Greatest Movie Villains: HAL 9000

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This week is the final installment in my blog spotlight on great movie villains. The last one in my spotlight isn’t a serial killer, an atomic age creature, a vampire, or a zombie. In fact all we know of this villain is its cold, calculating voice. I am of course speaking of the HAL 9000 from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Hal may not foam at the mouth or wield an axe. But that doesn’t make him (or it?) any less terrifying. For the uninitiated, Hal 9000 is the Artificial Intelligence device that controls the spaceship Discovery, which is on a mission to Jupiter. At the beginning HAL seems benevolent, playing chess with the astronauts and interacting with them like a 1960s version of Siri. Harmless, right? Well…not so much. Eventually HAL turns on the astronauts. This happens after a series of instances where HAL appears to be malfunctioning and the astronauts make plans to shut the computer down. The astronauts make it impossible for HAL to hear their plans, but HAL can read lips. Knowing their plans, HAL sets out to kill them.

We live in the age of smart phones and all other kinds of advanced technology. What happens when the technology your life depends on turns against you? Stanley Kubrick all the way back in 1968. The director was a man ahead of his time.

So what is it that makes HAL 9000 a great movie villain? It isn’t just that HAL represents our fear of technology run amok. There’s also the fact that the tone of HAL’s voice never changes. It’s this cold, disembodied, computerized voice watching your every move and making decisions that could save or take your life. HAL is smart, but he’s also completely emotionless. Few things are scarier than a killer that is completely unaffected by the mayhem they’re causing. That’s what gives HAL an extra scary quality.

HAL has unlimited power over the astronauts since it’s responsible for all the life support aboard the ship. 2001 raises a lot of questions. But one of the most relevant in today’s world is what happens when we become too dependent on technology and what if it evolves faster than us? That’s one of the pressing philosophical debates of our time.

After watching 2001: A Space Odyssey I’m not sure many completely understood it. Heck, I still don’t understand the whole thing. And I’ve watched it multiple times. But one thing that keeps bringing me back to it is that it makes me think. And of course it’s always interesting to watch the rise and fall of HAL. Who knew that one of the scariest movie villains was a spaceship computer? It sure gives you pause for interacting with Siri.

That’s it for my spotlight on great movie villains! Hope you enjoyed it.

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Greatest Movie Villains: Hans Beckert

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Greetings, readers! This week I continue my month-long spotlight on great movie villains. No doubt people are familiar with character actor Peter Lorre. His body of work is impressive and includes Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon. While he’s known for playing shady characters or comic relief, his breakthrough role was playing a child murderer in Fritz Lang’s film noir classic M. Lorre had just one  credited screen appearance prior, but would set the tone for his career. As child murderer Hans Beckert, Lorre played one of the great film villains of not only film noir, but in film history period.

For the uninitiated, the film follows German police as they try to catch Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), who is responsible for a series of child abductions and murders. As the murders continue, the locals become more and more paranoid. The police get tips from everyone under the sun, none of which turn up anything. But the paranoid atmosphere makes life hell for the local criminals. In a great plot twist, the criminals set out to catch Beckert to stop the constant raids and let them get back to their shady lives.

But enough about the plot. Let’s talk about why Hans Beckert is one of the greatest movie villains. First, there’s the fact that he’s a child murderer. It doesn’t get much more creepy and depraved than that. Before there was Freddy Krueger and all the other villains in dead teenager movies, there was Peter Lorre in M.

Beckert is also creepy because of the great visual eye of director Fritz Lang. When we first see just his shadow silhouetted on a wooden pole as he’s about to abduct a young girl and we hear the eerie whistling of In the Hall of the Mountain King, we’re already terrified. This is before we even see Peter Lorre. The way evil is suggested with that eerie whistling and the use of shadow is just brilliant.

But Beckert is mostly a great villain because of Peter Lorre’s commanding screen presence. The way he lurks in the shadows and lures the kids into his traps is absolutely chilling. It’s all the more terrifying because Peter Lorre isn’t that imposing physically. He seems very slight and has an every man feel. He seems like the guy next door. And what’s scarier than the terror being someone who can blend into everyday society? While I’m mentioning Lorre’s physicality, let me touch on his eyes. Peter Lorre had such character in his face. His eyes could tell a whole story. As the criminals close in on Lorre and he becomes more paranoid, his facial expressions just add to the tension and atmosphere. And once the film reaches its iconic climax with the criminals having their own trial for Beckert and judging him, Lorre sells the whole thing. He breaks down in the courtroom telling them that he can’t control himself. He blames his actions on voices in his head,among other things. But his defense monologue is so raw and emotional, it almost makes us feel sorry for him.

