WARNING: Spoilers ahead!!
In two previous posts, I…
- Introduced two metrics, POINTS and Opportunity-Adjusted POINTS (“OAP”), to rank films by how often they are cited as “neo-noir,” allowing for how many reputable authors on film noir could have listed them.
- Selected 64 characters as contenders for “worst character in neo-noir.”
These 64 characters are evenly distributed across four loosely-defined categories: Corrupt Power, Crime Boss, Cunning Manipulator, Psychotic Loner/Hired Assassin.
Harry Angel (Angel Heart), Harry Callahan (Dirty Harry), Noah Cross (Chinatown), Tyler Derden (Fight Club), Judge Doom (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?), Tom Farrell (No Way Out), Lou Ford (The Killer Inside Me), Ras Al Ghul/Henri Ducard (Batman Begins) Alonzo Harris (Training Day), Mr. Hand (Dark City), Paul Kersey (Death Wish), Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Manhunter, The Silence of the Lambs), Charlie Meadows (Barton Fink), Captain Dudley Smith (L.A. Confidential), Stansfield (Leon: The Professional), Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias (Watchmen)
Frank (Thief), Marv (Sin City), Frank Booth (Blue Velvet), Jack Carter (Get Carter), Alain Charnier (The French Connection), Francis Costello (The Departed), Lenny “Pluto” Franklyn (One False Move), Don Logan (Sexy Beast), Rick Masters (To Live and Die in L.A.), Neil McCauley (Heat), Liam “Leo” O’Bannon (Miller’s Crossing), Keyser Soze (The Usual Suspects), Tom Stall/Joey Cusack (A History of Violence), Marsellus Wallace (Pulp Fiction), The Joker (The Dark Knight), The Pin (Brick)
Catherine (Black Widow) Mike (House of Games), Jackie Brown (Jackie Brown), Suzanne Brown/Ann McCord (Red Rock West), Peter Cable (Klute), Lilly Dillon (The Grifters), Bridget Gregory (The Last Seduction), Andy Hanson (Before the Devil Knows Your Dead) Woo-Jin Lee (Oldeuboi), Terry Lennox (The Long Goodbye), Tom Ripley (The Talented Mr. Ripley, et al.), Leonard Shelby (Memento), Suzie Toller (Wild Things), Catherine Tramell (Basic Instinct), Mavis Wald (Marlowe), Matty Walker (Body Heat)
Psychotic Loner/Hired Assassin
Kevin (Sin City), Vincent (Collateral), Walker (Point Blank), Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver), Louis Bloom (Nightcrawler), Max Cady (Cape Fear), Anton Chigurh (No Country for Old Men), Jef Costello (Le Samourai), John Doe (Se7en), Alex Forrest (Fatal Attraction), Jame Gumb/Buffalo Bill (The Silence of the Lambs), Loren Visser (Blood Simple), Jules Winnfield (Pulp Fiction), Mr. Blonde/Vic Vega (Reservoir Dogs), The Driver (Drive, The Driver), Rorschach (Watchmen)
This is a (relatively) diverse and fascinating group. Ten of the 64 are women, though nine of them are in the Cunning Manipulator category, which speaks volume about gender roles (in both senses of the word) in neo-noir films. The one woman not so categorized, Alex Forrest, is killed off at the end of Fatal Attraction, even though her initial “crime” was asserting her own sexuality. Setting aside the ethnically-uncertain Ras Al Ghul, literal cartoon Judge Doom, non-terrestrial Mr. Hand and possibly-supernatural Charlie Meadows, there are six people of color, excluding Anton Chigurh, portrayed by Javier Bardem. Jack Carter and Don Logan are British, Alain Charnier and Jef Costello are French, Keyser Soze is…Hungarian, I believe…and Woo-Jin Lee is South Korean. The Pin and Suzie Toller are high school students—while Elijah Wood was just 24 when Sin City was released. Tom Ripley and Catherine Tramell are both LGBTQI+; Lilly Dillon has a very unusual relationship with her son, though not the one Noah Cross has with his daughter.
