Thursday, April 16, 2009

10 Favorite Characters Meme


Hank Quinlan - Orson Welles (Touch of Evil)
Welles at his most uninhibited, a shambling mess and "some kind of a man." Marlene Dietrich advises him to "lay off the candy bars," but he laments "It's either the whiskey or the hooch." A sympathetic if racist mess of a monster, Quinlan's full of so many great lines and bits of business while he's planting evidence and beating up Mexicans that I could watch him read the phone book from cover to cover. When I tore a knee ligament and had to use a cane for a few months I started to talk like Quinlan almost automatically. I know he's bad, but I still love him.

Clare Quilty - Peter Sellers (Lolita)
I wanted to figure out a way to name check Sue Lyon in this list because she needs more recognition. But when it comes to Lolita, the film really belongs to Peter Sellers who simply shows up and steals the film from James Mason whenever he pleases, dead panning his way through one hysterical impression after another. My favorite incarnation is the above, as the dashing drama critic who hits suburbia like the X-ray vision king in the land of the blind. Feigning, perhaps, a moral interest in protecting Lolita from her obsessive drag of a "father," Quilty wants to whisk her away to a much safer future: making stag films in a continual drug-drenched orgy at a western dude ranch, and in Kubrick's unflinching eye, his Satanic shadiness is more honest, moral and true than the righteous, violent hypocrisy of Humbert and "normal" society.


Shanghai Lilly - Marlene Dietrich (Shanghai Express)
Dietrich is at her most luminous and morally ambivalent in 1933's Shanghai Express, my favorite of all her Sternberg collaborations, which mean favorite of all her films, and maybe all film, period. First of all, her crazy black feather dress fulfills the promise of all the "bird girl" femme fatale costumes that Edith Head was showing the public since the silent era. Then there's Shanghai Lilly's incredible coolness. What better place to ride from Peking to Shangai than in a first class train compartment with two high-rent courtesans like Lilly and Anna May Wong? There's great business with Dietrich turning the tables on the old Professor Henry Davidson type and counter-snubbing an old lady who runs a boarding house ("What kind of a house did you say?"), but even better is her teasing treatment of the brooding British military doctor hero. When he tells her he tried to forget her she replies, eyes wide like a child's, "Did you try, very hard?"


Peter Lorre - Mr. Moto (Think Fast, Mr. Moto, etc.)
James Bond is cool, Charlie Chan is okay when number one son and racist comic relief aren't hogging spotlight, but the combo thereof is a master of disguise and judo in the form of a humble little Japanese gentlemen perfectly embodied by  Weimar-era nutcase Peter Lorre. Best moment comes in the first film: Think Fast, Mr. Moto, wherein after behaving through the whole first forty minutes like a shy Japanese tourist, Moto calmly advances on a shady ship's steward he's seen steal a letter. "The letter, please," Moto says in a tone so melodically dead it would chill Hannibal Lechter. "The letter." The steward pulls out a knife as Moto advances. As inexorably steadily as a cobra advancing on a shivering mouse, a faint glimmer of a smile crosses Moto's face. Next shot: the steward flying overboard to certain death at sea. Moto isn't even fazed. Lorre's always great and if you haven't seen it, track down THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK, but the Moto series is a rare instance of a great character actor getting a well-deserved steady gig, and acing it every time.

Captain Patrick Hendry - Kenneth Tobey (The Thing - 1951)
When people think of the title The Thing nowadays, they think of the Carpenter "remake," which I too love. BUT it can get shrill. It's not quite as riveting and soothing as Hawks' original, which plays on TV in Carpenter's Halloween, and which barely bothers with special effects and focuses instead on rapid fire overlapping dialogue and camaraderie with the air force team under Hendry's command. First of all, I love any film that takes place in cold, windy desolation; such environs soothe my savage Nordic melancholy, and Tobey's character is someone you can see yourself proud to serve; witty, sharp, warm, open to suggestions but never wishy washy, and sometimes "making like an octopus."

Lt. Melanie Ballard - Natasha Henstridge (Ghosts of Mars)
Great name, great movie, great character. No matter what everyone else says, I'll champion this movie until I die, and maybe after that. I dig that Melanie is a hot chick on a Mars who likes to pop psychedelics while dealing with bad guys, doesn't give a shit if she lives or dies, and is meanwhile as cute as a button. A sci fi comedy so deadpan people still haven't realized it's not a straight-up action drama. Maybe it is and I'm wrong, I just love everything about this movie. Melanie's role could be played by Kurt Russell, then it would be easier to guess it's funny, only Henstridge is much prettier and the comedy is thus even deadpanner. She has a way of taking a bad piece of dialogue and somehow transforming it into gold. That's alchemy, mister! And her rapport with Ice Cube is built on grudging respect--a hilarious and poignant, even racially healing touch-as opposed to some trite "chaste romance" as is so often the result of mixed race couples in big budget movies. If Hawks saw GHOSTS OF MARS, I bet he'd think it was brilliant.


