The majority of the films that Warren Oates starred in, he does not play the main character, but is undoubtedly the stand out performance in each film making him one of the all time great character actors to ever grace the screen. Not nearly appreciated enough when he was in his prime, his present day appeal has grown immensely as he has become one of the highest regarded actors of the 1970s’. His mannerisms and caricature speak to the audience, even when playing morally obstruct characters.
There is not one character on this list where Oates is a one layered “good guy.” Complexity is one of his most valued assets and these characters are almost always rough, sardonic, and disreputable degenerates. Even when playing the protagonist, Oates is never a hero, more or less an antihero who is leading the audience through the story with complete conviction. Take a look below at why Oates’ unrivaled career will forever solidify him as a cinematic genius.
10. China 9 Liberty 37 (1978)
The first of three Monte Hellman pictures on this list, Warren Oates proves in full force why he is one of the all time great character actors. China 9 Liberty 37 is a spaghetti Western shot in Span and Italy that is a half American & half Italian production. The film follows a criminal played by Fabio Testi who is offered to be freed from prison if he can find and kill Matthew Sebanek (played by Oates) since Sebanek will not sell his land so the railroad can expand their tracks. If it sounds familiar it at least subconsciously influenced the John Hillcoat masterpiece, The Proposition. Warren Oates is the antagonist, but not necessarily evil or wrong, where the audience can sympathize with his character.
Sebanek is an old grizzled miner and the audience gets the impression that he has faced unimaginable horrors of the Old West. Hellman at this point is obviously comfortable directing Oates and Oates compliments Hellman’s vision of realism. Between Two Lane Blacktop, Cockfighter, and this film, Oates’ characters never feel cliched. Oates’ character is a complement of Testi’s where he is a young and presumably inexperienced gunfighter and at the end of the film Testi cannot bring himself to kill Oates. Oates at the same time rubs this in his face and guides the young gunslinger by criticizing him. China 9 Liberty 37 is a decent spaghetti Western with a great Warren Oates performance.
9. Race with the Devil (1975)
One of the only horror films that Warren Oates ever made, Race with the Devil also dabbles into action and even hicksploitation cinema. Oates had the tendency to work with the same directors repeatedly first with Hellman, most famously with Peckinpah, and here would be his second outing with Jack Starrett after Kid Blue. The film follows two married couples as they travel across the United States by RV when they become the target of a satanic cult. As far as the film goes, it bring great entertainment and suspense and is top notch midnight viewing material.
Oates gives the audience what he does best here, which is although he is not the top billed, he steals the show, even from the lead, Peter Fonda. Not to say that Fonda is not great in the role, Oates just bring this unmatchable charm making the audience eager to see him. He seems natural as the tougher of the two here and his grit has the audience believe he will outwit and outrun the horrors that are tailing him. At the time the film was a summer critical and box office hit (even being released a week after Jaws) and the tension still holds up today making Race with the Devil a strong recommended viewing.
8. Dillinger (1973)
One of the standouts of Warren Oates’ career where he is the star of the film is John Milius’ Dillinger. Both written and directed by Milius, Dillinger was eagerly put into production by American International Pictures due to the overwhelming success of Bonnie and Clyde. From 1969 through 1975, there were at least a dozen Great Depression bank robber films made and Dillinger may be the best of the post Bonnie and Clyde pictures. Telling the story of one of the most notorious criminals in United States history, the story follows Oates as John Dillinger and his criminal career through the midwest with his gang of bank robbers.
While the same story would be retold multiple times, most notably in 2009 with Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, Oates’ portrayal of Dillinger brings a unique vision to the outlaw that is unparalleled by any other performance. Noticeably influenced by the gangester films of the 1930s’, but still bringing a modernism to the character, Oates’ Dillinger doesn’t feel like a criminally historic figure, but a human being. He is also lifted by a great supporting cast of actors who were on the verge of finding major success, standouts being Harry Dean Stanton and Richard Dreyfuss. Lower budget depression era gangster films like Dillinger faded away after the 1970s’, but the Warren Oates performance solidifies it as one of the highlights of the subgenre.
7. Cockfighter (1974)
Cockfight is the reason we should “never judge a book by its cover.” The amount of detail, depth, and intricacies included by the Monte Hellman direction and Warren Oates performance is uniquely irreproducible by any other actor director duo. Produced by Roger Corman, the top layer is the exploitation film that would be expected, but delivered by means of a dark character study.
The film follows Warren Oates as Frank Mansfield, a rugged loner who drifts around the American South engaging in chicken fighting for sport. Oates is in the spotlight and brings what the audience has come to expect of him which is a rough and ragged immorally compassed complexity. Oates details Mansfield with grimy nuances driving the film into dark places. Sharing many similarities to the GTO character in Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop, both characters are just drifting, unfocused or concerned on any aspect of their lives except for succeeding in their sport. Other than Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Cockfighter could be the strongest acting showcase in Oates’ career.
6. The Hired Hand (1971)
Oates’ first outing with friend and confidant, Peter Fonda, would prove to age better with time. Starring and directed by Fonda, Universal Studios anticipated the film to be a major hit in 1971 coming off of the heels of Easy Rider. Upon release, the film did not connect with audiences or critics and became lost in the shuffle until gaining more traction in the DVD era. Considered a staple of the Revisionist Western genre today, Oates plays the sidekick to Fonda’s (anti) hero and here is one of the films where he lays his roots as one of the all time great supporting character actors.
The film follows Fonda and Oates as they drift through the West returning to Fonda’s estranged wife’s ranch. Oates’ charismatic Arch Harris may not be the main character, but his charm makes him the highlight of this sad film. Exploring themes of loneliness and grief, the film ends with the Oates’ character drifting by himself through the Old West, and how Oates manages to provoke empathy, the audience would be heartless not to feel this grief. Just like in Two Lane Blacktop, there is just something so unique and intriguing about his mannerisms, the mystique of Oates will be the shining light for many in The Hired Hand.