*Disclaimer: This is a semi-rewrite of an earlier article on my blog. This one’s better. *
I don’t know anyone who does not have a soft spot for some real badass villains. Who’s the best part of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves? Alan Rickman. The most memorable character from Sleeping Beauty? Maleficent. The most fascinating character in Inglourious Basterds? Christoph Waltz. Christian Bale’s Batman is so dull without Heath Ledger’s The Joker. And so forth.
The fact is that a hero is only as good as his villain – and that’s really been so since time immemorial. John McClane is nothing without his Hans; Rocky means little without Apollo. Robin Hood cannot exist without the Sheriff of Nottingham, or Prince John. One of the more delicious things about The Avengers is the presence of Loki, who is just such a marvelous sonofabitch that you’re really kind of sad to see the Hulk smash him. The problem with the hero is he’s so wrapped up in the moral universe that he never really gets to indulge in his flaws. Even your anti-heros have to prove themselves in the end. He has to destroy the Ring, or kill the traitor, or rescue the girl. He never really gets to do truly bad things because the audience must continue to root for him. When he does something terrible, he has to justify in the end or his audience will abandon him. It’s hard to be a hero.
The villain has no such difficulties. He can behave in the worst possible way, indulge in every vice, be cruel, cancel Christmas, kidnap the heroine, shoot a dog, and he gets away with it for awhile because he’s the villain. The original villain was Lucifer of Paradise Lost – tortured, lost, horrified by his own behavior, but ultimately self-indulgent. Why? Because he was, literally, the God-damned villain.
Hitchcock understood the attractions of innate villainy. His villains tended to be likable, complex individuals, while his heroes tread the lines of hypocrisy. Consider the lackadaisical All-American boy detective (more or less the ‘hero’) in Shadow of a Doubt. A duller romantic figure never existed. The battle of Shadow of a Doubt is really between Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright, the Old and Young Charlies. Cotten is charming, funny, frightening but incredibly enjoyable to watch – his destruction means the end of the film, and we never really want the film to end. Then there’s the sociopathic Brandon in Rope, while Jimmy Stewart find himself descending deeper and deeper into a hypocritical netherworld. The dedicated lovesick Alexander Sebastian in Notorious, versus the cold and even cruel hero Devlin. Finally, what of the charming Johnny of Suspicion, who gets to be both hero and villain in one?
It is this edge – the attractions of the villain – which Hitchcock exploits in Frenzy, probably his most extreme example of charming villainy. It’s here, however, that viewers are brought face to face with their own indulgence in the world of darkness. Bob Rusk (Barry Foster, in a role that Michael Caine might have played) is charming, erudite, and murderous rapist. He’s far and away more interesting and attractive than the ostensible hero Blaney (John Finch). Frenzy is uncomfortable not just because we are subjected to an extended rape scene, but because the rapist is far from repellant in every other aspect of the film. He’s the one we spend the most time with, the one we most fear for – in the famous and actually quite funny ‘potato truck’ scene – and the one we find the most interesting. He’s the killer, and he’s the most likable guy in the film.
The same attractions of evil are played upon by Marlon Brando’s interpretation of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. The camera deliberately sexualizes Brando – in one film class I took, Brando’s introduction scene was met with sighs by the female students. And he is attractive, and disturbing. The viewer, particularly the female viewer, is Stella – repulsed by his callous cruelty and brutality, and equally attracted to it. It is not just Brando’s body that is so fascinating – it is his whole demeanor, the animalistic nature that has him carrying Stella off to bed. The terrible truth revealed in this portrayal of villains is how difficult it is to resist them.
At some level, we all root for the villains. We know that when they die, or are caught, the movie will end. The fun will be over. We enjoy indulging in the darkness, with a supreme sensibility that eventually the hero will save the day. But there are certain films from which we cannot really derive a sense that the moral universe can be put to rights, and the indulgence in evil comes too close for comfort.
The villain forces us to examine a dark side of ourselves, our attractions and our fantasies. We want to see the murder, hear the screams, laugh at the one-liners. Then there are the times when he comes closer and we begin to see him – and ourselves – as he truly is. Hitchcock makes us shift in our seats as we realize that the man we like the best is also the man doing the worst things; that the man we initially cheered for is the one who is most abhorrent. We wanted a charming erudite villain to love and despise? We have been given him, in all his colors. We have lived with him. We created him. Now we cannot escape him.