Finding The Worst Character In Neo-Noir: Setting The Brackets

WARNING: Spoilers ahead!!

[Editor’s note: In an earlier version of this post, I neglected to include Woo-Jin Lee in my Cunning Manipulator list, so I correct this post by adding him and removing Hedra Carlson]

In a previous post, I used two metrics—POINTS and Opportunity-Adjusted POINTS (“OAP”) to identify 96 films most often cited as “neo-noir”: the 95 films in Table 3 plus The Detective. Within that group, I identified a 17-film core: Blade Runner; Blood Simple; Body Heat; Chinatown; Devil in a Blue Dress; Farewell, My Lovely; The Grifters; L.A. Confidential; The Last Seduction; The Long Goodbye; Memento; Night Moves; Point Blank; Pulp Fiction; Se7en; Sin City and Taxi Driver.

From these films, we can now begin to construct a preliminary list of the worst villains in neo-noir. Before we begin, though, I establish the first ground rule:

Ground Rule #1: Remakes of classic films noir are excluded.

This leaves out Jules Amthor, Velma Valento or Moose Malloy from Farewell, My Lovely. It also excludes anyone from remakes of The Big Sleep (1978), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981) and D.O.A. (1988). I will, however, make an exception for Max Cady from Cape Fear (1991). The original film was released in 1962, three years after the “traditional” 1959 endpoint for classic film noir, which is likely why Max Cady—played with villainous zeal by Robert Mitchum and Robert DeNiro—was excluded from the Noir Alley “March Badness” competition; that, and Mitchum as already represented by Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter. I also exclude The Two Jakes because it is a lesser sequel to Chinatown. Finally, I consider “The Driver” from The Driver (1978) and Drive (2011) to be the same character, as well as homicidal police officer Lou Ford in the 1976 and 2010 versions of The Killer Inside Me.

Returning to the core 17 films—minus Farewell, My Lovely—in most of them, the character to select is obvious:

  • Loren Visser, the relentless hired assassin in Blood Simple,
  • Matty Walker, who arranges the death of her husband in Body Heat—and gets away with it,
  • Noah Cross, the power-hungry landowner who rapes his own daughter in Chinatown,
  • Lilly Dillon, world’s worst mother and professional grifter in The Grifters,
  • Captain Dudley Smith, who uses the arrest of Mickey Cohen to set up his own crime and drug empire in L.A. Confidential,
  • Bridget Gregory, who uses her new lover to kill her abusive husband—and get off scot free—in The Last Seduction,
  • Terry Lennox, manipulative murderer in The Long Goodbye,
  • Leonard Shelby, a man who uses his anterograde amnesia to fool himself into becoming a serial killer in Memento,
  • John Doe, the religious fanatic driven to exact divine retribution in Se7en,
  • Any number of villains in Pulp Fiction (most notably Vincent Vega, Marsellus Wallace, Jules Winnfield) and Sin City (most notably Kevin and Marv)

And we begin to see distinct types of bad actors: the corrupted powerful (Noah Cross, Dudley Smith), the psychotic loner/hired assassin (Kevin, John Doe, Leonard Shelby, Vincent Vega, Loren Visser, Jules Winnfield), the cunning manipulator (Lilly Dillon, Bridget Gregory, Terry Lennox, Matty Walker) and the crime boss (Marsellus Wallace and, arguably, Marv).

But…there are also difficulties distinguishing who the true villains are. For example, Daphne Monet cleverly manipulates events in Devil in a Blue Dress, but solely to be with her lover. Societal racism is the true villain here; we exclude Ms. Monet. The same applies to replicant Roy Batty in Blade Runner, whose actions are effectively in self-defense. The Tyrell Corporation, which orders the blade runners to terminate the replicants, is the true villain; we exclude Mr. Batty—and all other replicants. Night Moves is so convoluted, it is impossible to identify any single villain; we exclude everyone from it.

This brings us to a genuine conundrum: not being to distinguish the badness of the nominal hero from the putative villain(s). Walker and Travis Bickle are the protagonists, respectively, of Point Blank and Taxi Driver, but they are arguably the most terrifying characters in their respective movies. Plus, both fit perfectly into the psychotic loner/hired assassin category. As a result, I establish the second ground rule:

Ground Rule #2: The protagonist can be selected.

