8. Vic Vega (Michael Madsen) in “Reservoir Dogs”
If each time you hear the song “Stuck in the Middle with You” you immediately think of straight razors and gasoline, you just might be a Vic Vega fan. Vic is part of a motley group of hoods brought together for a heist by gang leader Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney). The crew aims to hold up a jewelry store and make off with a cache of uncut diamonds.
We never see the robbery take place, but in the aftermath we learn that things did not go as planned. Unbeknownst to the crooks, one of them is an undercover cop, and the police have been in on the robbery plot all along. Another fact the band of thieves in unaware of is that Vic is a no-holds-barred psycho.
The gang makes its getaway from the crime scene and scatters in different directions. The plan is to meet up at their warehouse hideout. In retelling the sequence of events in the aftermath of the botched holdup, we learn just how badly things went. Larry Dimmick (Harvey Keitel) is shocked and disgusted that Vic took it upon himself to murder the jewelry store staff in cold blood.
But the worst has yet to come. Vic, also known as Mr. Blonde – each of the henchmen is tagged with an alias – shows up with a uniformed police officer he’s kidnapped.
The other robbers leave, and Vic and the cop are alone, so Vic uses the opportunity to torture the cop as the song “Stuck in the Middle” plays in the background. What follows is a sadistic sequence of events that abruptly end with a twist. Fortunately, the worst carnage takes place off camera. Suffice it to say that Vic Vega stands tall among the legion of mentally disturbed, animalistic screen criminals.
9. Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) in “Goodfellas”
Small-time gangster Tommy DeVito is one of a trio of friends that includes hijacker and killer Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Henry Hill (Ray Liotta). Like Tommy, Henry is a kid from the neighborhood who started working for the local mob at an early age. The three are bosom buddies who rob, beat up people and party together.
When we first meet Jimmy, Henry tells us in voiceover that “Jimmy the Gent” as some know him, was doing hits for the mob when he was just a teenager. However, we don’t get a sense of how vicious and unpredictable Tommy is until we see him in a Chinese restaurant with Henry and other hoods they roll with. Henry’s offhand comment to Tommy, “You’re really funny,” launches the hotheaded Tommy into a rant that leaves Henry and everyone else at the table in a panicked hush. “Funny how? Funny like I’m a clown? I amuse you?”
Instead of zooming in tight on the action the camera stays wide on the whole table, and we see the expressions on everyone’s faces as they watch in muted dread. One wiseguy tries to talk Tommy down to no avail. But then Henry calls Tommy’s bluff and we find out it was all Tommy’s dark prank played on his rattled dining companions.
There’s relieved laughter all around the table, but then we realize that Tommy is a truly dangerous loose canon – even his close friends think it’s possible that he’d use lethal force on his longtime buddy over a perceived insult.
The scene tells us a lot about Tommy: He’s extremely thin-skinned, has a bad temper and could lash out in violence at anyone without notice.
Later in the film we see Tommy liquidate a number of individuals, a couple of whom made the mistake of insulting him in front of other wiseguys, which is a very big mistake.
10. Sam Wilde (Lawrence Tierney) in “Born to Kill”
If you had to choose a fictional character whose name perfectly describes who he is, you might pick Sam Wilde (Lawrence Tierney) in “Born to Kill.” Like a steaming locomotive that has run off the track and continues to chug forward, Sam puffs on his ever-present cigarette, leaving a plume of smoke and utter destruction in his path.
He’s a jealous guy who doesn’t like anyone cutting in on him. That’s why he murders his girlfriend and her gentleman visitor.
Helen Brent (Claire Trevor), the murdered woman’s neighbor, discovers the bodies but doesn’t bother to tell the police. She’s just gotten a Reno divorce and wants to get out of town so that she can marry her rich fiancé. She runs into Sam, and is attracted to him, despite the complication that she’s already set to get hitched.
Sam comes calling on Helen in San Francisco, and upon meeting Helen’s younger foster sister, who happens to have more than a few bucks in the bank, decides to take up with her. He marries her for her money, and carries on an affair with Helen.
