Part 2: The Dark Side

These are the men who confronted, made, or actually were monsters in one way or another. Some are villains, others were just born bad, some still are just misunderstood or a little disturbed, but each actor listed here intrepidly confronts some form of evil.

Carl Boehm

Peeping Tom

(Michael Powell, 1960)

It is now accepted with some historical certainty that Peeping Tom destroyed director Powell’s career. The theater rows like pews were crop-dusted with disgust and vitriol from the film establishment, eager to distance themselves from the film’s transgressive equation of both erotic and violent titillation with the cinema’s inherent voyeuristic gaze. But perhaps the major culprit in the death of the respected British auteur’s career is the killer he cast in the lead, the Austrian-born actor Boehm. Boehm’s performance as quietly disaffected serial killer Mark Lewis was so polite, so gentle, so reserved, and so convincing that it still unsettles today after nearly 50 odd years of three-dimensional villains.

Perhaps what’s so disturbing is how Mark’s dashing Aryan good looks and his shy-schoolboy social anxiety make the audience root for him. The audience’s hope is not for him to succeed in murdering red-headed women, but for him to get away with murder in the hopes that he may one day get away from murder. His suggested, albeit naïve, path to transformation through Moira Shearer’s Vivian, Mark’s stand-in mother figure and a compassionate alternative to his cruel and clinical father figure (played by Powell), seems at times palpable as he desperately attempts to find a connection through Vivian to a humanity not dominated by fear and hypnotized by a life lived through images. In moments with Vivian, Boehm’s Mark appears tortured by his decisions and exuberant at the new possibilities of creating children’s books with her, inventing a new narrative. The fantasy of a second chance is a defiance of typical revenge fantasies, which demand Mark’s corpse at the end. His end then is deeply unsatisfying, particularly in the ways that it perfectly completes the film Mark has been directing his entire life. Though Boehm went on to do some fine work, notably with Fassbinder, his Mark Lewis was his most iconic and perhaps one of the best career-killing performances of all time. Timothy Gabriele


Bruce Campbell

Evil Dead II

(Sam Raimi, 1987)

“Groovy” — that’s all you need to know. As Sam Raimi’s retrofitted Stooge, Moe, Larry and Curly all collected in one marvelously manic fake Shemp, lifelong friend Campbell became the physical embodiment of horror comedy. Flashing a jaw-line that just wouldn’t quit and a machismo that masked a lothario’s longing to cut and run, Ash would become a fright flick icon for a demographic of disaffected youth who wanted a far more outlandish superman fighting off demons and the diabolical. Campbell’s performance goes beyond the call of cinematic duty. Required to bring Raimi’s ridiculous ideas to life, we believe the undead chaos in the Evil Dead films for one reason and one reason only — Big Bruce MAKES us believe. In a genre that frequently gets maligned for less than stellar acting, Campbell creates the most unrealistically real champion ever. Groovy, indeed. Bill Gibron


Robert Englund

A Nightmare on Elm Street

(Wes Craven, 1984)

“This is God”, says dream-invading slasher Freddy Krueger, raising a razor-fingered hand, in his first appearance in the popular Nightmare on Elm Street series. Suggesting the primacy of fear and the subconscious over rationality, the Nightmare films provided a dark and much needed tonic to the ascendant 1980s view of adolescence as traumatic but safe. Here the everyday loci and accoutrements of teen life that figure as the backdrop for romance and healthy competition among peers in popular films by John Hughes like Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club become the site of surreal life and death struggles: the teenager’s room, the hot rod, the bathtub, the telephone. Neighborhood teens all start to have the same horrific dreams in which they are terrorized by the burn-scarred Krueger, who has the ability to enter children’s dreams and cause them real harm.

Freddie so dominates the film that it’s surprising to discover how little screen time Robert Englund has as the villain. Add to that the fact that Freddie is more conglomeration of effects (heavy facial makeup, elongated arms, sepulchral voice altered in post-production) and metonymic paraphernalia (the crumpled fedora, the striped sweater, and of course the finger-razor gloves) than character, and it’s all the more striking that Englund makes the role cohere as the embodiment of all teenage fears. Part Lucifer, part Pee Wee Herman, Englund delivers Krueger’s simultaneously murderous and lecherous dirty-old-man taunts so they play for sick laughs, but also resonate as the fodder of the teen subconscious. “I’m your boyfriend now, Nancy”, he says to the heroine through a phone that has morphed into a lolling, lascivious tongue. Englund has reprised the role many times since, most effectively in New Nightmare (1994), but never with the same primal terror of this initial performance. Michael Curtis Nelson


Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt


(David Fincher, 1995)

Fincher’s unwieldy Se7en slices at your sensibilities like a bayonet, in no small part due to the fantastic coupling of Freeman and Pitt. Freeman’s William Somerset steps into each scene with an intellectual rigor that counterbalances a jaded perspective on life. He is the perfect foil to Pitt’s Detective David Mills, a young, cocky, impetuous cop who has just transferred into hell. Seven days before Somerset’s retirement, he and his new partner catch a case in which serial killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey) begins to kill his victims based on the biblical seven deadly sins. Gwyneth Paltrow appears as Detective Mills’ homesick wife Tracy, who seeks out advice from Somerset’s character on how to deal with the misery inflicted upon her by the soulless city that she has been forced to move to. And indeed the city is soulless. It’s a quagmire of misery that will pull the weak and weary into a black hole of desolation. Freeman and Pitt struggle with each other, John Doe, and even the city itself to defeat it.