To review, we have identified 16 worst neo-noir character—not villain, per sé—candidates, divided into four categories, to which—based on what I wrote in the previous post—I add Louis Bloom from Nightcrawler and Suzie Toller from Wild Things. I also add The Driver, Max Cady and Lou Ford:

Corrupted Powerful

Noah Cross, Lou Ford, Dudley Smith

Psychotic Loner/Hired Assassin

Kevin, Walker, Travis Bickle, Louis Bloom, Max Cady, John Doe, Leonard Shelby, Vincent Vega, Loren Visser, Jules Winnfield, The Driver

Cunning Manipulator

Lilly Dillon, Bridget Gregory, Terry Lennox, Suzie Toller, Matty Walker

Crime Boss

Marv, Marsellus Wallace

Selecting two hired assassins from Pulp Fiction, only one of whom is not killed on-screen, is redundant, so I remove Vincent Vega and establish the third ground rule:

Ground Rule #3: No more than two characters from any film will be considered.

This leads to a corollary, which is the fourth ground rule:

Ground Rule #4: There is no limit on how many selected characters an actor or actress may portray.

And, upon further consideration, Leonard Shelby is not psychotic—he suffers from a traumatic brain injury—nor a hired assassin, so I move him to the Cunning Manipulator (“CM”) category.

Corrupted Powerful (3)

Noah Cross, Lou Ford, Dudley Smith

Psychotic Loner/Hired Assassin (9)

Kevin, Walker, Travis Bickle, Louis Bloom, Max Cady, John Doe, Loren Visser, Jules Winnfield, The Driver

Cunning Manipulator (6)

Lilly Dillon, Bridget Gregory, Terry Lennox, Leonard Shelby, Suzie Toller, Matty Walker

Crime Boss (2)

Marv, Marsellus Wallace

The marked imbalance in the four categories means it is time to consider additional neo-noir characters.

**********

Films ranked #1 and #6 by OAP—No Country for Old Men and Collateral—introduce two remorseless, cold-blooded assassins in Anton Chigurh and Vincent, respectively, in the PLHA category. Rounding out the top 10 with The Dark Knight, we have The Joker. By extension, we also have Ras Al Ghul/Henry Ducard from Batman Begins at #54; the former is PLHA, the latter is Corrupted Power (“CP”). I considered excluding both because they are “cartoon” characters, but the powerful performances of the late Heath Ledger and Liam Neeson elevate them.

At #15, we have the first of three David Lynch films, Mulholland Drive (#15), with Blue Velvet (#40) and the underrated Lost Highway (#79) also in the top 100. While the character alternately called Betty and Diane Selwyn in Mulholland Drive is a classic manipulator, she mostly deludes herself, then pays the price at her own hand. The same applies to Fred Madison in Lost Highway, though Renee Madison/Alice is also a manipulator, but primarily in Madison’s “Pete Dayton” fantasy; ultimately, she is more victim than criminal. As a result, I exclude all three characters—as well as Edward Daniels/Andrew Laeddis from Shutter Island; his “worst patient” status mostly applies to his time on the titular island. The terrifying Frank Booth from Blue Velvet, however, is one of the worst villains in any genre, and is a clear selection for the Crime Boss (“CB”) category.

The same applies to Boston mob boss Francis Costello from The Departed (#17) and, I would argue, the character variously known as Tom Stall and Joey Cusack in A History of Violence (#20). Technically Carl Fogarty and Ritchie Cusack are the “villains” in the latter film (not to mention corrupt Staff Sergeant Colin Sullivan in The Departed), but Viggo Mortensen’s Joey easily defeats them, with psychotic glee—all while the audience roots for him. Sullivan, meanwhile, may be corrupt, but he is also at the mercy of both Costello and his superiors. Thus, I exclude Fogarty, Ritchie Cusack and Sullivan.

Rounding out the top 20 by OAP is Black Swan (#16). Arguably, there is no true villain in this movie—except the obsessive desire for perfection in Natalie Portman’s Nina Sayers—so I exclude it.

At #26, we find the second of three Quentin Tarantino films, following Pulp Fiction (#19), the groundbreaking Reservoir Dogs. While this movie is almost nothing but villains, the standout is clearly “Mr. Blonde” (aka Vic Vega), whose sadism ruined Stealer’s Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You” for many viewers. Meanwhile, at #65, there is Jackie Brown, whose survivor title character lands squarely in the CM category.