W.C. FIELDS as himself (Never Give a Sucker an Even Break)
His final starring role, Fields has a permanent drunken nasal whine, a nose like a Dario Argento special effect, and a languid sense of resignation. He's the real thing, LEAVING LAS VEGAS-style. Universal saddled him with little Gloria Jean, an ingenue they were trying to promote, and against all odds, a believable bond forms between them. Highlight, Fields singing "Chickens have pretty legs in Kansas" while in his upper berth as the stewardess, Gloria Jean, and others all smile and look up to the heavens in agog rapture; it's a cozy, hallucinatory alternate reality airplane that has a "open air rear observation compartment" which Fields later dives over to "retrieve a bottle of golden nectar."

Gino Rinaldo - George Raft (Scarface - 1932)
As Tony Camonte, Paul Muni is hilariously over the top, but it's George Raft who rings the truest (and with good reason!) as the Beta Male, Gino. Rinaldo doesn't light Tony's cigarettes or go "Aw Gee, Boss" but he never gets greedy or ambitious either. His constant poker face and ease in his own skin insures no boasting or showmanship; he just quietly flips a coin over and over, shoots a guy, then walks away with your kid sister. I love the scene where, just after almost being killed, Tony tries to call Rinaldo from the restaurant hang-out, and has to ransack his memory for a list of Rinaldo's girl friends' phone numbers before he tracks him down. It's late, late in the evening and there's Raft, a tall coil of smoke all you see of him at first, rising from a couch, with some flapper hottie gazing down at him in quiet rapture. This is the kind of gangster who knows how to live and doesn't have to make a big show of it. Once he learns Tony's in trouble, he beats it out of there, but not hastily or otherwise blowing his cool. Naturally he'd be the only one who can handle a female panther like Ann Dvorak, and wisely waits until Tony's out of the country before giving into her seductive wiles.

The whole bit with the coin also echoes marvelously in SOME LIKE IT HOT ("Where'd you pick up that cheap trick," Raft says as he grabs a flunky's coin in mid-air.) As a tough guy, Raft's a great role model, not as high-strung as Cagney, as blustery as Eddie or as dead-eyed as Bogart, but who else could pull off the hat trick in NIGHT AFTER NIGHT of being sweet like a schoolkid as he learns to read with tutor Allison Skipworth one second, then go toe to toe with a gang trying to take over his speakeasy the next?


Claude - Tom Fergus (Over the Edge)
The world of after-school specials is awash in unconvincing druggie behavior, but Tom Fergus and his deadpan approach to the borderline Spiccoli-esqueness of Claude is spot on, the benchmark. This kid guzzles whiskey from the 1.75 liter, drops acid in class (he thought it was speed!) and takes a set-up from his drug dealer with aplomb before throwing the rat into the pond. Matt Dillon is the older more verbose stoner in the group, but it's Claude who is the shaman, the heart and mystic soul of New Grenada. Like Rinaldo, he's too busy making the best of life to be showy or grand-standing... no wonder he makes it through the finale unscathed.


Fah Lo Suee - Myrna Loy (Mask of Fu Manchu)
Anna May Wong would have been my first choice, but there's something irresistible about Loy's cute little gamin face all squeezed up in menacing hisses as the kinky daughter of Fu Manchu. The code would soon disallow vamps to get this vampy, but when we see her slithering over the hunky shirtless surface of our hero--having heard Fu's concern that if she's allowed to have her way, the man would soon be a gibbering, pain-wracked wreck--we can't help but convulse in sadomasochistic delight because we just don't know what she would have done with him, given the chance. We do get to see her yelling "faster! faster!" as her flunkies flog him, it's a little beak-whetter. For better or worse, she's my dream girl.

Thanks to Movieman for the tag. Consider yourself tagged just for reading this!

5 comments:

  1. Great pick with Raft. And you've intrigued me with Over the Edge. On DVD?

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  2. Thanks MM! And Over the Edge IS on DVD, you can even get it through my acidemic store-amazon connection for fifteen dollar here.

    It's soooo good. I must have seen it 20 times on a blurry VHS dupe, and the DVD looks great... if you ever wanted to blow up your school as a kid in the 1970s, this one's for you. Lots of great music on the soundtrack too, espec. Cheap Trick.

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  3. i have been dancing like clare quilty ever since i saw the school dance scene. pure beatnik.
    my band 'slow children' lived on 'lolita' our entire lifespan!

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  4. Two big thumbs-up for your GHOSTS OF MARS plug. It's nice to see we're not the only ones who love this movie!

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  5. I love Scarface(the original off course) Geroge Raft is better in this type of role than in Bolero for instance(another favorite movie due to Carole Lombard).

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