Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: My 20 most memorable movie characters, pt. 1

The other day the UK publication Empire came up with its “100 Most Memorable Movie Characters.” As with most such lists, I read it with a mixture of ennui and growing disbelief — much the same as happens whenever the AFI (American Film Institute) comes down from on high with their list of some arbitrary amount of “greatest” some kind of films or other. Being that they’re Brits, I was marginally willing to cut them some slack for the unthinkable choice of Christopher Lee’s Dracula as opposed to the Bela Lugosi one, but only barely. (Even as keen an Anglophile as myself has to draw the line somewhere.)

I am not, however, giving any credence of any kind to a list that considers Princess Leia of Star Wars as more memorable than Rick Blaine (Humprey Bogart in Casablanca). Hell, as a character, I find her less memorable than Princess Aura in the 1936 Flash Gordon serial — at least she was kinky, oversexed, had a much bigger chest and didn’t have that dumb hairdo. This pales in comparison to any list that rates Ace Ventura as a most memorable character — unless it’s “most memorable character I wish I could forget.”

Overall, the list suffered from a bad case of committee-itis. It felt like it had been put together by a focus group, and not by people who really felt these characters were memorable for any personal reasons. That’s fairly conclusively borne out by the strong leaning toward newer films. “Most of our readers don’t know what Casablanca is” seems to be the operative logic with choices made to reflect that. So lip-service is paid to a few of the inescapable “classics” with no depth whatever. I suppose it’s good for business. I’m less certain it’s good for anything else.  If lists have any value — and besides being fun and infuriating, I’m not sure they do — it ought to lie in getting folks to look at things they haven’t seen before, to broaden their frames of reference, not merely to validate what they know.

Not surprisingly, I opted to make my own list. Well, at least in part. I’m not quite ambitious enough to go for the full 100, but 20 seemed workable. The results are certainly not geared to maximum recognition value. But they do reflect 20 movie characters — and the performances that brought them to life (you really don’t have one without the other) — I find indelibly imprinted on my cinematic psyche. There are others, yes, and I regret certain omissions, but I make no apologies for the favored 20, even though I am willing to discuss it.

Being that I am nothing if not loquacious, I find it necessary to split this into two groups of 10, so this week’s entry is only the bottom half of my top 20, but that doesn’t mean you should sell this first group short.

20. Professor Leonide (Bela Lugosi). Scared to Death (1947). Yes, Dracula is the iconic Bela Lugosi role (and by that I mean the 1931 performance, not that Abbott and Costello thing from 1948 where he looks like one of those heavily powdered elderly women who sit around the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel waiting for equally made-up paid escorts). And, yes, his performance as Dr. Vitus Werdegast in The Black Cat (1934) is probably his best. Still—and quite apart from the…peculiar quality of the film that contains it—I’m going with his Professor Leonide. This may in part be because I first saw it at the age of seven while helping my mother type petitions. I became quite adept at typing the lines for people to sign. (Bela Lugosi, a political bent and typing at seven—is it any wonder how things turned out?) I’d no idea who Lugosi was at the time. And even less idea what was going on in the movie. I’m still kind of working on the latter.

Leonide is a probably insane (there are references to him having been confined to the house in which the action takes place when it was a sanitarium), broken down stage magician with a completely disreputable past. At one point reporter Douglas Fowley mentions that when he was a kid he saw Leonide’s act at a theater in Albany, adding, “That was the night the box office receipts disappeared as if by magic.” Leonide’s assurance that it was “part of the act” drips with insincerity. Decked out in a Dracula cape, a slouch hat and a Col. Sanders tie—not to mention squiring around an almost matching dwarf (Angelo Rossitto)—Lugosi cuts quite a figure as a down-at-the-heels con man putting on a brave face. He doesn’t have any illusions about himself, however. When the maid (Gladys Blake) insists on announcing him, he brushes her aside, saying, “My dear girl, if I allowed myself to be announced, I doubt I would be received anywhere.”

Part of the charm of the character lies in the fact that he’s really almost extraneous to the rest of the film. Even granting a connection to the identity of the “unknown madman who is terrorizing this house,” he’s scarcely even a red herring. He mostly wanders through the proceedings making wry comments and being unnecessarily mysterious. Little of it has the slightest connection to the plot, though some of it is pretty odd. At one point, it even smacks of being a little unsavory—when he carts off the comatose maid through a secret passage while the dwarf gleefully rubs his hands together in anticipation of God knows what (since there’s no payoff, neither do we). At the same time, it’s fascinating to watch Lugosi create the only character in the entire film with any dimension. And he does it from nothing, proving himself easily as adept at magic as his shady character.

19. Sorrowful Jones (Adolphe Menjou). Little Miss Marker (1934). As much as I personal deplore Adolph Menjou’s politics—especially his stint of red-baiting during the McCarthy era—I never tire of and have nothing but praise for his performance as Sorrowful Jones in the first (of four) film versions of Damon Runyon’s story about a little girl who’s left with a bookmaker (Sorrowful) as security for a bet. The story is the typical Runyon mixture of underworld characters with absurdly colorful names like Sorrowful, Bennie the Gouge, Regret, etc., low comedy and shameless sentimentality. Somehow it all works here—I don’t care how resistant you think you are to Shirley Temple, who plays the title role. It’s partly due to Alexander Hall’s direction and a sharp screenplay by William R. Lipman, Sam Hellman and Gladys Lehman. The beautiful and tragic Dorothy Dell (she was killed that same year in a car crash at the age of 19) as Bangles Carson and a strong supporting cast help. (Charles Bickford delivering what is perhaps the greatest final line in the history of film deserves special mention.) But it’s Menjou’s Sorrowful who carries the film.