This brings us to two related films: The Black Dahlia (#27) and True Confessions (#90), both based on the still-unsolved January 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short. Because the “killer” in both films is the “actual” killer of Elizabeth Short—not an original character—I exclude them, leading to the fifth ground rule:

Ground Rule #5: Characters based on real people, however loosely, are excluded.

This also rules out the “Scorpio” killer from Dirty Harry (#37)—though not the vigilantist Harry Callahan himself—and anyone from Zodiac (#43), because both films are based on the crimes of the real-life The Zodiac. This also means we skip over the marvelous Hollywoodland (#36), since it never truly resolves the unusual circumstances of actor George Reeves’ death—though it is tempting to add Adrien Brody’s scumbag private detective Louis Simo to the list. The Bank Job (#44) is based on real events in 1971 London. Indirectly—and sadly, because it is one of my favorite films—this eliminates anyone from Hammett (#75), a fictionalized account of author Dashiell Hammett’s life in San Francisco containing elements cribbed from The Maltese Falcon. If I were consistent, this rule would also eliminate Costello from The Departed, given his loose modeling on Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger, Jr. The resemblance is just superficial enough, however, that I keep him for now.

As wonderful as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (#28) is, we skip over it, because the villainy is almost beside the point. I argue this exclusion logic also applies to El Aura (#38), The Conversation (#52), The Cooler (#87), The Friends of Eddie Coyle (#94), because these are character studies more than anything else, along the lines of Jake Gyllenhall’s portrayal of Robert Graysmith in Zodiac).

The second of John Dahl’s three titles—after The Last Seduction (#13)—is at #29: the too-often overlooked Red Rock West. Once again, Dennis Hopper plays a psychotic gunman (“Lyle from Dallas”), but he is essentially a less interesting version of Frank Booth, excluding him. And it is Lara Flynn Boyle’s Suzanne Brown/Ann McCord who manipulates everyone, landing her on the CM list. As for the third Dahl film, Kill Me Again (#58), I simply note Michael Madsen was clearly warming up to play the far more interesting Vic Vega three years later, while Joanna Whalley’s Fay Forrester is weak sauce as the manipulative woman—both are excluded. The Hot Spot (#68), directed by Hopper, is also weak sauce, so I exclude it as well.

At #30, however, we find the astonishing The Usual Suspects—and elusive criminal kingpin Keyser Soze. Similarly powerful and/or psychotic crime bosses are Neil McCauley in Heat (#35; DeNiro’s third character selected), The Pin in the imaginative high school neo-noir Brick (#39), drug lord Alain Charnier in The French Connection (#60), the counterfeiter Rick Masters in To Live and Die in L.A. (#66), genius sadist Lenny “Pluto” Franklyn in One False Move (#69) and icy hot Jack Carter in Get Carter (#77). Looking just beyond these films, we find Liam “Leo” O’Bannon in the Coen Brothers film Miller’s Crossing (7.0 POINTS, #100) and the truly terrifying Don Logan in Sexy Beast (5.0, #111). However, as charming as Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (7.0, #109) is, Carl Reiner’s Field Marshall VonKluck is too parodic to take seriously.

Meanwhile, at #31 is the model for contemporary erotic thrillers, Basic Instinct, featuring one of the supreme manipulators in Catherine Tramell. Others in the CM category include Peter Cable in Klute (#32), Andy Hanson in Before the Devil Knows Your Dead (#41), “Catherine” in Black Widow (#47), “Mike” in House of Games (#48) and Mavis Wald in Marlowe (#76). Digging far deeper down the list, there is the jaw-droppingly sadistic Woo-Jin Lee from Oldeuboi (Oldboy, 3.0, #154). I considered these characters from two terrific Coen Brothers films: Jerry Lundegaard from Fargo (#59) and Ed Crane from The Man Who Wasn’t There (#61), but they are too hapless to include; that goes for every other villain in Fargo. And Uncle Bud from After Dark, My Sweet (#49) and Laure/Lilly from Femme Fatale (#53) are a bit too generic.

