3285-bbb3_image_large.jpg

For the next entry in our Year by Year series, I proposed a list of Best Villain Death scenes. This idea proved problematic because what we would have, in effect, is an entire list of spoilers. So we went back to the drawing board for the next Year by Year feature. However, that idea of bad guys still appealed to me.

There is nothing like alliteration. The dearly departed musician Vic Chesnutt called it the “spice of life.” So as a death list of villains went out the window, it morphed into a list of Bitches, Bastards and Badasses.

Some of the more interesting characters in our filmic history fall into one of these categories. Do people really like the sweet and straitlaced Dorothy? Fuck no, it’s the Wicked Witch that runs away with The Wizard of Oz. I am pleased to present this new feature as we celebrate the biggest Bitches, Badasses the cinema world has thrown at us. – David Harris

1959: Phillip Vandamm (James Mason), North by Northwest, Bastard

3286-bastardvandamm.jpg

A suave villain is always more dangerous than some big hairy thug; and when said villain has the seductive Eva Marie Saint in his employ, as slickster Phillip Vandamn does in Alfred Hitchock’s spy thriller North by Northwest, you know you’re dealing with serious trouble. Unfortunately, advertising executive Roger O. Thornhill (played with dapper elegance and dry wit by the ever-charming Cary Grant) fails to pick up on Vandamn’s affiliation with Saint’s sexy Eve Kendall until he is knee-deep in mistaken identities, cross-country chases and Cold War espionage at its most stylish. Vandamm is a downright bastard, not only because he is a traitor who deals in government secrets but because he does so with such unflappable ease. Surrounded by impeccably tailored henchmen and in possession of fabulous cars, Frank Lloyd Wright-style getaway homes and at least the illusion of Saint as his mistress, Vandamm enjoys far too much pleasure at the expense of his hapless victims and, more significantly, of the government whose officials he calmly manipulates and evades. Thanks goodness that Grant – who, sorry James Mason, hands-down trumps his opponent for Kendall’s affections in the masculinity department – shows up to ruffle Vandamm’s all too immaculate feathers. It’s kind of an obvious pre-James Bond case of the slightly fey, accented and elegant bad guy defeated by the broad-shouldered, virile and, in this case, American hero — but Hitchcock and his cast execute the thing so perfectly and with such excitement, speed and sizzle that we’re swept up in spite of ourselves and free to enjoy and be appalled by Mason’s classic ’60s sleaze. – Lauren Westerfield

1960: Töre (Max Von Sydow), The Virgin Spring, Badass

3287-badasstore.png

Though Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring has been re-made as two incarnations of Last House on the Left, the 1960 original still maintains a disturbing and visceral power just as fierce as its bloody descendants. Max Von Sydow plays Töre, an ambivalent Christian in medieval Sweden. When his daughter is raped and murdered by two herdsmen and a boy, Töre exacts bloody vengeance when the same trio seeks shelter in his house. He brutally knifes one of the herdsmen, smothers the other and throws the boy against a wall in a fit of brutal revenge.

Yet despite this unequivocal thirst for revenge, we can only call Töre an unwilling badass. Following the killings, he feels the need to atone for his sins. Bergman has not crafted a blood and guts revenge flick like Wes Craven would do with the same material 12 years later. Instead he posits the direct conflict between the Christian teachings of non-violence and the innate human desire for vengeance. Though we may applaud as many of the badasses on this list tear through people who deserve what’s coming to them, Von Sydow and Bergman let us know we can’t have it both ways. In the darkness of the theater we cheer and hope for bloodshed but when we emerge into the light of real life, most of us adopt the stance of horror and indignation at violence and revenge. – David Harris

1961: Sanjuro Kuwabatake (Toshiro Mifune), Yojimbo, Badass

3288-badasssanjuro.jpg

For many, the samurai film is still exemplified by the collaborations between director Akira Kurosawa and actor Toshiro Mifune. Films such as Seven Samurai, Sanjuro and The Hidden Fortress are enormously influential and elements from them show up in everything from westerns to space operas. Despite its period setting, Yojimbo is a supremely modern film, one that draws from other sources (the plot is a loose reworking of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest), integrates disparate genres (samurai, western, gangster) and approaches everything with dark humor and irony. The titanic Mifune plays the drifting, lone wolf samurai, who works both sides of a feud in a small town. Unlike the stereotypical stoic and dignified samurai, Mifune is a surly, somewhat gone to seed figure, who spends much of the film watching the two sides destroy themselves and each other. Mifune deftly mixes swagger, contempt and just a hint of decency. It’s a terrific physical performance, as he itches, slumps, scowls, hitches his shoulder and, when needed, moves with amazing speed and force. Mifune both subverts the samurai image and manages to be as cool as ever. Like other lone figures in both 1960s westerns and samurai films, he seems to know that he’s a somewhat anachronistic figure, but violence is all he knows. In this and its follow up, Sanjuro, Kurosawa and Mifune created an indelible, but very human anti-hero, both larger than life and down to earth. They blow through genre conventions with a bold, comic gusto. Instead of a triumphant ride into the sunset, Mifune gives a brusque see you later and wanders off, as he would do at the end of Sanjuro. Yojimbo is often imitated, but its supreme cool and control is never surpassed. – Lukas Sherman