There are two characters each from Pulp Fiction, The Silence of the Lambs, Sin City and Watchmen. Robert DeNiro portrays three characters—Travis Bickle, Max Cady, Neil McCauley—while Mickey Rourke (Harry Angel, Marv) and Kevin Spacey (John Doe, Keyser Soze/Verbal Kint) each play two; Bickle and Cady both appear in films directed by Martin Scorsese. If you count the version of Dr. Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter, director Michael Mann is represented by four characters (Lecter, McCauley, Frank and Vincent), as are Ethan and Joel Coen (Chigurh, Meadows, Leo O’Bannon, Loren Visser) and Quentin Tarantino (Jackie Brown, Mr. Blonde/Vic Vega, Marsellus Wallace, Jules Winnfield). Christopher Nolan (Ras Al Ghul, The Joker, Leonard Shelby) and Scorsese (Bickle, Cady and Francis Costello) have three characters each; six other directors—John Dahl, Jonathan Demme, William Friedkin, David Fincher, Robert Rodriguez (with an assist from Tarantino and Frank Miller) and Zack Snyder have two characters each.
To mimic the ordering used by NCAA Basketball brackets, I used the product of POINTS and OAP to “seed” characters within each category from 1-16. Do not take these seeds too literally, as they reflect awareness of the film as a whole rather than the darkness of any specific character.
Figure 1: Worst Character in Neo-Noir, Initial Field of 64
I used the following rough criteria to determine “winners” in the first two rounds:
- Whether the character gets away with her/his scheme—not necessarily the same as surviving, as John Doe shows.
- The number of people that die at the character’s own hands
- The number of despicable actions besides murder—raping your own daughter, as Noah Cross does, being the classic example
- Intelligence: Suzie Toller may be a high school student but her IQ is well over genius level–and she is willing to pull out her own teeth to make her scheme work. This distinguishes characters who are “merely” brutal, like Marv or Mr. Blonde/Vic Vega.
- What is the scope of the character’s villainy? Is it global—like Adrian Veidt’s plan to end the Cold War or Ras Al Ghul’s desire to “save” Gotham City—or is it more personal and banal—like Walker wanting his share of $93,000?
- Does the character have a redemption arc?
- Similarly, do we root for the character in some way? Motivation matters: Walker has no grand design beyond revenge and getting his money, Carter wants to avenge his brother, Brown wants to be free from Ordell Robbie, Tom Stall wants to forget his past life, Frank wants to settle down and have a family, and The Driver (in the 2011 film) wants to protect his new friends.
- Is the character the nominal “hero” of the film? I discussed this in the previous post in reference to Harry Callahan, Paul Kersey, Frank, Walker and others.
With these very rough criteria in mind, we commence Round 1 of elimination.
Noah Cross over Adrian Veidt. This was surprisingly tough. Cross is a brilliant and power-crazed man who rapes his own daughter—and walks away with his daughter/granddaughter after his daughter is shot by police officers. And Chinatown is the definitive neo-noir film. But “Ozymandias” murders people with his bare hands, is one of the most intelligent characters in cinema history and is willing to destroy New York City to end the alternate-timeline Cold War. And therein lies the rub…his motivation, however twisted, is just other-serving enough to eliminate him here.
Ras Al Ghul over Mr. Hand. The latter is an alien, full stop.
Alonzo Harris over Judge Doom. The latter is a cartoon character, full stop.
Harry Angel over Tyler Derden. Yes, the latter blows up entire buildings and convinces men to beat each other to a pulp—and sort of gets away with it. But Johnny Liebling literally sacrificed a random stranger to make a deal with the devil—and there is a reason the source novel was called Fallen Angel: Harry Angel is pure evil, with or without “Louis Cyphre” guiding him. Derden is also, you know, only a figment of The Narrator’s imagination.
Dr. Hannibal Lecter over Paul Kersey. As despicable as I think Kersey’s actions are, he is the nominal “hero” of Death Wish (and its many sequels), and he acts out of grief. Lecter is a sociopathic genius cannibal locked in a maximum security prison.
Stansfield over Harry Callahan. This is an upset, a 14 seed beating a 3 seed. But while Callahan may be “Dirty,” he is not a pill-popping DEA agent who would gleefully murder a 12-year-old girl in cold blood.
Tom Farrell over Lou Ford. Ford’s sociopathy is local, Farrell’s criminality is global.
Dudley Smith over Charlie Meadows. There is enough uncertainty over Meadows’ true nature—or how much of Barton Fink is in the title character’s mind—to eliminate him. Plus, L.A. Confidential is one of the premier neo-noirs—and the cruelly calculating Smith makes my skin crawl; his casual shooting of Jack Vincennes remains my greatest shock watching a film in the theater.