There’s an irony to Menjou being in the role of “the cheapest skate on Broadway,” not in the least because his cheapness extends to his clothing. Menjou, on the other hand, was known—onscreen and off—for his sartorial fastidiousness and was often called “the best dressed man in Hollywood.” Until his character starts to thaw and he splurges on a new suit (“Can’t a citizen buy a new suit of clothes without everybody going batty?”) about 50 minutes into the movie, he’s a model of shabbiness. This isn’t the only thing that makes the role unusual for Menjou. Much hinges on the fact that Sorrowful Jones’ character is crafted so that the actor has to go through a series of changes throughout the film—going from a cynical chiseler who’ll double-cross anybody for a buck to an unwilling foster father to a caring human being. Any performance that can survive a crise de conscience scene that reduces a hardboiled cynic to prayer (“I got a lot of nerve coming to you now”) is one to remember. It even makes me forgive Menjou for having his headstone trip me (I’m sure it was deliberate) when I was wandering around Hollywood Memorial Cemetery years ago.

18. Joe (Paul Robeson). Show Boat (1936). Joe is a supporting character in the stage version of Show Boat—remembered almost entirely for singing “Ol’ Man River.” He remains a supporting character in James Whale’s 1936 film version of the show, but you’d never know it. The role has been slightly enlarged, but the real difference lies in the way Whale uses the character, making him the film’s conscience, the embodiment of the anti-racism theme that drives the first (and most interesting) section of the story. In the big scene where the white Steve Baker (Donald Cook) claims—correctly, since he’s just swallowed some—to have “Negro blood in me right now,” adding “That’s how white I am,” Whale cuts away to Joe, who looks down in sorrow as if he’s ashamed for the entire human race. It’s a powerful moment from a powerful portrayal of the character by Paul Robeson.

Robeson’s Joe is an amazing, indelible creation that Whale presents with both showmanship and respect. The degree of which we’re to expect something special from Joe is established in our first shot of him with Whale’s camera tracking into a close-up on the character—announcing his importance and the indomitable nature of his spirit. Almost immediately, this promise is delivered on with “Ol’ Man River.” Thrillingly shot—Whale’s camera is in love with Robeson’s face—the song would have been enough by itself, but Joe is then turned into a larger symbol by cutaways that illustrate the lyrics. But the film returns to and concludes on the image of Joe the man, and it’s the man that makes the character indelible.

17. Gilda Farrell (Miriam Hopkins). Design for Living (1933). This was a hard call because there are two prime candidates for memorable characters played by Miriam Hopkins—this one and her Lily in Trouble in Paradise (1932). Both are wonderful characters brought to vivid life by Hopkins in wonderful films made by Ernst Lubitsch. I finally opted for this one because it’s more “her film” (she shares leading lady status with Kay Francis in Trouble in Paradise). Gilda Farrell is an American girl working as a commercial artist in France, who becomes romantically involved with both a painter (Gary Cooper) and a playwright (Fredric March). Since she can decide on neither—and since neither really wants to be without the other—they set up a theoretically sexless menage a trois (called a “gentlemen’s agreement”) with Gilda taking charge of their respective careers. The sexless angle works about as well as might be imagined with Gilda herself confessing that the agreement doesn’t hold because “unfortunately, I am no gentleman.”

It’s a tricky role—especially for the time, since Gilda’s morals are obviously on the free-thinking side—but it works and is never less than charming and delightful. Whether dramatizing herself (an image undercut by the cloud of dust she raises when she collapses on a sofa in affected mental turmoil) or excusing not keeping her promise to keep a typewriter in working condition by nothing of the bell, “But it still rings,” she handles the role with just the right touch of humor, humanity and sexiness.

16. Rev. Peter Shayne (Anthony Perkins). Crimes of Passion (1984). Conventional wisdown would have it that the most memorable character ever created by Anthony Perkins is Norman Bates in Psycho (1960) and its progeny. I won’t really argue with the choice for anyone who wants to make it, but for me the role of the ‘round the bend street preacher, Peter Shayne, in Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion slightly edges it out in its complexity—not to mention Perkins’ delivery of screenwriter Barry Sandler’s viciously witty and utterly profane dialogue (almost none of which can be quoted here).

The characterization is to some degree grounded in Perkins’ Norman Bates. Shayne is also both sexually-repressed and obsessed with sex. He even has a peephole set up—much like Bates—for voyeuristic purposes, except it’s one that he uses to further torment himself over the object of his obsession, a fashion designer named Joanna Crane (Kathleen Turner), who masquerades by night as an exotic hooker called China Blue. Instead of the specter of a controlling mother, Shayne is eaten up by religious fanaticism that can’t be reconciled with his desires. The two sides are in perpetual conflict to such a degree that he alternates between them sometimes in the same sentence, leading him to conclude that both he and China Blue (in whom he sees himself) cannot exist simultaneously—“One of us has to die so the other can live.” It’s a complex performance of a complex character—at once terrifying, funny and heartbreaking—and unforgettable.

15. Benjamin Disraeli (George Arliss). Disraeli (1929). Hardly anyone remembers George Arliss today, yet in the early sound era he was Warner Bros.’ prestige star (often billed as “Mr. George Arliss) to such a degree that he had the kind of control over his films usually only given to the most powerful of directors. His is a case of the actor as auteur, and, in fact, his portrayal of Benjamin Disraeli earned him an Oscar for Best Actor. But time and fashion are not always kind. Arliss was 61 when he made Disraeli. He had learned his stagecraft in the 19th century and represented a school of acting that was out of date even in 1929, relying as it did on stock dramatic gestures (and he uses each and every one of them). That he’d also played the role onstage countless times and made a silent version of the play in 1921 perhaps caused his signature performance here to come across more as a carefully honed bag of tricks. (His later performances in material written for the screen are considerably more naturalistic.) As a result, both he and his Disraeli have fallen out of favor.