Finally, what makes Beckert a great villain is simply this: how bad a criminal do you have to be that even other criminals think you’re a creep? Even other criminals who are shady as heck think few things are worse than being a child murderer. That aspect just seals the deal.

Peter Lorre has an impressive list of supporting performances on his resume. But his leading performance in is one for the ages. He established his creepy screen image and gave us one of the great screen villains. Let me close with this anecdote. When I saw M, I had nightmares for a week afterwards. A performance that stays with you long after the credits role is the sign of a great movie. Bear in mind I watch horror movies a lot and don’t scare easily. Thanks for the nightmares, Peter Lorre.

Greatest Movie Villains: Truck from Duel

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My spotlight this month is on great movie villains. This week’s villain is from a TV movie, but that doesn’t make said villain any less menacing. It’s the truck from Duel. This was the first feature-length film by Steven Spielberg. It’s a taut thriller that gives us a sneak peek at what to expect in his masterpiece Jaws a few years later. Now let’s talk about one of the most suspenseful car chases in film history.

The premise of Duel is simple enough. Salesman David Mann (Dennis Weaver) is driving on a business trip. Along the way he encounters a rusty tanker truck. It’s going slow as molasses and spouting sooty diesel exhaust. Mann passes the truck. Then the truck passes Mann and slows down again. Mann overtakes the truck, at which point the truck blows its air horn. Mann leaves the truck in the distance thinking it’s over. But Mann is up against the most stubborn truck and driver ever.

All of this sounds pretty pedestrian. But Steven Spielberg, working from Richard Matheson’s story that originally appeared in Playboy, manages to make this one heck of an entertaining back and forth. Why is the truck such a great villain? It’s not just that the truck is relentless. Pa)rt of the genius is that we never see the driver. The face of evil is never shown to us the viewer. That lets our imagination run wild, making the whole situation all the more terrifying.

Another reason the truck is such a great villain is because there’s really no explanation ever given as to why its coming after Dennis Weaver’s character. And Weaver makes such a convincing every man that we’re terrified for him every time the truck comes after him. Weaver’s paranoia as the film progresses feels very real, making it all the more effective.

There’s also the fact that the look of the truck is just terrifying. It looks like something right out of a horror movie. One of the many nice touches is the piece of railroad track stuck onto the front bumper of the truck. It’s a very subtle but effective symbolism. Later in the film when the truck tries to force Mann and his car into the path of an oncoming train. The truck looks like it came straight out of the pits of hell with dead flies on it and all the license plates from other states on the front bumper of the truck. According to Spielberg, the license plates suggest that the truck driver was a serial killer which ran down drivers in other states.

Duel works because of Spielberg’s ability to really build suspense. He takes a very simple premise and makes something great out of it. There’s tension not just when Weaver is facing the truck on the road. The sequences where Weaver tries in vain to lose the truck are just as terrifying. One of the best is where Weaver is in a phone booth trying to call the police to report the truck driver. Out of nowhere the truck barrels down on weaver and takes out the phone booth, with Weaver narrowly escaping. Then there’s the scene where Weaver tries to lose the truck going through the mountains. But the car begins to overheat when the radiator hose fails. I started chewing my finger nails during that sequence.

I could discuss Duel all day. It was one heck of a film debut for Spielberg. While we never see the villain, our imagination provides us all we need. Duel definitely proves the dictum that less is more. The truck and its unseen driver are relentless and we never know why they’re coming after Dennis Weaver’s character. It’s all the more terrifying when someone is evil for the sake of being evil. One final note. Duel was originally a made for TV movie. It was eventually given a limited theatrical release. Spielberg shot additional scenes to bring it up from 74 to 90 minutes,making it long enough to be shown in theaters. Whichever version you see, Duel is a great movie and it gave us one heck of a villain.

Greatest Movie Villains: Mrs. Danvers

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This month Turner Classic Movies is doing its own version of March Madness called March Malice. It will be a spotlight on movie villains with viewers voting who reigns supreme. Inspired by that spotlight, this month I’ve decided to highlight some of my favorite movie villains here on my blog. This week my villain is Mrs. Danvers from Hitchcock’s Rebecca. Played with cold menace by Judith Anderson (in an Oscar-nominated performance), Danvers is one of the greatest villains to appear in any Hitchcock film. And that’s saying something.