1962: Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Bastard

3289-bastardvalance.jpg

It takes a hell of a man to stand up to John Wayne. It takes something to even stand next to John Wayne. But if anyone can do it, it’s Lee Marvin, as the titular villain of John Ford’s classic revisionist western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The leader of a brutal gang of outlaws terrorizing the town of Shinbone and the unnamed western territory around it, Valance struts in black leather with a silver-handled whip, looking like a really tough Depeche Mode fan. After nearly beating James Stewart to death and acting as a cattle baron stooge, Valance commits the ultimate suicide move- making John Wayne mad. Although the inevitable showdown ends poorly for him, the sheer nerve of facing off against the manliest of men over a steak makes Valance something to be reckoned with. That he’s willing to beat a drunk senseless just for writing an editorial against him just shows what a bastard he really is. In Valance’s time and place, might equaled right and at least for a little while, he had the most might on his side. – Nathan Kamal

1963: Yoji Mizuno (Joe Shishido), Youth of the Beast, Badass

3290-badassyouth.jpg

Youth of the Beast is a two-fisted tale of Technicolor testosterone and cinematic excess. As it opens, it seems to be a standard film-noir setup. Good cop and bad girl lie dead and investigators take the scene for an obvious murder-suicide. Enter tough scrapper Joji Mizuno (Joe Shishido), the new badass in town, shaking up the status quo of the yakuza scene. Pretty much just for the hell of it, he hits the streets with a vengeance. These random outbursts of violence eventually lead him to the inner lair of the Nomoto gang, led by boss Hideo Nomoto. Impressed by Jo’s brashness, Nomoto recruits Jo almost immediately. Yet in a Yojimbo-like plot turn, Jo also begins working for a rival gang, working both sides against the middle in order to advance his own agenda. It turns out Jo is a former cop, hunting down those responsible for the murder of his partner. Smelling a frame-up, he infiltrates the underworld with searing, frenzied vengeance, determined to avenge his partner’s death. With Beast, Suzuki moved towards parody–its sense of pastiche being all too palpable in the action climax where Jo is hung upside down from a chandelier but still manages to swing his way out of his predicament by getting hold of a gun and shooting down the bad guys.

Beast was Suzuki’s second pairing with Shishido, a striking figure for his surgically enhanced cheeks that mark his odd on-screen appeal. The duo worked four times together — most famously in 1967’s Branded to Kill — and Shishido makes for a perfect Suzuki lead. – Teri Carson

1964: General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Bastard

3292-bastardripper.jpg

For General Jack D. Ripper, there is no greater love than the love one has for one’s country. The man is an ultra-patriot. Unfortunately, the man is also bat-shit crazy. Even worse, he has the capacity and the willingness to destroy the world as we know it. Lest you think Ripper is a completely fabricated character, he was based on the real-life General Curtis “Bombs away” LeMay, who by many accounts was even more insane than Ripper. Scared now?

Ripper embodies the right-wing paranoia that ran rampant during the Cold War. His brain has been so warped by his fear of the enemy that he no longer trusts politicians to make the decisions. So he takes it upon himself to launch a nuclear war. “I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids,” he growls, chomping on his cigar. Ripper explains that he first became aware of the conspiracy “during the physical act of love” where he experienced a “loss of essence.” The fate of the world rests on one man’s ability to ejaculate.

At 6’5″, the brawny Sterling Hayden is one of the greatest bullying menaces in cinematic history. I mean, who else but Hayden could terrorize Michael Corleone? But it isn’t just his physical presence that was so intimidating. In Dr. Strangelove, all Hayden needs is a tight close-up to make you cower. His eyes bristle with so much intensity that you can’t help but think that there might be something to Ripper’s lunatic ravings. And this is coming from an actor who was a Communist in real life. – James Shelledy

1965: Varla (Tura Satana), Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!, Bitch

3293-bitchvarla.jpg

Let’s keep things simple: Tura Satana’s Varla is the type of psychopathic seductress who puts the bitch in B-movie. Russ Meyer’s most infamous work, Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! has outlived most of its sexploitation film brethren; part of that may be due to Meyer’s almost anti-hippie plot, which could be translated to modern audiences as a weird hybrid of Mean Girls and The Hills Have Eyes, but most of the credit is owed to Tura Satana’s deliciously evil performance.