Looked at without prejudice of dismissing the role and performance as old-fashioned, however, it’s hard to deny that it’s effective, it’s entertaining and it’s unforgettable. It’s by no means realistic, but then neither is the dialogue in a Shakespeare play and we honor that as brilliant and classic—recognizing that there is more than one path to achieving an inner truthfulness. Why should acting be any different? Well, really, it shouldn’t, and unless we’re prepared to look at it in that light, we’re denying ourselves the pleasure and the experience of an earlier era. Arliss’ Disraeli may be like a relic out of a time capsule, but what a magnificent relic it is.

14. Svengali (John Barrymore). Svengali (1931). John Barrymore is another actor—a more modern one than Arliss—whose sense of theatricality has often diminished his once unchallenged reputation as one of the greatest of all actors. His descent into alcoholism, bad behavior on the set and self-parody haven’t helped matters. He himself exaggerated his condition in his later films out of contempt and laziness. In the late 30s—when his dialogue “had” to be written on a chalkboard out of camera range—he once startled the crew by delivering the entire “To be or not to be” speech from Hamlet, causing the director to ask him why he couldn’t remember his lines. His response? “My dear fellow, why should I fill my head with this shit today only to forget it tomorrow?”

His Svengali, however, is from a different era when he was still at the height of his powers—and it was a role he loved, not in the least because of its grotesquerie. Barrymore hated his matinee idol good looks and delighted whenever he could hide them behind a character make-up, which he got to do here as the unscrupulous, unorthodox and apparently unclean (he claims he hasn’t had a bath “since I tripped and fell in the sewer”) womanizing Polish voice teacher. The character is more or less the villain of the piece—keeping the heroine, Trilby (Marian Marsh), under his control by hypnosis—but in reality he’s a dedicated artist who has been thwarted in his love for the girl. In fact, he’s disgusted by his control over her, dismissing her claims of love as “only Svengali talking to himself.” Barrymore plays the role for all its worth—humor, pathos and, yes, menace. Only one person could top Barrymore here—and that was Barrymore himself three years later in his greatest performance.

13. Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley). The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942). Recreating his stage role of the title character of The Man Who Came to Dinner, Monty Woolley found some of his richest material from the George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart play censored out of existence, including his classic entrance line, “I may vomit,” delivered as he surveys a roomful of socially ambitious residents of Mesalia, Ohio. This didn’t stop him from being able to justify having created one of the greatest comedy creations of all time. It’s been suggested that the perfect version of the play would have starred theatre critic, radio personality and lecturer Alexander Woolcott, on whom the character of Sheridan Whiteside was based. (The play is dedicated to Woolcott “for reasons that are nobody’s business.) That sounds like a better idea than a viewing of Woolcott’s performance in Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Scoundrel (1935) suggests. For public purposes, Monty Woolley is Sheridan Whiteside.

The premise has Whiteside having injured himself slipping on the ice in front of the home of Mr. and Mrs. Stanley (Grant Mitchell and Billie Burke) after coming there for dinner while on a lecture tour. Not only does he take over the house, but he’s in the process of driving everyone crazy, while planning to sue the homeowners for $150,000. He’s impossible, implacable and unbearably rude—even though he views himself as a great humanitarian. (His secretary [Bette Davis] even points out to him, “You have one great advantage over everyone else in the world—you’ve never had to meet Sheridan Whiteside.) He dismisses a gift of calves’ foot jelly from his hostess as “made from your own foot, I have no doubt.” Naturally, everyone thinks he’s charming—except his much beleagured host, about him he muses at one point, “Is it true that in China they drown middle-aged businessmen at birth?” Preposterous and outrageous—and as memorable a character as ever was. All this plus Christmas, an axe murderess, penguins and an octopus!

12. Justin Playfair (George C. Scott). They Might Be Giants (1971). It tanked upon its scant release in 1971, but They Might Be Giants—despite being once referred to by its star as “possibly the worst film I ever made”—has become a cult favorite over the years and proven to be one of George C. Scott’s most enduring films. In truth, it’s the sort of film I would normally look a little askance at, because it trades in the realm of romanticizing mental illness. In this instance, though the results are frankly irresistible. For a film that Scott dismissed, he certainly gave his performance as Justin Playfair—a delusional ex-jurist who has come to believe he’s Sherlock Holmes—everything he had.

They storyline of the film is a bit thin—Playfair’s brother is trying to get control of his estate by having Justin declared insane in order to pay off a blackmailer, so he attempts to have him certified. Unfortunately for him, the doctor the case is handed to happens to be named Dr. Watson—Dr. Mildred Watson (Joanne Woodward). Naturally, Justin takes her to be the Dr. Watson, and as it turns out she finds herself drawn into his world, despite her own good sense and the fact that Justin’s abilities don’t quite match those of his model. (He can’t play the violin—“Jesus Christ! I absolutely cannot play the goddamn thing!”—but insists on trying because “Holmes fiddles while he thinks.”) What follows is a warm, convincing, whimsical—finally tragic—romance with a lot of keen observations on the world buried inside it. Scott gets one terrific speech near the end of the film that would alone make it unforgettable. “I think if God is dead, he laughed himself to death, because, you see, we live in Eden. Genesis has got it all wrong. We’ve never left the garden. Look about you. This is paradise. It’s hard to find, I grant you, but it is here. Under our feet, beneath the surface is everything we want. The earth is shining under the soot,” he informs a band of people whose lives he has touched, explaining it in simple good/bad terms of hero (Holmes) and villain (Prof. Moriarty). “We’re all fools,” he concludes, “Moriarty has made fools of all of us, but together—you and I tonight will bring him down.” It’s not only memorable, it’s worth remembering.

11. Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger). Bride of Frankenstein (1935). The choice of Dr. Pretorius from Bride of Frankenstein could just as easily have been Horace Femm from The Old Dark House (1932). The characters are cut from the same cloth. They’re both played by that master of camp Ernest Thesiger (known to his intimates as “the stitchin’ bitch” in reference to his needlepoint and demeanor). And they’re both in James Whale horror pictures. Pretorius might almost be an outgrowth of Horace. In The Old Dark House he offers the stranded travelers a drink, apologizing for it being “only gin,” but noting, “I like gin.”  By the time of Bride, this has become, “Do you like gin? It is my only weakness.” (Nevermind that later in the film cigars have become his “only weakness.”) All the same, Pretorius probably has a slight edge—and is certainly the more famous role (in part because it’s in the more famous film)—since the character, though still something of a “humbug” (as J.B. Priestley described Horace Femm in the source novel), is fully as menacing as he is funny. Pretorius—for all his camp value—is positively Satanic. He even compares himself to the tiny homunculus devil he “grew from seed.”

It’s the utter preposterousnes of the character that makes Pretorius so memorable. The mixture of charlatan, showman and showy queen with completely amoral, obsessive mad scientist is somehow just right. That “somehow” perhaps lies in the concept that even an evil genius can have his flaws and petty vanities. There’s no question, however, that he’d be just about anyone’s choice as a tour guide “to a new world of gods and monsters.” (For an imaginary look at Thesiger and the character check out Arthur Dignam’s potrayal of Thesiger on the set of Bride in Bill Condon’s 1998 film Gods and Monsters, where he takes one look at the “Bride” in full make-up and comments to the actor playing Colin Clive, “What a couple of old queens we are, Colin! We’ve not only dressed her, we’ve done her hair.”)

And there you have Part One of my very personal list of 20 most memorable characters. In Part Two next week, things could get (in the words of Dr. Pretorius himself) “really interesting.”

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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34 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: My 20 most memorable movie characters, pt. 1

  1. WataugaWatch

    Jason,
    My hat’s off to you! And I can’t wait for the second installment of this piece. I consider myself something of an old film buff, but somehow you managed to find and highlight 10 movies I’ve never seen. I’m on my way to NetFlix right now! Your stubborn individuality in picking these characters is wholly admirable, and you write with a nice verve. Much appreciated!

  2. Pearly Soames

    Maybe Jason is Wata’s choice as most memorable movie character.

  3. Justin Souther

    I thought I was the one who was supposed to “mistakenly” be called Jason.

  4. Ken Hanke

    I thought I was the one who was supposed to “mistakenly” be called Jason.

    Only when followed by “Southerner” and only if the intent is inimical to good fellowship.

  5. Chip Kaufmann

    I’ll bet you picked Professor Leonide because that’s Lugosi’s only film in color. SVENGALI and DISRAELI are also excellent choices. The EMPIRE list is but the latest one to emphasize films within the living memory of its compilers

  6. Bert

    Why do they always show the stupid remake of Showboat instead of the one with Paul Robeson? Is it even available on dvd?

  7. Sean Williams

    I remember how cheesed I was when Empire put Superman atop their list of the hundred best comic-book characters. Can you imagine a more predictable choice?

    Speaking of comics, love the new caricature of you at the top of the window.

    Also, it’s worth noting that few Star Wars fans consider Leia their favorite character.

  8. Ken Hanke

    I’ll bet you picked Professor Leonide because that’s Lugosi’s only film in color.

    Well, technically, that’s not quite true, since he appears in two-strip Technicolor in Viennese Nights (1930) — an almost unwatchable movie he’s barely in — and in a similarly small capacity in 50 Million Frenchmen (1931), though no color print of this seems to exist. Still, Scared to Death is the only color Lugosi vehicle. Actually, I picked it in part because I find it almost endlessly fascinating. (I remain convinced that Luis Bunuel — who was hanging around Hollywood at the time — either had something to do with it, or was at least taken by it. See the Lugosi-Rossitto clones at the beginning of his The Milky Way [1967].)

    I also picked it because it shows Lugosi in a role where it’s quite obvious he’s in on the joke. Plus, there’s a resonance to his performance that probably comes from his own personal fortunes not being all that much different from those of the character.

    The EMPIRE list is but the latest one to emphasize films within the living memory of its compilers

    That’s certainly true, but the question arises as to whether or not that’s much of an excuse. Of the 10 movies I picked for this half of the list, only two of them were made during my lifetime. Nothing on the list is exactly hard to see either. It’s less a question of the choices being within living memory, than it’s a question of a limited frame of reference, the ease of the obvious and intellectual laziness.

  9. Ken Hanke

    Why do they always show the stupid remake of Showboat instead of the one with Paul Robeson? Is it even available on dvd?

    No, it’s not on DVD. It came out on VHS and Criterion put it out on laserdisc. It does occasionally show up on TCM. Even though MGM didn’t make it, they bought it from Universal (hence, current prints bearing an MGM logo at the opening, but the Universal airplane at the end), so it’s part of the Turner holdings. According to the TCM website, the Robeson version is scheduled for March 16, 2009. Mark your calendar!

  10. Justin Souther

    Also, it’s worth noting that few Star Wars fans consider Leia their favorite character.

    Well, let’s be honest, if Jar Jar Binks had breasts he probably would’ve been much better received.

  11. Ken Hanke

    I remember how cheesed I was when Empire put Superman atop their list of the hundred best comic-book characters. Can you imagine a more predictable choice?

    Only Batman — and then it would only be more predictable if the list came out after everyone went lollipops over The Dark Knight.

    Speaking of comics, love the new caricature of you at the top of the window.

    I’m never sure how I feel about it. I guess I’d recognize it as me, so it must work.

