Caution: Creepy characters ahead

10/04/2010 8:33 PM |

PHOTO COURTESY OF MGM Steve Buscemi has been creeping out movie goers for decades, perhaps most notably in Oscazr winning "Fargo."

Channel 13 recently showed “Arsenic and Old Lace” and there was cringing Peter Lorre doing his bulgy-eyed, whimpering thing as he slunk away from all the dead bodies he had helped kill. Of all the creepy bad guys, he’s probably the creepiest, but others come to mind. We recognize them as they first appear in a movie, generally think, “Uh-oh,” yet often don’t know their names. Everyone quotes the line from “Cool Hand Luke” — “What we have here is failure to communicate” — but how many know the name of the actor who spoke it? No, not Paul Newman. Not George Kennedy. It was spooky Strother Martin, who also made us squirm in “The Wild Bunch” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” with his disquieting manner.
More recently Steve Buscemi made us uneasy in “Fargo” and “Reservoir Dogs.” Something about his face, and the way he carries himself, you just know he’s capable of awful things. And you never wanted Dennis Hopper — “Blue Velvet” and “Apocalypse Now” — sitting next to you on the bus or have his kids playing with yours. Each became well known and went on to play more traditional roles, but I liked them better as homicidal maniacs, even if I didn’t know their names.
Two henchmen from some years back come to mind. Jack Elam, with that deranged look and out-of-kilter left eye, was immediately recognizable as the stone cold killer in the outlaw gang, staring crookedly at Gary Cooper or John Wayne or James Stewart, itching for some violence. Yet there’s the story of a director barking, “Get me someone like Jack Elam” and his assistant replying, “Who’s Jack Elam?” Elam and the furtive Elisha Cook Jr., he of the twitchy face and wild eyes from “Shane” and “The Maltese Falcon,” were true “uh-oh” guys, better known for their malevolent looks than their names.
Jack Palance filled the screen with brooding dread. His slouching frame, black clothes and soft, insinuating voice traumatized many a lawman, but not Alan Ladd in “Shane” or Richard Widmark in “Panic in the Streets.” (Oh, my, remember Widmark in “Kiss of Death,” cackling as he pushed the old lady in the wheelchair down the flight of stairs? A scene devoid of special effects, just madness, terror and death.)
Does anyone remember Eduardo Ciannelli? In 1940 he starred as The Mysterious Dr. Satan in a 15-week Saturday-morning serial. Sinister looking, obsessed, he terrified me every week for four months as he attempted to take over the world with robots. Robots, in 1940! Probably a production that could have used some special effects.
I can’t imagine anyone creepier or deadlier than Javier Bardem in “No Country for Old Men.” When he off-handedly killed the man behind the store’s counter there was an eerie silence in the theater as the stunned audience tried to absorb what had just happened. Bardem doesn’t specialize in such roles but I had to mention him after that kinky performance.
Tim Roth, Harvey Keitel, John Carradine, Dan Hedaya, Henry Jones, Alfonso Bedoya (“We don’t need no stinking badges”). Whew!
And Christopher Walken. Uh-oh: Christopher Walken.
Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press and a former member of Southold Free Library’s board of trustees. He can be reached at [email protected]