Don Logan over Marv. This is the supreme upset—a 16 seed toppling a 1 seed—yet it was not a close decision. After re-watching Sin City, I realized that as criminal and violent as Marv is, he reserves his most extreme viciousness for the truly evil characters in Basin City: Kevin, in particular. We genuinely root for Marv; motivations matter. Logan, by contrast, terrifies even the most hardened criminals in Sexy Beast.
The Joker over Alain Charnier. Everyone remembers Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance in The Dark Knight. I had to look up Charnier’s character’s name.
Frank Booth over Rick Masters. Masters is essentially an artist-turned counterfeiter who uses violence to protect himself in a mediocre movie. Booth is a drug-addled sociopathic sadist in a brilliant film who is among the worst movie villains ever.
Neil McCauley over Lenny “Pluto” Franklyn. This was a tough choice. I had forgotten about Pluto—the leader of the Los Angeles drug gang in the oft-overlooked One False Move. He is brilliant, patient and legitimately frightening. But McCauley simply operates at a completely different level. He plans intricate, massive-haul heists in broad daylight, and he is willing to abandon anyone at any time to save himself.
Jack Carter over Francis Costello. Two of the best gangster films ever made in Get Carter and The Departed. Two of the greatest actors of the last 75 years in Michael Caine and Jack Nicholson. Carter is someone we root for—he wants to avenge his brother—even as his violent depravity shocks us. Costello rules a vast criminal empire, untouched by the law, for decades. However, for all of Nicholson’s talent, Caine imbues Carter with an icy resolve that chills viewers…and, as I pointed out before, Costello is loosely based on “Whitey” Bulger.
Keyser Soze over The Pin. The Pin is a high school student, Keyser Soze…is Keyser Soze.
Tom Stall/Joey Cusack BARELY over Frank. A fascinating matchup between two very sympathetic—albeit violently criminal—men who just want to forget the past and be with their families. But their past won’t let them, so they must brutally destroy that past. The one difference is that we know Stall returns to his family, and his children (at least) welcome him. Frank’s ending is far more ambiguous.
Marsellus Wallace over Leo O’Bannon. Despite very little screen time, Wallace is the absolute dominant force in Pulp Fiction. Jules and Vincent work for him, the briefcase belongs to him (and, no, it is NOT his soul), Butch Coolidge is hiding from him and, well, there is that “medieval” thing. Not to take anything away from mob boss O’Bannon, but Miller’s Crossing is a long way from Los Angeles.
Matty Walker over Suzie Toller. I agonized the most over this decision, by far. Both of them get away with their crimes, perhaps ending up on the same tropical beach with the world thinking they are dead. Indeed, Toller does everything Walker does, with far more intelligence, dedication (she literally rips out her own tooth with a pair of pliers) and cool-headedness…and she is only a high school student. In the end, however, it boiled down to the “neo-noir” status of each character’s film. While I think Wild Things is very underrated, it simply is not the classic of neo-noir Body Heat is. For that reason, and for that reason alone, I extremely reluctantly chose Walker over Toller.
Catherine over Suzanne Brown/Ann McCord. The bottom line is this: Brown/McCord is not necessarily the worst villain in Red Rock West. Catherine is the only villain in Black Widow.
Lilly Dillon over Jackie Brown. Jackie Brown may be the most charming and delightful character on this list; I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed Jackie Brown. By contrast, Dillon is…difficult to like.
Leonard Shelby over Andy Hanson. This is not close. Hanson arranges for his hapless brother to rob their parents’ jewelry store—no muss, no fuss, until the robbery goes horribly wrong. While he is an amoral jerk, Shelby lets himself become a serial killer rather than face the fact he is responsible for his wife’s death…assuming he still actually cares. He can always forget any despicable crime he commits, charming his way through life.
Peter Cable over Mavis Wald. These are two old-school, not especially interesting characters (1971, 1969) whose murders operate within a fairly narrow sphere. Cable was effectively a coin flip.
Tom Ripley over Terry Lennox. This is only a mild upset. Like Wald, Lennox is old-school; both emerge from classic Raymond Chandler novels. Ripley is also old-school, emerging from the brilliant mind of Patricia Highsmith. But Ripley keeps appearing in films, beginning with Plein soleil (Purple Noon) in 1960, and he is the poster-boy for manipulation, effortlessly becoming other people.