    Also, it’s worth noting that few Star Wars fans consider Leia their favorite character.

    I can’t say that shocks me.

  12. Ken Hanke

    Well, let’s be honest, if Jar Jar Binks had breasts he probably would’ve been much better received.

    What a sobering thought.

  13. As always a very fun read – good pick on Anthony Perkins, though I thought you might have gone for William Hurt in “Altered States” as your Ken Russell pick of the week.

    Since you’ve already hinted that only two of the films were made in your lifetime, I guess Vincent Price in “The Abominable Dr Phibes” is out. As in Sean William Scott in “Dude, Where’s My Car”.

    Top 10 guesses…
    Bert Lahr (Cowardly Lion) in “Wizard of Oz”
    Peter Lorre (Hans Beckert) in “M”
    Charlie Chaplin (the tramp) in “City Lights”
    Joan Crawford (Mildred Pierce) in “Mildred Pierce”
    Jorge Mistral (Alejandro) in “Abismos de Pasion”
    Frank Sinatra (Frankie Machine) in “The Man with the Golden Arm”
    Boris Karloff (Morgan) in “The Old Dark House”
    Louise Brooks (Lulu) in “Pandora’s Box”
    Judith Anderson (Mrs. Danvers, though we never saw a Mr. Danvers) in “Rebecca”
    James Stewart (Edward Dows) in “Harvey”
    Michael Rennie (Klaatu) in “The Day The Earth Stood Still)

    And *just* missing out…
    Lon Chaney (Mr Wu) in “Mr. Wu”
    Alan Hale Jr. (Jeff Jones) in “Giant Spider Invasion”
    Peter Sellers (Fritz Fassbinder) in “What’s New Pussycat”
    Jane Seymour (Solitaire) in “Live and Let Die”
    Kenneth Williams (Citizen Camembert) in “Carry on Don’t Lose Your Head”

  14. Sean Williams

    Only Batman — and then it would only be more predictable if the list came out after everyone went lollipops over The Dark Knight.

    Sort of like Heath Ledger’s Joker being number three in the movie character list? Anyways, Batman was number two in the comic characters list. But I give them credit for slipping in Spider Jerusalem at number twelve.

    Also, they must have a thing for Marv from Sin City, because he’s on the comic list and the film list both. Much as I love the big palooka, I’d question whether he belongs on either.

    I’m never sure how I feel about it. I guess I’d recognize it as me, so it must work.

    It’s a fine caricature. The problem is that it’s inserted rather crudely into the webpage — it looks like a cardboard standup.

    It’s less a question of the choices being within living memory, than it’s a question of a limited frame of reference, the ease of the obvious and intellectual laziness.

    These people aren’t concerned with artistic integrity so much as recognizability. It’s not that I mind all of the obvious choices. It’s just that most of them — Jack Sparrow, James Bond, Indiana Jones, Darth Vader — constitute pop-cultural artifacts rather than truly incredible performances. (You know that, as a Star Wars nerd, it pains me to make that admission.)

    I’ve always regarded with great skepticism critics who affect to list the “best” movies or novels or characters. Honestly, how could one make such a determination? (Of course, presenting a list of your personal favorites is another matter entirely because it acknowledges the basic subjectivity of the ranking.)

  15. Ken Hanke

    Since you’ve already hinted that only two of the films were made in your lifetime, I guess Vincent Price in “The Abominable Dr Phibes” is out.

    Actually, I was only referring to the bottom half of my top 20. Looking over the next set (unless I change something), five of the top half were made in my lifetime — though one of them was when I was three or four years old and I certainly didn’t see it when it was new. (It’s a British picture and at that pre-James Bond, pre-Beatle time, my parents — like most Americans — were convinced that British pictures were automatically inferior, unless it was some internationally cast blockbuster like Bridge on the River Kwai.)

    I must say that’s a very interesting list of guesses. If nothing else, it makes me sorry that Peter Sellers (who is on my list) as Fritz Fassbender isn’t on it!

  16. Ken Hanke

    But I give them credit for slipping in Spider Jerusalem at number twelve.

    And I give you credit for knowing who that is, because I don’t. But, bear in mind, my comic book days ended back when Magnus Robot Fighter was still battling H-8 and karate chopping robots with a resounding, “Squeeee!” (How did they ever conclude that that was the sound of a robot being decapitated?)

    These people aren’t concerned with artistic integrity so much as recognizability. It’s not that I mind all of the obvious choices. It’s just that most of them—Jack Sparrow, James Bond, Indiana Jones, Darth Vader—constitute pop-cultural artifacts rather than truly incredible performances. (You know that, as a Star Wars nerd, it pains me to make that admission.)

    True enough on all counts. A lot of this is designed, I think, to play to the readership — to try to guess who they would put on their lists. I suppose that’s okay. I certainly understand it and I like reader feedback (well, most of the time), but I’d rather readers give me that feedback than to have me attempt to figure it out for them. At least, that way we might each learn something.

    I’ve always regarded with great skepticism critics who affect to list the “best” movies or novels or characters. Honestly, how could one make such a determination? (Of course, presenting a list of your personal favorites is another matter entirely because it acknowledges the basic subjectivity of the ranking.)

    All such rankings are basically subjective, I don’t care what anyone would like to claim to the contrary. The only alternative is a list made by committee. And that’s not objective either, it’s merely a compendium of subjective calls. Another factor is the constantly shifting nature of any such list. Oh, I’d be willing to bet that top five would be pretty consistent from day to day, month to month and even year to year, but after that? Well, a degree of fluctation is almost bound to happen.

    One thing I definitely insist on for myself is a period of time. I have to have “lived with” a film or a performance for a number of years before slapping it on any such list. Just this weekend I saw Milk (the review will be in this week’s paper) and right now I could easily put Sean Penn’s Harvey Milk on such a list as this, but I want to see how I feel about further down the line.

