, rather tha ones with a warped one... (Also, I find Silence - an entertaining thriller but nothing outstanding in the visual department - to be somewhat overrated. Mann's Manhunter, while far more of a mess, lingers in my mind more persistently for its unique aesthetic...but that's another story.)

Marilyn said...

I'm not a Hannibal Lecter fan, per se, and haven't really like the films involving his character for a variety of reasons - including the snobbishness you mention. Manhunter is my favorite, by far, because of its acute building of dread. William Peterson (a perennial favorite of mine for personal reasons) nails his role like no other in his career, in my opinion.

Daniel said...

I really like the way you've interpreted this one as well. Really shows your breadth of knowledge of classic films as well.

And I agree with Marilyn. As much as I love to see characters I can relate to, it's also pretty fascinating to sit back and observe and try to figure out those with whom I can't relate.

PIPER said...

I am working on a list myself, but I would have to say that this one seems pretty definitive.

I love how you put them in categories.

I think what I'm struggling with is in defining why do I like these characters? Why are they noteworthy? Do I like them because I see myself in them or I identify them? Do I like them because I want to be them?

Rambling, rambling, rambling.

Look, if you could just put together one more list for me, that would be greatly appreciated.

Joel Bocko said...

For a price, Piper, for a price...

Erich Kuersten said...

Nice sets! I dig that you include crazy Harriet from THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY and Sydney Falco, both of whom almost made my list, which I kept down to 10. And baby Alien!!

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks, Erich. I have a peculiar affinity to Through a Glass Darkly, which is up there with Persona, The Virgin Spring, and The Seventh Seal as my favorite Bergmans. It's definitely my favorite of the trilogy, though I wouldn't necessarily say it's the "best."

Yes, I'm really glad I found that picture; it definitely works twice as well being baby alien bursting from John Hurt's innards. My father saw that film in '79 and woke up from an Alien-inspired nightmare convinced that a creature had burst out of his chest: he ran around the bedroom with a vaccuum cleaner trying to scoop it up. (He has not yet told me if major hallucinagens were involved in this experience...)

Anonymous said...

Hey MovieMan0283,
Looking for an very old Japanese cartoon The Little Samauri or The Littlest Samauri. Saw it in My youth and would like to see it again.
What do you know about Strange Cargo with Crawford and Gable?

Joel Bocko said...

Not sure on either...I'd recommend visiting the Self-Styled Siren (see my blogroll) for questions on the Gable film. The folks there know old Hollywood up, down, sideways, you name it.

Squish said...

very cool! 3 of them are my faves too! I can't stop reading your site, just coming up for air... *inhales, dives*

Joel Bocko said...

That's the idea! I've tried to set the site up for optimal exploration so its not too restrained by chronology.

Btw, check out the follow-up I did to this too; I think there's a link above.

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