I confess I do not know enough about San Taam (#42), Femme Fatale (#53) Croupier (#73), De Battre mon Coeur s’est Arrete (#80), I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (#88) and In the Cut (#89) to make an informed decision about whether any character from these films is a worthy selection, so I exclude them…for now. I also exclude anyone from every “reimagined” film except the superior Body Heat: The Deep End (#45), Against All Odds (#46), China Moon (#91) and The Underneath (#92).

That leaves only a handful of films to consider, beginning with the coolly beautiful Le Samourai at #50. The quiet assassin Jef Costello is perhaps Alain Delon’s signature role, clearly in the PLHA category. Arguably, this is a late 1960’s French reimagining of This Gun for Hire, meaning I am violating the spirit of Ground Rule #1, but the sheer quality of Le Samourai compels me. Looking much further down the list, we find the titular Leon of the blackly charming Leon: The Professional (4.0, #248). I thought long and hard about including him, but ultimately decided his redemption arc was too strong. The sociopathic Drug Enforcement Agency officer Stansfield, however, is the very picture of corrupted power. As, in a more cartoonish but no less terrifying way, is Judge Doom from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (6.0, #199).

Returning to the psychotic loner archetype, we have two extremes: the wholly unsavory Harry Angel/Johnny Favorite/Johnny Liebling from the surprisingly-good Angel Heart (#57) and the sympathetic Frank—the titular criminal in Thief (#64)—who just wants to make his photo-collage a reality. In the former, we are led to believe Louis Cyphre—a play on “Lucifer”—is the true villain, but DeNiro’s suave portrayal subtly upends our expectations. And Leo, the mob boss in Thief, is too cookie-cutter to be interesting. Returning to the devil for a moment, we look to one final Coen Brothers film—the surreal Barton Fink (3.0, #>500)—for…whatever Charlie Meadows is. Psychopathic serial killer? Devil incarnate? It does not matter, John Goodman’s performance is riveting, and on the off-chance he is more supernatural than natural, I classify him as CP.

Speaking of sociopaths, we at long last arrive at Manhunter (#67) and The Silence of the Lambs (#86). The brilliant cannibal Dr. Hannibal Lecter is one of the most terrifying characters in fiction, period. However, he is also on the side of law and order in that he helps track down other serial killers in both films: The Tooth Fairy and Buffalo Bill; I place him in CP. I have little interest in the former, but the latter is the stuff of nightmares, even if he is loosely modeled on both Ed Gein and Ted Bundy, meaning I again violate Ground Rule #5 by including him.

Jumping ahead a bit, I again break the spirit of Ground Rule #1 by selecting the fascinating Tom Farrell from No Way Out, denoting him a clever Cold-War-era spin on corrupt power. Meanwhile, given how many characters have already been selected, we skip over some otherwise decent crime films from the late 1960s through the mid-1970’s: Hustle (#51), Madigan (#62), Hickey & Boggs (#93), The Outfit (#95) and The Detective (#116)—and the third Carl Franklin film, Out of Time (#63). One reason is that I have not yet seen these films. Another is that The Outfit, at least, seems like a less interesting version of the superb Charley Varrick (6.0, #219); the primary villain in the latter film, mob assassin Molly, is not different enough from “Lyle from Dallas” or Loren Visser to include. Varrick himself, while a thief and a brilliant schemer, is far too sympathetic to include.

This leaves only five films among our original 96: Bound (#70), Insomnia (#71), Death Wish (#78), Fatal Attraction (#81) and Dark City (#74). Going in order, we have the schemers Violet and Corky, and Violet’s money-laundering husband Caesar. The latter, while violent, is generic and easily manipulated by his wife and her new lover. Violet and Corky upend expectations by riding off into the sunset together, and the entire film has a charming tongue-in-cheek quality to it, so I exclude it. In both versions of Insomnia, the villainy becomes so entangled it is hard to decide who to select…so I select nobody.