The story’s multiple deceptions begin to fall apart when a private detective who has been looking into the Reno murders blackmails Helen. In the resulting confusion, Sam kills his friend Marty (Elisha Cook Jr.), who he thinks is plotting against him, and finally he shoots and kills Helen just before the police kill him.
11. Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) in “No Country for Old Men”
What can you say about a hitman who kills people with a pneumatic gun used on cattle in the slaughterhouse? Anton Chigurh, a cold-blooded and utterly insane hit man hired by the drug cartel, has a number of other tricks up his sleeve.
A deputy sheriff who thinks he has Chigurh safely secured in handcuffs finds out the hard way that this crazed murderer is not to be underestimated.
The story revolves around a bagful of cash that a hunter, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), stumbles upon while shooting elk. A drug deal gone bad left a pile of bodies, heroin and around $2 million in cash there for the taking. Llewelyn grabs the money, and the rest of the movie centers on the chase to find the hunter and the loot.
Chigurh is hired to recover the money that Llewelyn made off with. A creature of habit, Chigurh has a ritual whenever he’s preparing to snuff someone. He flips a coin and has the would-be victim call heads or tails. If they win the flip, they live. If not, he makes short work of them on the spot.
Llewellyn’s wife, Carla Jean, is hiding at her mother’s house and Chigurh, speaking to Llewellyn on the phone, tells him he’ll kill Carla Jean if he doesn’t get the money back, but Llewellyn refuses. Meanwhile, Llewellyn is killed by another party hunting down the money who got to him before Sheriff Ed Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) could.
Chigurh tracks down Carla Jean, and although she doesn’t have the money, Chigurh, in his twisted sense of justice, feels that it’s his duty to kill her anyway. She refuses to call heads or tails in Chigurh’s coin flip, but that, of course cannot make Chigurh abandon his twisted quest.
12. Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) in “Pulp Fiction”
Before Jules Winnfield, no one could recite Bible passages with the strident menace that he gives them. Jules and his gangster pal Vincent Vega (John Travolta) are sent to perform a hit and retrieve some valuables from a gang of young would-be hoodlums, who go weak in the knees when Jules and Vic come through the door.
Jules begins an extended game of intimidation with the young hoods, which includes eating one of the kid’s cheeseburgers and drinking all of his soda. At first, it seems he’s being the school lunchroom bully, until the intensity gets turned up a few notches.
After reducing the ringleader of the group Brett (Frank Whaley) to a state of utter panic, and shooting one of his cohorts and wounding Brett, Jules feels that he’s toyed with them long enough and goes in for the kill.
He begins reciting a Bible passage attributed to Ezekiel 25:17. It’s a passage also used in a 1976 film, “The Bodyguard,” with Japanese martial arts star Sonny Chiba. This is part of Jules’s sadistic routine to further terrorize victims he is about to deep six.
The Bible passage recitation is part of an important turn in the story, however. Jules admits he started reciting Ezekiel to the doomed to be more of a cold and cruel badass. But in this scene, he and Vincent experience a miracle of sorts, and because of this Jules has an epiphany – the words of Ezekiel take on a new meaning for him. He decides to leave gang life behind. “I’m going to walk the earth … like Caine from Kung Fu,” he says. Vincent stays on with the gang, and soon afterwards meets a dark fate.
13. Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) in “Out of the Past”
Sometimes, a character who seems like the devil incarnate is outdone by someone tremendously more evil than he. Gang boss Whit Sterling’s crisp, authoritative manor befits the successful businessman thug that he is. And while there’s a lot of bloodshed in “Out of the Past,” Sterling is just the overseer who stands on the sidelines while others pull the triggers.
The dangerous one is his girlfriend, the two-timing Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), who looks innocent but turns out to be a cold-blooded killer and master manipulator.
The story begins when one of Sterling’s men hunts down Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum), who has been hiding out in a small town ever since he double-crossed Sterling. Several years before, Sterling hired Jeff, who was then a private investigator, to find Kathie, whom he said shot him and ran off with $40,000 of his money.
