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Defining a Villain

Mr. Auric Goldfinger… widely regarded to be the best Bond villain, although not my personal favorite.

A brief glimpse into how my Borg-like mind works… recently I thought of making a list of my favorite Bond villains, but I’ve only sat through nine Bond films in their entirety (Goldeneye made me mad enough to turn it off within 20 minutes). But it gave me the idea to do a post about villains, and what makes one. And what doesn’t. No matter what the AFI’s Top 100 Heroes & Villains list says, the shark in Jaws is not a villain (the real villain of Jaws is clearly capitalism– just kidding!– sort of).

I’m getting ahead of myself.

The ever-faithful Oxford English Dictionary defines “villain” thusly: Originally, a low-born base-minded rustic; a man of ignoble ideas or instincts; in later use, an unprincipled or depraved scoundrel; a man naturally disposed to base or criminal actions, or deeply involved in the commission of disgraceful crimes (“villain, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017. Web. 3 April 2017).

Class still plays a big part into the hero vs villain dynamic (a lot of heroes were born with a silver spoon and villains tend to have built up their empires from the ground, especially in comic books), but “villain” doesn’t necessarily mean lower-class anymore. So let’s throw that part of the definition out.

More interesting is that the definition of villain is very gendered… a villain is a “man” pretty much every time. I had to scroll all the way down the OED’s page to find a note that says the definition applies to womyn as well. My spelling, not theirs. But obviously, anyone of any gender can be a villain. And probably some of the first villains kids encounter were female: the witch from Hansel and Gretel, the step-mother in Cinderella, the queen from Snow White, Professor Umbridge…. But the male villain is still what most people associate with the title. Googling “top movie villains” as I write, I see one female villain– Annie Wilkes from Misery. It takes a couple clicks to get to Nurse Ratched, Alex Forrest, and the Wicked Witch of the West. (Disclaimer– Google is changeable, but  my point is still valid.)

The rest of the definition concerns being unprincipled, depraved, and association with crime. The “crime” part of the definition is interesting, and certainly many villains are associated with it. Returning to the James Bond example, SPECTRE is obligingly clear about their motives (Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion is their anagram). It’s even a little too on-the-nose.

The definition of crime itself is a knotty one. After all, as the memes point out… slavery was legal. And O’Brien from 1984 is a horrifying villain, but everything he does is legal and encouraged under Big Brother’s regime.

So it seems being “unprincipled” and “depraved” are the best ways to determine a villain. It’s still a bit knotty there, but then you can have a “straight-edge” villain who still has people messily murdered as a point of pride. Or the villain might not kill anybody, but still causes pain just because they can (which shows a lack of principles).

And of course, a chilling smile or laugh always helps. But it is almost overdone, so not a requirement.

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Top 10 Vampire Destruction Scenes Dishonorable Mention Dracula (1931)

Norma Desmond would be proud.

A face like that needs to go out on a high note.

Time for another list, and this time I decided to take a leaf out of the book of a favorite YouTube personality– Calvin Dyson (he reviews James Bond media) and start with a “dishonorable mention.”  However, instead of listing the one I absolutely can’t stand, I’ll go with a movie that I otherwise like and was incredibly influential, but at the same time suffers from one of the worst endings ever.

Of course I’m talking about the original Universal Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi.

Given its origins… it’s amazing that the movie has the iconic status it enjoys to this day.  The movie was adapted from a Broadway play rather than the novel (Broadway adaptations are always watered-down and disappointing compared to the actual play).  The director was drunk most of the time and the cameraman did a lot of directing (luckily Karl Freund was a capable director, even if he never found his niche).  Aside from three standout performers (Bela Lugosi, Dwight Frye, and Edward van Sloan) the cast is wooden and forgettable, or worse annoying.  Luckily the aforementioned men keep the audience er, well… hypnotized, until the very ending.  And then the truly unforgiveable sin comes in.

Dracula strangles Renfield.  It’s a very well-shot scene, with great acting from both Lugosi and especially Frye.  But then the sun rises and Dracula retreats to his coffin.  Now we’re down two-thirds of the capable cast, and are left with just van Helsing (van Sloan) and Harker onscreen.

The two men look for Dracula and Mina, to drive a stake through their hearts.  They realize Mina is not yet a vampire, and the camera focuses on her (inexplicably clutching her breast) while van Helsing drives a stake through Dracula’s heart offscreen.  All we hear is a sort of gasp when the Count is truly dead.  Van Helsing sends the lovebirds away (why is never explicitly said), and the movie ends.

The movie opened so powerfully in Transylvania, and the scenes with Renfield sparkled with intensity.  Bela Lugosi could always speak volumes with one look, so it really was a shame the film didn’t show the Count seeing that he would be destroyed after centuries of immortality.  That would have been powerful.  And the next year Freund would direct The Mummy, which featured a man being completely run through with a spear.  They could have shown more here.

But for some reason, director Tod Browning was compelled to end his horror films with an old man saying goodbye to a young woman.  Even when it was horribly inappropriate to the story.

But without this dishonorable mention, the rest of the list probably would never have been made.  I think that probably makes Browning’s gaffe worth it in the long run.

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007: Pageturner

Pow, you're dead.

Pow, you’re dead.

