Every once in a while, a cinematic villain so inhabits his misanthropic calling with such zest and enjoyment that one is left with no choice but to marvel at their audacity and forever be chained to repeating their memorable lines. Chief among these purveyors of anarchy and bloodshed is the villain who lives to shock and gleefully revels in their charming monstrosity.
Actors figuratively kill for such roles as among the acting fraternity, it is well established that the devil always gets the best lines. As Mark Hamill revealed in 2005, becoming an evil Luke Skywalker would have been ‘more fun to play.’ Avoiding a selection of dime a dozen villains with nothing more than an overt evil cackle or gleeful wheeze, here is a list of a more refined breed.
These characters are not only the manipulative driving force of the drama, but in doing so they find time to laugh and immerse themselves wickedly in the disintegrating dignity of their victims. These sadistic creatures often reach for a higher calling, an interest in the arts, literature and music and in this way mask their deplorable inhumanity. They not only enjoy their epicaricacy with their victims but also with the demise of their own dastardly ilk.
The actors performing their roles in this list rose above the depiction of an evil banality and with a superb screenplay, direction and their great improvisational skills have forged a unique characterization that has inspired countless filmmakers and actors. We salute those who wield their magnetic words with a taste for a wickedness enjoyed most deliciously.
1. Norman Stansfield (Léon: The Professional, 1994)
Before there ever was a decision to be made between taking the red or the blue pill, there was only one choice for DEA agent Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman). Stan, as he’s known to his friends and feared by his enemies, could not resist his box of psychotic apple green and daffodil yellow colored that he cracked with euphoric glee between his teeth to better rationalize his violence.
When hearing about the murder of Malky (Peter Appel) at the hands of Leon (Jean Reno), Stan pronounces death as being “whimsical”. Though Stan has learnt to be afraid of death and appreciate life, he leaves no room for comforting others. When Mathilda (Natalie Portman in her feature film debut) confesses to “liking life”, Stan retorts by saying that he takes “no pleasure in taking a life if it’s from a person who doesn’t care about it.”
He may not have had the chance to sniff out a truffle, but he could certainly wallow in the act of sniffing out a lie. An unforgettable scene has Stan spiritedly sniffing out the truth from Mathilda’s father (Michael Badalucco). Stan edges close and sucking up the man’s odor, smells for clues that may reveal a lie.
When none is found, Stan tenderly embraces the father, relieved at not having to kill him and revealing a fleeting faith in the world of men that too soon is gone forever. Oldman’s OTT performance in ‘Léon’, now also a favorite Meme, is tattooed on the cinematic psyche with his immortally beloved exhortation to bring, “EV-ERY-ONE!!”
Ironically, Beethoven’s 9th symphony, the “Ode to Joy”, is his music of choice for soothing his psychotic mind and preparing him for a bit of the old ultraviolence. Even Alex de Large, the anti-hero from A Clockwork Orange would have been grossed out by such misuse of music by his beloved old friend, Ludwig Van.
2. Frank Costello (The Departed, 2006)
Another villain who believed they had an ability to smell out a lie and a rat was Frank Costello (Jack Nicolson). The character is loosely based on the Irish-American mobster Whitey Bulger, a former FBI informant indicted for 19 murders. As gangster Frank himself admits, a lot of people had to die so Frank could be the monster he so relishes.
‘The Departed’ opens with Frank luring a young Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) into a life of wicked duplicity and crime. He elaborates on the manipulation of others in an enthralling scene where he quotes ex-Beatle John Lennon from a 1971 Rollingstone magazine interview about being an artist who, when given a tuba, is gifted enough to make something out of it. As such, Frank was at his joyous best when molding people and making something out of them for his nefarious plans.
This same sequence has Frank casually waving a plastic bag containing a severed male hand from which he plucks out a wedding band to return to Rita, the dead man’s wife. “As I remember,” recalls Frank, “she ain’t that sentimental.” Frank ain’t that sentimental either as he finds wicked humor clawing at the open wounds of the innocent and guilty alike that dares to cross his path.
When a shaken bar patron laments the ill health of his mother who is on the way out, Frank cannot resist but to peck at the man’s vulnerabilities by reflecting that we are all on the way out so, “act accordingly.”
The film ends with a rat scampering across the screen, alluding to a world filled with treacherous men who may yet be molded by a future crime boss.
The brilliant Martin Scorsese, director of ‘The Departed’ (his first Academy Award for Best Achievement in Directing) has said that the screenplay about rats in the rank and the downfall of psychopathic Frank Costello reminded him of the fate that befell another gangster in the 1949 classic ‘White Heat’.
3. Cody Jarrett (White Heat, 1949)
First in with a monstrous mother fixation was the incomparable turn of James Cagney as Cody Jarrett in ‘White Heat’. In a film that stands the test of time with a certified 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it was added to the National Film Registry only in 2003 for being, “culturally, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress.
The story was actually suggested by Cagney himself based on the real-life mobster Arthur ‘Doc’ (killed while attempting to escape Alcatraz) and his mother ‘Ma Baker’. In ‘White Heat’, the only way Cody quells his trigger-happy rage of the “red hot buzz-saw” inside his head is in finding comfort resting on the lap of his mother ‘Ma’ Jarret (Margaret Wycherly).
Cody has an uncontrollable rage filling him with a lust for life and a wicked need to put all others in their place, including his back talking wife Verna (Virginia Mayo). He pummels headstrong into fate from one robbery to another, through the deserved murders of lesser men.
In the climactic scene, Cody scurries to the top of a giant sphere gas storage tank, wickedly taunting the police to “come and get me”, all laced with a delicious gallows laughter. He’s right in his element, the last man standing, proudly displaying his maniacal bravura, knowing no man will dare follow him into hell – for none other than his ‘Ma’ are worth it.
You’re on fast the lane, there’s no speed limit and nothing is holding you back. Your father has kicked the bucket in an insane asylum and ‘Ma’ is tragically dead. When wife Verna pleads for police leniency, confident of getting Cody to surrender, she says that later, “you can do what you want with him.” What’s a guy supposed to do? Shot at from a scoped-rifle by US Treasury Department agent Phillip Evans (John Archer), Cody resists death one bullet at time.
“What’s holding him up?” asks a shocked Evans. Cody decides to take himself directly to hell firing at the gas-tanks around him, igniting a fireball that sends the police scurrying away like rats. Here Cody unleashes his full joyous power as he looks to the black sky and utters one of most misquoted lines in cinematic history, “Made it, Ma! Top of the World!”