  17. Dionysis

    Without putting any real thought into it, but rather simply jotting down ten movie characters that came to mind as at least somewhat “memorable,” I identify these:

    Richard Wordsworth as Victor Carroon in The Quatermass Xperiment (a/k/a The Creeping Unknown).

    Doug Bradley as Pinhead from the Hellraiser films.

    Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet and The Invisible Boy (I don’t see where it has to be a human character).

    Walter Houston as Howard in Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

    Errol Flynn as Robin Hood.

    Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster.

    Hannibal Lecter (includes Brian Cox in Manhunter as well as Anthony Hopkins, but not the unknown from Hannibal Rising).

    Jack Nance as Henry Spencer in Eraserhead.

    Gordon Scott as Tarzan in his six films of the character.

    Brad Dourif as Hazel Motes in Wise Blood (it’s been playing recently on Flicks channel every few days).

  18. Ken Hanke

    Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet and The Invisible Boy (I don’t see where it has to be a human character).

    Sounds reasonable to me. While I’ve always been pretty resistant to Forbidden Planet, I think he’s probably more memorable than Princess Leia.

    Gordon Scott as Tarzan in his six films of the character.

    Now, that’s an interesting choice. I really haven’t much opinion on Tarzans, though the one that comes to mind is the most un-Burroughsian of the lot, Johnny Weissmuller. I don’t have a very clear mental image of Scott, though a magazine I wrote for was always getting strange letters from someone with a very specialized bent, requesting photos of Lex Barker’s feet. This proves there are some things it’s better not to pry into, I think.

    Brad Dourif as Hazel Motes in Wise Blood (it’s been playing recently on Flicks channel every few days).

    I actually considered this possibility when working on the lists.

  19. Dionysis

    “I don’t have a very clear mental image of Scott”

    When I was a young boy, Gordon Scott WAS Tarzan. Arguably the two best Tarzan movies ever made (and I include Weissmuller’s films) were the last two featuring Scott, titled Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure and Tarzan the Magnificent. They were relativel high budget, cinemascope productions filmed on location. Greatest Adventure featured a young Sean Connery; he was asked to reprise his role for Magnificent, but was busy filming the first James Bond film, Dr. No.

    Scott then moved to Europe where he reportedly made over 100 peplum-type films (although I have only been able to count about 35 titles). He died a few years ago while living in the spare bedroom of a Tarzan fan.

  20. Ken Hanke

    When I was a young boy, Gordon Scott WAS Tarzan. Arguably the two best Tarzan movies ever made (and I include Weissmuller’s films) were the last two featuring Scott, titled Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure and Tarzan the Magnificent.

    I wouldn’t argue this. I probably saw these when they were new (I’m guessing we’re around the same age), but they didn’t stick with me — nor did Tarzan all that much. My clearest early memories of the character is the MGM-ified version with Weissmuller, and I think that’s mostly because I thought it’d be really cool to live in that treehouse with its elephant-powered elevator. As an adult, I’ve only rarely dipped back into Tarzan movies.

    What I’m hoping for is to see somebody announce that the best Tarzan was Glenn Morris (described by some 1938 reviewer as having the facial features of Hollywood’s Harpo Marx and Broadway’s Burgess Meredith with the acting ability of neither).

  21. Sean Williams

    And I give you credit for knowing who that is, because I don’t.

    Spider Jerusalem is a paranoid libertarian journalist from the cult classic Transmetropolitan — and, apparently, Patrick Stewart’s favorite character in all of literature. Go figure.

    (How did they ever conclude that that was the sound of a robot being decapitated?)

    I’ve actually seen the onomatopoeia “sqlud” and “qlung” — both in a single Dick Tracy strip.

    A lot of this is designed, I think, to play to the readership—to try to guess who they would put on their lists.

    Right. Also, a lot of popular characters have static, clearly-defined personalities. Not necessarily a bad thing, since it encourages the reader to project greater psychological complexity onto the character. Same reason myths are so powerful.

    Mike Mignola’s Hellboy has a single defining trait, — gruff refusal to acknowledge his infernal origins — but Mignola gets surprising pathos out of that trait. It’s a one-note symphony. And because Guillermo del Torro was in love with Hellboy’s admittedly predictable personality, he recognized some untapped depth in the character. Comfort food can be nourishing even when it’s not gourmand.

    But the point remains that as much as I adore Hellboy, as easily as I identify with him, he’s not a complex character. In fact, I probably adore him because he’s not a complex character: complex characters are interesting intellectually; simpler characters are appealing because we can comprehend them more easily and because we recognize their traits in the world around us. We’re all isolated inside our own skulls, so we only recognize one another’s most exaggerated qualities. I guess I’d call such characters “lovable, not deep”.

    I have to have “lived with” a film or a performance for a number of years before slapping it on any such list.

    See, I get this weird cinematic afterglow from certain directors: I’ll love their films while I’m watching them, immersed in them, but a couple days later, I’ll begin wondering how, exactly, the characters got from Point A to Point B. So I’ll decide retroactively that I hate the films — but as soon as I see them again to confirm that hatred, I’m immersed in them again and love them for another week.

    Then there are the directors whose work I despise while I’m watching it but begin to appreciate after I distance myself from the viewing experience. Steven Spielberg falls into this category. Del Torro, too, frankly.

  22. Ken Hanke

    Also, a lot of popular characters have static, clearly-defined personalities. Not necessarily a bad thing, since it encourages the reader to project greater psychological complexity onto the character. Same reason myths are so powerful

    There’s also a certain danger inherent in that in that it tends to create some rather fantasticated notions of what’s on the screen. I’ve not issue with that — so long as you can support it. But all too often it’s just gushing praise.