Mrs. Danvers stands out as a great movie villain for a multitude of reasons. First there’s the way that Judith Anderson plays her. Anderson manages to make the character cold, calculating, and manipulative without ever making the villain into a cliché. Mrs. Danvers is terrifying because she feels like a person that could exist in the real world and make your life a living hell. That’s a credit to Judith Anderson’s acting chops. Her cold stares alone should have won an Oscar alone if you ask me.

Another reason Mrs. Danvers is a great villain is how easily she manages to manipulate people. She’s not just scary because she makes it hard for Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine), the new wife of Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) to adjust to her new life by simply not accepting her. It’s the way she rubs it in Mrs. de Winter’s face that she’ll never measure up to Maxim de Winter’s previous wife, Rebecca. Mrs. Danvers also makes it clear that she resents Maxim de Winter for remarrying at all, feeling he is trying to replace Rebecca. Mrs. Danvers and Rebecca were very close.

There’s also the fact that Mrs. Danvers tries to break up the marriage by particularly nefarious means. For starters, she suggests Mrs. de Winter wear a particular dress to a costume ball. She does this knowing full well it will anger Mr. de Winter because Rebecca wore it to the ball the year before. Later when Mrs. de Winter confronts her about it, Mrs. Danvers tries to guilt her into jumping out of the second floor window. Talk about evil!

Mrs. Danvers isn’t a movie monster. She doesn’t foam at the mouth. She doesn’t come after you with a machete or an axe. No. Mrs. Danvers is just there to mess with your head. The psychological terror of Rebecca is one of the reasons Daphne du Maurier’s novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s film have stood the test of time. Judith Anderson deserved every accolade she got for her performance. Her Mrs. Danvers is one of the great ice queens in movie history.

Favorite Movie Dance Scenes: Mary Poppins

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Greetings, readers! Today I bring you the final installment of my series on favorite movie dance scenes. This week I discuss a scene from one of my favorite Disney movies: Mary Poppins. Filled with great music and wonderful performances from start to finish, it’s no wonder this film has only become more loved since its initial release in 1964. One of my favorite scenes in the film is the Step In Time number. The song is fun and the whole sequence is filled with creative choreography.

There are umpteen reasons Step In Time is one of my favorite movie dance scenes. One of them is the sheer energy on display during the whole sequence. The chimney sweeps, led by Bert (the wonderful Dick Van Dyke) dance all across the rooftop linking arms, dancing on chimney tops, leaping across buildings, leaping across each other leaping across buildings, link arms and dance like the Rockettes…the scene never loses any steam. The energy is just contagious. While I’ve mentioned Dick Van Dyke and his merry band of chimney sweeps, I have to mention Mary Poppins herself. Played by the amazing Julie Andrews, there’s a point in the number where she dances with Bert and then twirls through the air. And she does it because she’s Mary Poppins: practically perfect in every way.

Another reason I love this number is its sheer imagination. It isn’t just a bunch of people in costume dancing on a rooftop. The choreography incorporates their broomsticks, has them doing cartwheels and somersaults, jumping down and then tumbling out of a chimney into the Banks home (much to the chagrin of the hired help and Mr. Banks, played by David Tomlinson). I love how after all the rooftop dancing it carries through inside the house when everyone, including Mary Poppins, is covered in soot. Let me mention two of my favorite little moments when they dance in the house. When one of the maids exclaims, “it’s the master!” as Tomlinson walks in looking dumbfounded, the chimney sweeps are undeterred. “It’s the master. Step in time!,” they exclaim as they keep dancing with the maids. My other favorite aside is right before that when Mrs. Banks walks in the door dressed in her suffragette outfit. “Votes for women. Step in time!,” the sweeps sing, and proceed to march around the room with Mrs. Banks. It’s a great little nod to her work for the women’s rights movement.

The lyrics to Step In Time are not overly complicated, but the difficulty of the dance moves certainly is. Credit to all the actors and dancers for being able to push themselves so much physically and make Step In Time one of the most fun and joyful dance sequences ever put in a film. If it doesn’t make you want to get up and dance, you don’t have a pulse.

That’s a wrap for great film dance scenes. But do not fret! I love musicals, so I’m sure a similar topic will come up on this blog again in the future.