Catherine Tramell over Mike. This was a tough choice, as both are among the most skilled liars in all of neo-noir. However, Mike is primarily a phenomenally gifted con artist who only kills when absolutely necessary, and he does get defeated in House of Games. If I read the ending of Basic Instinct correctly, Tramell murders incessantly and gets away with it.
Woo-Jin Lee over Bridget Gregory. I admit to being at a disadvantage here: I have seen The Last Seduction twice, but I have not (yet) seen Oldeuboi. Still, here is what I do know. Gregory is driven by fear and revenge over her abusive husband Clay, played with slimy perfection by Bill Pullman. But she is not inherently bad; she mostly just wants to be left alone…though she allows an innocent man to pay the price for her crimes. Lee, by contrast, locks a man—admittedly no saint—in a room for 15 years, then maneuvers him into sleeping with his own daughter. The yuck factor alone propels Lee forward.
Psychotic Loner/Hired Assassin
Rorschach over Walker. For the second time, a 16 seed upsets a 1 seed. While Point Blank, along with Body Heat, Chinatown, L.A. Confidential and Taxi Driver, is of the five key neo-noir films—those with 20.0 POINTS or more—Walker is far too sympathetic to be a villain. He is left for dead at the film’s start, betrayed by his partners in crime. In fact, the entire film may be a revenge fantasy Walker plays out in his mind as he dies. Meanwhile, I suspect Watchmen, like Nightcrawler, will receive more recognition as a neo-noir over time. And Rorschach will take his place alongside Callahan, Kersey and others in the vigilante pantheon—though less sympathetic and more unsettling.
Vincent over Mr. Blonde/Vic Vega. Vincent is a meticulous planner, while Vega is a screw-loose thug.
Loren Visser over The Driver. As violent as the latter is, his redemption arc and the tenderness with which he moves Irene aside in the elevator before pummeling a hit man to death keeps him from advancing to the next round. Visser, for his part, is the textbook hired assassin: deadly, ruthless and unwavering.
Kevin over Max Cady. Cady is terrifying, almost animalistic in his single-minded quest for revenge. But Scorsese’s Cape Fear is a remake of a classic-era-ish film noir. And I have never felt a cold chill go up my spine like I did when I first saw Kevin appear in the doorway to Goldie’s bedroom, eyes hidden behind shiny glasses. Learning he is panther-like quiet, strong and fast—and a sadistic cannibalistic religious zealot—was my primary takeaway from Sin City. Elijah Wood has seriously dark depths.
Jef Costello over Alex Forrest. Forrest’s character gets a raw deal, full stop.
John Doe over Jame Gumb/Buffalo Bill. These are the twin nightmares of this category. In one corner is the unnamed serial killer who haunts the unnamed city of Se7en, dispensing divine retribution for violation of the seven deadly sins—even to the point of mutilating and punishing himself. In the other corner is the serial killer of The Silence of the Lambs who kidnaps, tortures and murders women to build a new skin for himself. The one key difference is that while both men die at the end of the film, Doe remains in control of the situation even after that. In fact, he is in control for the entire movie.
Anton Chigurh over Jules Winnfield. They are the yin and yang of hired assassins. Chigurh is quiet, patient and slavishly devoted to the toss of his coin. Winnfield is loud, impulsive and given to misquoting Biblical passages. Both are extremely effective, terrifying and survive the film. But Winnfield has a legitimate redemption arc, however incomplete—and he thwarts the coffee shop robbery.
Travis Bickle over Louis Bloom. I agonized over this match-up almost as much as Matty Walker versus Suzie Toller. This process began when I marveled at Jake Gyllenhall’s emaciated performance in Nightcrawler. Coincidentally, I noted the strong resemblance between these two lonely outsiders who prowl the night city, feeding off its dark criminality—and understanding that their perception is distorted, a half-view of reality. Both men survive at the end of the film, though while Bickle, despite being hailed as a “hero,” has not grown at all, Bloom now has a thriving, expanding video news production business. Two things elevate Bickle, however: Taxi Driver’s iconic status and the number of people he kills himself (Bloom does not directly kill anybody).
Moving on to Round 2
Noah Cross over Ras Al Ghul. Al Ghul genuinely thinks the League of Shadows are helping Gotham City by destroying it—and it is he who first trains Bruce Wayne. Compared to the narcissistic and greedy Cross, Al Ghul is downright sympathetic.