    I guess I’d call such characters “lovable, not deep”.

    Probably a fair assessment, though I rarely identify very much with such characters, no matter how much I might like them. If there’s a single character in literature — and in his cinematic counterpart — I most indentify with it’s probably Rupert Birkin in D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (and, by extension, the Ken Russell film). That does not, however, fill me with unalloyed delight.

    So I’ll decide retroactively that I hate the films

    I’ve never had quite this strong a reaction. The closest I get is buying into William Peter Blatty’s personal vision of Catholicism, which always works for me while I’m actually watching The Ninth Configuration or The Exorcist III. After the fact, I don’t believe it, though I’m not out of sympathy with it. Usually, it’s just a loss of the original excitement. I’m trying to think of a movie that quite qualifies — maybe Bright Young Things or Far from Heaven. The best example for me is the Mahler 8th Symphony. I bought it back in the days of vinyl and thought it was just magnificent — for about two days. Then — and now — I couldn’t figure out what I was so keen on. Significantly, it is the only Mahler symphony I have never bought on CD.

    Then there are the directors whose work I despise while I’m watching it but begin to appreciate after I distance myself from the viewing experience. Steven Spielberg falls into this category. Del Torro, too, frankly.

    Since I so rarely appreciate Spielberg during or after, I’ll set him to one side, but I am curious about this statement as concerns Del Toro. Would you care to elaborate?

  23. Sean Williams

    There’s also a certain danger inherent in that in that it tends to create some rather fantasticated notions of what’s on the screen.

    That’s half of my problem with the book Twilight, come to think of it. I don’t mind authors who actively encourage projection. Yet I realize plenty of fanboys use a variation on this argument to defend works of little substance, (“You’re just too shallow to perceive the characters’ real depths!” is a line one hears frequently from fans of Meyers and Gaiman) and I don’t want to sound as though I’m endorsing that kind of logic. I of course agree that the evidence for “real depth” has to be in the piece itself.

    Since I so rarely appreciate Spielberg during or after, I’ll set him to one side

    Thank you so very much for validating my low opinion of Spielberg. See, half of the reason that I tend to retroactively fall in love with movies I hated in theaters is that I feel guilty for disliking such a celebrated director. Intellectually, I recognize that he’s just a populist, but considering he’s a populist with the blessing of so many tough critics, I always wonder if I’m Just Not Getting It.

    Would you care to elaborate?

    Make no mistake: I love the humanity and heart in del Toro’s work, but when I’m watching it, it feels frenzied. I can’t logically justify why I feel that way about del Toro and not about, say, George Lucas. It’s just the way I react to his cinematography, for some reason. But after I’ve had time to digest his work, I feel that I can recognize their actual quality, as opposed to my “edited” memories of Spielberg.

  24. Ken Hanke

    Yet I realize plenty of fanboys use a variation on this argument to defend works of little substance, (“You’re just too shallow to perceive the characters’ real depths!” is a line one hears frequently from fans of Meyers and Gaiman) and I don’t want to sound as though I’m endorsing that kind of logic.

    I don’t really believe that it’s fair to say that someone’s too shallow to get something (Okay, so there are exceptions when that statement is abundantly true), but there are cases where someone just doesn’t get it for some other reason. I don’t get the fuss over most Hammer horror pictures, but people whose views I respect do. I don’t get the fuss over Clint Eastwood either, though I find most of his stuff demonstrably wanting. Something isn’t connecting with me, but I don’t think it’s that I’m too shallow.

    Thank you so very much for validating my low opinion of Spielberg. See, half of the reason that I tend to retroactively fall in love with movies I hated in theaters is that I feel guilty for disliking such a celebrated director.

    I don’t actively dislike him, but the only film of his I own is A.I. — and I think I only watched it twice. I do dislike the kinds of films he makes as a rule. They’re too middle-brow — like he’s afraid he can’t be too smart. And when he does a “serious” film, I never get past the sense that people are confusing the importance of the subject matter with the quality of the film.

    Make no mistake: I love the humanity and heart in del Toro’s work, but when I’m watching it, it feels frenzied.

    I could see that in the Hellboy movies. I could see it in Blade II, which I disliked. I have trouble seeing it in Cronos or The Devil’s Backbone or Pan.

    To be honest, I prefer having some digesting time. Anyone who knows me well, knows I really dislike talking about a movie as soon as it’s over. Well, not so much if it’s, say, the new Day the Earth Stood Still or Punisher: War Zone.

  25. Nick Jones

    Nice list, even though I’ve seen only two of the performances listed (Rev. Shayne and Dr. Pretorius.) You certainly have piqued my interest in seeing a number of the others on the list – Sheridan Whiteside (I’ve seen a bit, but not all, of this film), Gilda Farrell, Joe, and Sorrowful Jones.

    My own list would be difficult to create, not only the ranking of the performances, but the size of the list itself – 50? 100? 200? With my age, the number of films I’ve seen, and the medication I’m taking, I’m sure to forget someone.

    But, as far as characters as characters, as roles, I have to go with Philip Marlowe (who I’ve seen played by three of the actors who have done so, if you include cable), and Hannibal Lecter, with a slight preference for Brian Cox. A single character played by a single actor, HAL 9000 (Douglas Rain.)

    Ken, you should definitely check out the Transmetropolitan comics. Spider Jerusalem is a futuristic journalist, like a more bipolar Hunter S. Thompson on a higher grade of speed.

    Next: your list of Most Unnecessary Remakes. I’ll start you off: #1. The Manchurian Candidate.

  26. Ken Hanke

    You certainly have piqued my interest in seeing a number of the others on the list – Sheridan Whiteside (I’ve seen a bit, but not all, of this film), Gilda Farrell, Joe, and Sorrowful Jones.