Where most sexploitation directors leaned heavily on the gratuitous nudity (remember kids, there was a time when free internet porn wasn’t an option), Meyer wisely let Satana tease the audience rather than ever show them anything. Which isn’t to say that Satana doesn’t threaten sex at every turn- like some Dworkin-trained sex assassin, Varla as a character is a woman who has suddenly and gladly discovered that her sexuality is a devastating weapon.

Not that she even needs sex most of the time, though. Varla kicks things off by killing a man with little more than her hands before putting his girlfriend through absolute hell. And there’s that whole thing with her convincing her girls that conning an old man and his mentally disabled son is a good idea. But hey, sometimes a bitch has to do what a bitch has to do. – Morgan Davis

1966: Blondie, Angel Eyes & Tuco (Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach), The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Bitch/Bastard/Badass

3294-bbbbad.jpg

To be clear, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is a bit of a lie, with none of its characters exactly what you’d call “good,” only a little less bad and ugly. Here’s the way I see it: Clint Eastwood’s Blondie is the badass, Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes, the bastard, and Eli Wallach’s Tuco, the bitch.

Blondie is perhaps the character that turned Clint Eastwood into a legend but the surprising thing is how much he fails in the film. Despite being the consummate badass, capable of astounding feats of endurance, Blondie is continuously captured and antagonized by Tuco. Embarrassingly, it’s even Tuco who nurses Blondie back to health, albeit just so he can get some much needed info out of him.

Which is what makes Tuco such an astounding bitch. Able to survive everything thrown his way, Tuco is a master manipulator, playing every side of the story and coming out smelling like roses every time; worse, Blondie falls for his act over and over, sparing him when he should know better out of either a strange sense of loyalty or just a misguided notion of honor. Compared to Tuco, Angel Eyes is merely an annoyance, evil and dastardly, sure, but lacking the tenacity of the cockroach. – Morgan Davis

1967: Jef Costello (Alain Delon), Le Samourai, Badass

3295-badasslesamourai.jpg

Le Samourai opens on a small, nondescript room. It takes a minute or two before there are any signs of movement, let alone life. There’s smoke above the bed. Wait a minute. There’s someone lying on the bed, smoking. It’s Alain Delon and he’s so friggin’ cool that’s all he has to do. He is poetry in stillness. Delon knows that less is more. The less he does, the more you watch. When he finally does something, it has that much more impact. It’s an acting strategy probably born out of Delon’s good looks. Eschewing dialogue, he turns the perfect looking face into the perfect poker face. In Le Samourai, Delon teams up with the equally spare filmmaker, Jean-Pierre Melville, a match made in minimalist heaven.

Delon plays Jef Costello, a professional killer. Key word: professional. Jef brings a fetishistic attention to detail to everything he does, from stealing a car to adjusting the brim of his hat. Just before killing someone, he dons a pair of white gloves, effectively ritualizing it. All the while, he maintains the same emotional detachment he has when feeding his pet bird. It’s this attitude that keeps him a step ahead of the cops and the double-crossing syndicate. Jef is so cool that when his room is wiretapped all they get are chirping sounds from the bird.

With ritual comes the code of honor Jef operates under. A piano player witnesses one of his hits but never rats him out. He repays her with an unwavering loyalty. He will gladly die for her. So much so, the original ending had Jef dying with a smile on his face. As the fictional opening quote says, “There is no solitude greater than the samurai’s, unless perhaps it be that of the tiger in the jungle.” – James Shelledy

1968: Frank (Henry Fonda), Once Upon a Time in the West, Bastard

3296-bastardfrank.jpg

There are a lot of cruel bastards in the world, but hopefully not many like Frank, the antagonist of Sergio Leone’s masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West. For a lot of archetypal Western black hats, shooting down a fleeing child in cold blood would be the pinnacle of villainy; in this movie, it’s just the opening scene. And worse than that, these kinds of deeds were perpetrated on-screen by Henry Fonda, a legendary actor loved at the time for virtuous turns in The Grapes of Wrath and 12 Angry Men. It’s like watching Santa Claus shoplift.

But Once Upon a Time in the West doesn’t stop there- when Frank isn’t shooting children, assaulting comely widows and swindling his own boss out of a scheme to control a desert’s water supply, he’s sadistically torturing people to death. When Harmonica (Charles Bronson, a cinematic badass in his own right) comes calling, it’s probably not because he’s happy to see Frank. As so frequently happens with Leone’s films, it all ends in a pistol showdown and blood on the sand and one final reminder of just how big of a bastard Frank is. – Nathan Kamal
Bookmark and Share

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Bob Dylan’s 20 Best Songs of the ’10s and Beyond

These are Dylan's best recent songs. …