Where This Meets That
5. Noah Cross (John Huston) – Chinatown (1974)
Superficially, Noah Cross is a respectable businessman. As he tells J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson), “’Course I’m respectable. I’m old. Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” Cross has little screen time in the film, but the growing revelation of his misdeeds, from political corruption involving real estate and water supplies to incest, peel back his smiling exterior charm to reveal a villain rotten to the core. That he ultimately gets away with his crimes only enflames his repugnance after the film has ended.
4. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) – Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Often hailed as film’s king of villainy, Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter certainly set new standards for evil as depicted in the cinema. He is the prototypical evil genius, capable of clawing his way into the psyche of another and manipulating it to his will. He grows to admire Agent Starling (Jodie Foster) as he helps her to crack a string of murders from inside his maximum security cell. However, he soon reminds us of his nature that landed him in that cell to begin with.
3. Alex DeLarge (Malcom McDowell) – A Clockwork Orange (1971)
With Alex DeLarge, I’m forced to sound the “grumpy old man” griping about “the kids today.” Under Alex’s command, he and his fellow stooges live to raise all hell wherever they may dwell. In concert with their drug use, they wage “ultra-violence” on the lives they encounter. The random selection of innocent victims is appalling and very hard to watch, yet Alex remains utterly remorseless by his own will; only after undergoing experimental and cruel rehabilitation techniques does he learn to share the audience’s disgust at his previous lifestyle. Alex is particularly unsettling because he seems so prophetic, pointing to any number of modern extreme bullying cases or school shootings we hear about on far too regular of a basis.
2. The Joker (Heath Ledger) – The Dark Knight (2008)
One of the most memorable scenes, to me, in The Dark Knight comes during a prison transfer of Gotham D.A. Harvey Dent. As the convoy makes its way downtown, it is diverted by the ad hoc barricade formed by a burning fire truck. The scene is a telling touchstone of Gotham torn asunder by Heath Ledger’s Joker: whom do you call to put out the fires when it’s the fire department that’s burning? Such is the upside-down world this Joker is now hailed for in cinema lore, a bogeyman whose entire plan is to disrupt plans. As he says it best, “You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it. You know, I just . . . do things. . . . I’m not a schemer. I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are.”
1. Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) – Apocalypse Now (1979)
Like Cross and Lecter above, Col. Kurtz is rarely active on screen, but his legend, mystery, and tragedy drive this revolutionary film about the Vietnam War. Kurtz, a brilliant soldier, officer, and strategist, has severed all ties with U.S. military command and become a god to natives in Cambodia. Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is tasked with tracking Kurtz down and “terminating his command.” As Willard prepares to fulfill his mission, however, he begins to recognize Kurtz as a victim of institutional hypocrisy. Ruling by horror, Kurtz surrounds himself with mutilated corpses and a Babel-like hive of disciples from numerous tribes and countries. Kurtz has gone insane by any standard of a sane world, but Willard’s haunting realization is that the world in which they both dwell has long since ceased to be sane, and in such a world, how can Kurtz be rightfully condemned? It becomes clear that Kurtz wants Willard to kill him; he fears not death, only judgment. Ultimately, Willard assassinates Kurtz out of a sense of dignifying the soldier Kurtz was as opposed to merely following the orders of the Army’s brass.
So, what are your thoughts?