Paul Kersey, meanwhile, the architect who turns violent to “avenge” the death of his wife at the hands of street thugs in Death Wish, is simply Harry Callahan without a badge. He arrogates the power of life and death unto himself, making him a clear CP. Jumping ahead to the magnificent and gorgeous Dark City—like Blade Runner, Se7en, and Sin City, film noir pushed to its logical extreme of corrupt night city—I select Mr. Hand, the most clearly villainous The Strangers. I almost excluded him because he is an alien, but if I am including comic book characters and cartoon villains, that ship has long since sailed. Along those same lines, I invoke editorial privilege and select two characters from Watchmen (1.0, #520 when including POINTS<3.0): the corrupted powerful Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias and the psychotic vigilante Rorschach. The former believes—like Ras Al Ghul, like The Joker, like John Doe, like Travis Bickle, like Judge Doom, like Harry Callahan, like Paul Kersey—that the only way to “save” a society is to destroy it, in this case by forcing (in an alternate timeline) the United States and Soviet Union to deal with a nuclear weapon destroying New York City. Rorschach, meanwhile, is a sociopathic force of nature, the vigilante’s vigilante, willing and able to take on an entire prison by himself.

Finally, I was genuinely conflicted over including Alex Forrest from Fatal Attraction. There is a good argument to be made she is as much victim as villain, though, on balance, her murderous rampage is…extreme. I thus put her in the PLHA category. This gives us 60 total selections, somewhat more evenly split between the four categories, though there are still 18 in PLHA.

To round out the total to 64, with 16 in each category, I add the following names:

  1. Master of identity theft, Tom Ripley, from The Talented Mr. Ripley (5.0, #125) among other titles; CM
  2. Master of chaos Tyler Derden, aka The Narrator, from Fight Club (4.0, #212); CP
  3. Corrupt cop Alonzo Harris from Training Day (4.0, #113), CP

And I move Frank and The Joker from PLHA to CB, creating four categories of 16 characters:

Corrupt Powerful (16)

Harry Angel, Harry Callahan, Noah Cross, Tyler Derden, Judge Doom, Tom Farrell, Lou Ford, Ras Al Ghul/Henri Ducard, Alonzo Harris, Mr. Hand, Paul Kersey, Hannibal Lecter, Charlie Meadows, Dudley Smith, Stansfield, Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias

Psychotic Loner/Hired Assassin (16)

Kevin, Vincent, Walker, Travis Bickle, Louis Bloom, Max Cady, Anton Chigurh, Jef Costello, John Doe, Alex Forrest, Jame Gumb/Buffalo Bill, Loren Visser, Jules Winnfield, Mr. Blonde/Vic Vega, The Driver, Rorschach

Cunning Manipulator (16)

“Catherine,” “Mike,” Jackie Brown, Suzanne Brown/Ann McCord, Peter Cable, Lilly Dillon, Bridget Gregory, Andy Hanson, Woo-Jin Lee, Terry Lennox, Tom Ripley, Leonard Shelby, Suzie Toller, Catherine Tramell, Mavis Wald, Matty Walker

Crime Boss (16)

Frank, Marv, Frank Booth, Jack Carter, Alain Charnier, Francis Costello, Lenny “Pluto” Franklyn, Don Logan, Rick Masters, Neil McCauley, Liam “Leo” O’Bannon, Keyser Soze, Tom Stall/Joey Cusack, Marsellus Wallace, The Joker, The Pin

Using the product of POINTS and OPA, I will “seed” each character 1 to 16 within each category…and in the next, and final, installment, assess each matchup so that only 16 characters remain—four in each category.

After that, let the voting begin.

In the meantime, watch your back…these characters are some of the worst of the worst.

Until next time…be safe and careful…and please get vaccinated!

Published by

Matt Berger

I am a data geek, writer, investigator and film noir devotee with academic training in political science (Yale BA, Harvard MA), biostatistics (Boston University SPH MA) and epidemiology (Boston University SPH PhD). In January 2021, I finished writing Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History...and My Own for which I seek literary representation and a publisher. In Chapter 6: So...What Is Film Noir, Again?, I analyze my film noir database, which contains 4,825 titles. My musical holy trinity is Genesis, Miles Davis and Stan Ridgway. I am a liberal Democrat who understands a thriving democracy requires at least two mature political parties. I grew up just outside Philadelphia, and I live just outside Boston, where my wife and daughters keep me happy, sane and grounded. Please ask me anything else you want to know.

6 thoughts on “Finding The Worst Character In Neo-Noir: Setting The Brackets

    1. Thank you! Did you read the prior post as well? I expect to have the initial field of 64 reduced to 16 no later than Friday night. I have some VERY tough choices to make. Then let the Twitter voting begin! (I am @drnoir33.)

      Liked by 1 person

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