When I was a lonely, bored, curious, culture-starved high school student I discovered the James Bond novels.  It was a very roundabout discovery… I think it started with a Paul McCartney album (it had the song “Live and Let Die”), and then when I was about sixteen Mom said I was old enough for a double feature of Dr. No and From Russia with Love, and then came the books.  Lovely books.

Of course, I saw movies beyond the two first permitted by my mother… every Sean Connery addition (except Never Say Never Again… that one doesn’t count), The Man with the Golden Gun (for Christopher Lee), a couple other Moore flicks, and License to Kill.  Connery and Dalton are my favorite Bonds.  I didn’t last long enough in Goldeneye for M to call out James on his misogyny (you go, M!), and I didn’t like Casino Royale (though to be fair, I didn’t like the book, either).

But it’s been maybe four or five years since I saw one of the movies… even From Russia with Love, my favorite.  I’ve always had problems with the movies… very quickly their cliches became evident, as well as their nasty misogyny.  In fairness, the books aren’t much better… but in Fleming’s work, everything is a bit more complicated and has consequences.  Therefore, they have more depth.  The movies seem watered down next to them.

I’ll explain.  In the novels, we get into James’ head.  We know he’s suffering from PTSD (although they don’t call it that), and a lot of his self-destructive behavior (the reckless gambling, driving, drinking, and otherwise living beyond his means) are related to that and the fact that he expects to be killed in the line of duty.  He suffers terrible guilt over the death of his wife, Tracy (who we know he really loves), and over the jobs where his mission is just to kill somebody.

In the novel The Man with the Golden Gun, he starts trying to get fired, something that continues into The Living Daylights— Fleming’s last Bond adventure (a novella rather than a novel).  As a reader, I initially interpreted that as Fleming wanting to get on with his life and on to other projects (which could be true, I don’t know for sure), but if I had to pick a moment in Bond’s character where the sentiment really picks up, it’s when Scaramanga (the titular character in TMWTGG) asks if he can say the rosary before getting shot.  Of course, James can’t bring himself to refuse and barely gets out alive.

Isn’t that interesting?  And you sure the hell wouldn’t see anything like that in the movies.  Though after 50-odd years, there might be something to be said for that.  Goodness knows there are other spies and spy novels to be adapted.  Plenty of other fish in the sea… or even octopuses because that’s what Octopussy really was… a blue-ringed octopus.  What can I say?  Not one of Fleming’s more creative names.

But do pick up one of the novels and give it a look-see.  My favorite of the books is actually Goldfinger (even though it’s homophobic… what wasn’t in the 50s?).  The book doesn’t have the infamous barn scene, and I find it far superior to the movie.  But you’ll never have two people with the same list of favorite Bond books and movies… the pool’s just too big.  And full of octopuses.

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An MGM Musical Tragedy

They don't even look happy on the poster.

They don’t even look happy on the poster.

Recently Everyday Feminism posted a comic entitled “Your Cinematic Crush Is a Stalker (Um, and That’s a Problem).”  It’s a good read, and it made me think about the first movie I saw that raised some of the red-flags discussed there (http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/04/unhealthy-movie-romances/).

That movie was called Cover Girl.  It was made in 1944, starred Rita Hayworth and made Gene Kelly a star.  But it’s incredibly disturbing.

Hayworth plays “Rusty” Parker, a dancer who enters a contest to model a wedding dress for a big magazine, against the wishes of her boyfriend and boss Danny (Kelly).  She wins because the head of the magazine, a man named Coudair, can’t get over the fact that her grandmother dumped him 40 years ago.  Coudair wants to relive his youth (and win this time), so he encourages his young pal Noel Wheaton to court Rusty.  Wheaton takes it up to 11 by stalking her– sending roses to Danny’s club every fifteen minutes and laying siege to the door so she never has a chance to say no to his advances– particularly when he’s clearly spending so much money.  Danny and the other dancers blame Rusty for the chaos Wheaton created, and finally she caves to the pressure and agrees to marry him.  Danny closes his theatre, and all the unemployed staff blame Rusty, who starts drinking.  Finally, Coudair’s conscience gets to him and he tells her about her grandmother, so she leaves Wheaton and goes back to Danny.

Happy ending.  But is it really?  Look at how Danny behaves.  He victim-blames her when she’s stalked.  Then when Rusty leaves him he closes his business and puts a large number of people out of work on the eve of the post World War II recession.  How do you think he’ll respond to the disagreements that arise in even the happiest of relationships?

The only characters who see the problems in this are Coudair’s secretary and the bartender.  Everyone else gangs up on Rusty.  And I guess the audience is supposed to as well.  There’s a Fred and Ginger movie, The Berkleys of Broadway, that has a very similar plot.

So why am I talking about the 1940s?  Well, for one thing, to dispel the stupid rumor that all movies were perfect until the 1960s.  Unhealthy movie relationships weren’t created by John Hughes or whoever’s directing James Bond movies now.  Come to that, Ian Fleming first started writing those in the 1950s.

And by looking at this problem (which goes back even further than 1944), we highlight just how much of a problem it is and how ingrained it is in popular culture.  We’ve got our work cut out for us, so it’s a good thing that we’re talking about it, raising awareness and trying to find ways to address the problem.

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