    Except for Joe, the others are available on DVD and TCM (who just ran it yesterday) tends to get the good of The Man Who Came to Dinner this time of year, thanks to its Xmas setting. Design for Living is part of a little Gary Cooper box set. Little Miss Marker is Shirley Temple “set” (well, the two pictures she made on loan to Paramount).

    My own list would be difficult to create, not only the ranking of the performances, but the size of the list itself – 50? 100? 200?

    I could easily keep on doing this till I reached 200, I suspect. I chose 20 to make it practical. How practical it really was is questionable, since the plan was to do it one installment. You see how that worked out.

    But, as far as characters as characters, as roles, I have to go with Philip Marlowe (who I’ve seen played by three of the actors who have done so, if you include cable

    Lemme see, I’ve seen Dick Powell (Murder My Sweet), Robert Montgomery (Lady in the Lake), Bogart (The Big Sleep) and Robert Mitchum (Farewell My Lovely and The Big Sleep). Marlowe’s a good character choice, though in that realm (detective fiction however boiled), I probably prefer Nick Charles, Philo Vance and Charlie Chan.

    Next: your list of Most Unnecessary Remakes. I’ll start you off: #1. The Manchurian Candidate.

    Numbered like a man who didn’t watch the Keanued Day the Earth Stood Still this week!

  27. Sean Williams

    Something isn’t connecting with me, but I don’t think it’s that I’m too shallow.

    Besides, whenever people level that argument at you, it’s cheap ad hominem: attacking the critic instead of the rationale behind his criticisms.

    I find most of his stuff demonstrably wanting.

    It’s hilarious to watch Flags of our Fathers with family: it’s one of those movies that makes everyone shamble in and out of the room every few minutes to go to the bathroom or to fetch some Cheetos from the pantry.

    I could see it in Blade II, which I disliked.

    What, you don’t regard it as the cinematic equivalent of cunnilingus?

    I have trouble seeing it in Cronos or The Devil’s Backbone or Pan.

    I’m only passingly familiar with del Torro’s oeuvre, and I admit that my negative reaction to his work is primarily an aftertaste from the Hellboy movies. It sounds immature when I express it that way, but the comics were so eerily silent that the movies hit me like an enema of sulfuric acid. But I do recognize del Toro’s talent, and I’d like to overcome my lingering fanboy resentment and learn to like his work.

    They’re too middle-brow — like he’s afraid he can’t be too smart.

    Bingo! You always articulate my feelings perfectly. Spielberg belongs to the class of artists whom I call “the stupid man’s intellectuals”. He’s too distinguished to overlook but too undistinguished to canonize. Whenever people call him “the best director of all time”, I take it as a sign that they haven’t seen many movies.

    Numbered like a man who didn’t watch the Keanued Day the Earth Stood Still this week!

    I pity the apparently multitudinous theater-goers who did. Is it as awful as it sounds?

  28. Ken Hanke

    What, you don’t regard it as the cinematic equivalent of cunnilingus?

    I think that only applies if you’re Harry Knowles, whose familiarity with the topic is likely academic at best.

    I pity the apparently multitudinous theater-goers who did. Is it as awful as it sounds?

    No, it’s worse than it sounds. I expected it to be bad, but I expected it to be unintentionally funny at least. Instead, it was just bad. At least the multitudes weren’t that multitudinous. It took the box office, but on a soft weekend and underperformed. With this week’s competition, it will likely drop like your proverbial rock.

  29. Nick Jones

    My three Marlowes ar Mitchum, Elliot Gould, and Powers Boothe (1980s HBO series); I haven’t seen the others.

    Numbered like a man who didn’t watch the Keanued Day the Earth Stood Still this week!

    I had no intention of seeing it no matter who the star was. I believe that the only explanation for Reeves’ career is that you can still sell your soul to the Devil for material success. (I think Devil’s Advocate was partly autobiographical.)
    I put The Manchurian Candidate at #1 simply because it’s the better film, and the best adaptation of a Richard Condon novel, black humor intact.

  30. Ken Hanke

    I had no intention of seeing it no matter who the star was

    A luxury I am denied.

    I believe that the only explanation for Reeves’ career is that you can still sell your soul to the Devil for material success. (I think Devil’s Advocate was partly autobiographical.)

    I’ve always suspected the casting couch came into play here. Though I would be dishonest if I didn’t note that I liked him well enough in Constantine (not a great picture, but not unwatchable) and Something’s Gotta Give (horrible rom com in which he actually was better than the movie). This however…

    I put The Manchurian Candidate at #1 simply because it’s the better film, and the best adaptation of a Richard Condon novel, black humor intact.

    About the worst I’d say about Demme’s remake is that it’s superfluous. The whole question of remakes is an interesting one. I don’t in general object to them — not now when MGM’s old practice of buying up and suppressing the originals is long gone. Now, it’s even possible that remakes call attention to the originals in a good way.

  31. Nick Jones

    About the worst I’d say about Demme’s remake is that it’s superfluous.

    Well, yes, that’s it exactly. Demme’s TMC would have been fine on it’s own terms, except for leeching all of Condon’s satire out of the story, if the first film didn’t exist. The scene where Senator Iselin comes up with a number for how many Communists there are in the government is just too hilarious to exclude.

  32. Ken Hanke

    The scene where Senator Iselin comes up with a number for how many Communists there are in the government is just too hilarious to exclude.

    True enough, but it won’t work so well in an updating. In 1962 it was a clear reference to Joe McCarthy’s tactics (in fact, he actually pulled a stunt almost exactly like that) and that would be lost today. The again commie hunting isn’t what it once was, though we seem to have a whole lot of people who think socialist means the same thing, but that’s a different topic for a different time.

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