When Jeff finds her in Mexico she convinces Jeff that she didn’t take money from Sterling. A love affair develops between them, and instead of bringing her back to Sterling he takes her away to San Francisco to hide out. But Jeff’s old partner, Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie), spots them and demands blackmail money.
Kathie shoots Fisher dead and tries to pin the murders of Fisher and Sterling’s blackmailer accountant on Jeff. She later kills Sterling, and offers Jeff the opportunity to run away with her and the money she took from Sterling, or take the rap for all three murders. Jeff tells her that he will go away with her, but he secretly tips off the police. When they unexpectedly encounter a roadblock, Kathie realizes she’s been double-crossed and she shoots and kills Jeff, them fires at the police, who kill her.
14. Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) in “The Asphalt Jungle”
Dix Handley isn’t the kind of gangster that goes straight for the gun whenever someone crosses him. Instead, he stares down his opponents, who always seem to realize that they’d be better off backing down than pressing their point. Other gangsters call him a “hooligan,” but only behind his back.
There’s been a holdup, and Dix is the chief suspect. The cops bring Dix in for a lineup, and corrupt police lieutenant Ditrich (Barry Kelley) tries to steer the witness, the night clerk (Frank Cady), toward identifying Dix as the culprit. But Dix gives the clerk the 1,000-yard deadeye stare, and the meek eyewitness’s liver turns to jelly. He tells the cops that Dix isn’t the stickup man.
When Dix goes to sleazy bookmaker Cobby (Marc Lawrence) to bet on the ponies, but Cobby balks at giving him credit. “Don’t bone me,” he shouts at the bookie, who is genuinely petrified of Dix. Later, after Dix leaves the bookie’s lair, Cobby calls Dix a “hooligan,” and remarks that, “They’re all like left-handed pitchers. They’ve all got a screw loose.”
Dix gets involved in a jewel heist masterminded by Doc Erwin Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe). The heist goes off, but not as planned, and Doc and Dix go to the man who financed the caper and agreed to pay them for the hot gems, Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern ).
They arrive at Emmerich’s home and Dix has a stare-down with Bob Brannom (Brad Dexter), a private detective in Emmerich’s employ. Once again, Dix’s withering glare makes the hired gumshoes back down. Gunplay ensues, and Dix kills the Brannon but he is wounded.
The driven Dix flees and although seriously wounded, makes the 10-hour car ride to his boyhood home in Kentucky. He arrives at his beloved horse ranch, but it’s too late to realize his dream of buying back the property his family once owned.
15. Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) in “The Killing”
In Stanley Kubrick’s, “The Killing,” Johnny Clay, (Sterling Hayden) rounds up a carefully selected gang to rob a racetrack, noting that most of the men he’s chosen aren’t criminals in the usual sense. They’ve all got families and jobs and are living respectable lives. “They’ve all got a little larceny in them,” he says.
His handpicked partners in crime are all flawed in different ways, and those problems play a role in the story as it unfolds.
George’s (Elisha Cook Jr.) two-timing wife, Sherry (Marie Windsor), constantly browbeats him for not keeping her in riches. He tells her about the top-secret robbery scheme in the naive hope that she will finally respect and love him. But Johnny has her number, and when the snooping Sherry shows up on his doorstep.
Crime novelist Jim Thompson wrote the film’s dialogue, and it crackles with his usual knack for earthy thug-speak. “I don’t think I’ll have to kill her,” Johnny tells one of his cohorts. “Just slap that pretty face into hamburger meat, that’s all.”
Johnny sizes up Sherry immediately, and cuts through her naive seductress act. “You like money,” he tells her. “You’ve got a great big dollar sign there where most women have a heart.”
His observation is right on the mark, and that proves to be Johnny and the gang’s downfall.
Author Bio: Paul Parcellin watches lots of films noir and gangster pictures, and usually enjoys the DVD commentary tracks just as much as the movies. He blogs about crime films and true crime at Life and Death in L.A. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter @Life_and_Death_.