Harry Angel over Alonzo Harris. Harris is corrupt, but Angel borders on pure evil.
Dr. Hannibal Lecter over Stansfield. This was not as obvious as it might seem. In the context of Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs, Lecter assists law enforcement in the pursuit of the Tooth Fairy and Buffalo Bill. Stansfield, by contrast, is the unequivocal villain of Leon: The Professional, ritualistically popping pills and psyching himself up with classical music. Leon, the hired assassin, is the sympathetic character. This should actually elevate Stansfield over Lecter. However, Lecter is only able to help Clarice Starling because he is locked in his cell, or masked and bound. He is a violent cannibalistic psychopath—WHO ENDS THE FILM ON THE LOOSE. Stansfield is blown up at the end of Leon.
Dudley Smith over Tom Farrell. Farrell is contemptible, a Russian spy embedded deep within the American government, but he is not the killer being sought in No Way Out. Smith is a cold-blooded killer, determined to erase anyone—allies and foes alike—who prevents him from seizing full control of organized crime in Los Angeles. Yes, he dies at the end of the film, but Farrell is captured, making it a wash.
The Joker over Don Logan. Joker’s ability to strategize, his nihilism and his disinterest in material gain elevate him over the admittedly-petrifying loose cannon that is Logan.
Frank Booth over Neil McCauley. McCauley is a master criminal willing to cut social ties to save himself, but he is not inherently bad. Booth is.
Keyser Soze over Jack Carter. Carter is vicious, relentless and fear-inducing—but in the context of Get Carter, he is the hero: we want him to succeed. Soze makes other hardened criminals scared of their own shadows.
Marsellus Wallace over Tom Stall/Joey Cusack. After all of his deranged violence—violence he neither sought nor wanted—Stall has a final tender, wholly silent scene with the family he loves. When last we see Wallace, he is about to, you know, get medieval.
Catherine over Matty Walker. This is another upset, a 9 seed eliminating a 1 seed, though it was close. Walker goes through the machinations of killing her husband once, but Catherine does it at least three times. Walker gets away with her crimes, but Catherine is defeated. The difference is that Catherine is motivated by more than simple greed. She is a serial killer, titillated by the careful planning, and—unlike Walker—will keep being the black widow indefinitely.
Leonard Shelby over Lilly Dillon. What sets Shelby apart from Dillon, professional con artist and thief, is his willingness to “forget” all of his previous crimes. He chooses to be a serial killer because, like Catherine, some part of him enjoys it.
Tom Ripley over Peter Cable. Ripley is simply more devious and deviant—and vastly more interesting.
Catherine Tramell over Woo-Jin Lee. I nearly went the other way on this, but I know too little about Lee to be confident in my decision. And, reviewing the plot of Basic Instinct, Tramell is far more deadly and dangerous than I had recalled. Lee ruins one life—well, two—but Tramell kills early and often.
Psychotic Loner/Hired Assassin
Vincent over Rorschach. This also was not obvious. Vincent feels nothing for his fellow humans; Rorschach drips with contempt for them. Vincent kills because he is paid to do so, and his brilliance allows him to do so effectively and lucratively. Rorschach kills because he wants to clean society of its filth, and because he was severely traumatized as a child. But, despite being a nominal “superhero,” it is difficult to root for him. Yet, root for him we do—and we are genuinely upset when Dr. Manhattan kills him at the end of Watchmen. We are not remotely upset when Vincent dies at the end of Collateral.
Kevin over Loren Visser. The cannibal serial killer eliminates the hired assassin.
John Doe over Jef Costello. The zealot serial killer eliminates the hired assassin.
Anton Chigurh over Travis Bickle. Chigurh is evil at its most banal: indifferent, patient and calculating. But for his coin, he would kill many more people. Moreover, by OAP, No Country For Old Men is the post-1966 most often cited as “film noir.” Bickle, by contrast, is less evil than deeply troubled, unable to cope with his surroundings. He does not kill for money or sport, but to “cleanse” society by rescuing a single child prostitute. And he is the nominal “hero” of Taxi Driver.
And with that, the Not-So-Sweet Sixteen is set.
Figure 2: Worst Character in Neo-Noir, Not-So-Sweet 16
It is now time to vote on Twitter, so please find me there @drnoir33! I will keep early votes open longer, but not more than 36 hours or so.
Until next time…be safe and careful…and please get vaccinated!