But alas, that is not the case as Se7en ends with a doozy of a finale — with a surprising twist and a head in a box. The audience is then left to try and reconcile a devastating sense of gross alienation and perversity. Grossing over $300 million dollars worldwide, Se7en‘s existential horror-fest was no doubt rendered more profound due to the extraordinary talents of both Freeman and Pitt. Both actors have an enviable array of films that showcase their unique abilities as leading men, but their shared responsibility for this film laid the foundation for its success. Freeman’s subtle ferocity and Pitt’s blustery bullheadedness ground the outrageous proceedings and succeed in immortalizing of one of the greatest thrillers of the last 30 years. Courtney Young

Dennis Hopper and more

Dennis Hopper

Blue Velvet

(David Lynch, 1986)

They all considered it too vulgar and intense — Robert Loggia, Richard Bright, and Willem Dafoe. But when director Lynch met with the former Easy Rider rebel about playing the vile villain in his new film, Hopper stunned the soft spoken director. “I am Frank Booth” he exclaimed, and one of the classic horrors of modern cinema was born. Hopper embraced the inherent evil in craven criminal Frank, formulating the switchover from helium to amyl nitrate in the notorious “breathing device”, as well as intensifying the “relationship” between the hood and his fey cohort, the Roy Orbison crooning Ben (played brilliantly by Dean Stockwell). After years far outside the mainstream, Hopper soon found his flagging career back on track — and it’s not hard to see why. Frank Booth is the kind of career defining turn that both relies on and accents an actor’s specialized strengths. In the case of Hopper, the combination of clear-cut evil and the sense memory manipulation of a decade lost in a drug-fueled haze meshed into one of the most remarkable expressions of depravity ever captured. Bill Gibron


Jeremy Irons

Dead Ringers

(David Cronenberg, 1988)

While accepting his Oscar for Barbet Schroeder’s Reversal of Fortune, Jeremy Irons said, “… some of you may understand why — thank you David Cronenberg”. Those who did understand knew that the staid Academy of the ’80s just couldn’t bring itself to reward the perverse, deeply disturbing performance Irons had given in Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, and many felt Iron’s Reversal win was overdue acknowledgement of his brilliant performance in Ringers. Irons plays twin gynecologists Beverly and Elliot Mantle, brothers who share a medical practice, lover, and a drug-fueled descent into madness. What makes his portrayal remarkable, aside from his skill in acting opposite himself, are the small details — looks, gestures, and phrasing — that make each character distinguishable while still making the twins virtually identical. It is a chilling performance that would understandably make any woman reluctant to ever go to the gynecologist again, but Irons doesn’t emphasize the creepiness factor. Instead, he plays to normality; even as the twins’ instability grows, they follow what is, to them, a logic and reasoning that justify their depraved and deadly decisions. In one simple scene, Beverly and Elliot walk in a haze through their apartment, one behind the other, in perfect unison with eerily identical expressions. In the age before CGI, the scene required the best special effect to be effective: great acting that is precise and wholly believable. It is this quality of acting that infuses every frame of Iron’s performance and makes the Mantle brothers two of the most complex and frightening characters to grace a movie screen. Michael Abernethy


Ted Levine

The Silence of the Lambs

(Jonathan Demme, 1991)

If taken for (heavily made-up) face value, “Buffalo Bill” aka Jamie Gumb — aka the plot catalyst for this 1991 Oscar-winning thriller — is nothing more than an amalgamation of several notorious serial killers. From the “act lame to trick ’em” take on Ted Bundy, to the skin sewing lady suits of Ed Gein, novelist Thomas Harris went for simplified shock over character substance. Luckily, Demme gave this all important villain role to character actor Levine, and the actor literally lost himself in the part. He read all he could about the men Bill was based on, and even visited transvestite bars to perfect his crude cross-dressing skills. But it is in the man’s utter disconnection from reality wherein Levine’s performance and Lambs‘ true evil, lies. We never really fear for Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling as she spars, ‘quid pro quo’ style with Dr. Hannibal Lecter. But the minute Gumb opens the door to her and peers from behind the entrance to his dilapidated house in the middle of nowhere, true terror makes its presence known — and it is horrific. Bill Gibron


Peter Lorre


(Fritz Lang, 1931)

When Peter Lorre came to Hollywood, no one was quite sure what to do with the immensely talented but short, bug-eyed actor, so they threw him into a series of supporting roles that never allowed him to show his full range. German director Fritz Lang knew better, casting Lorre in his greatest role, serial-killer Hans Beckart in 1931’s M. One could easily watch his performance sans sound (or subtitles) and still have full understanding of what Beckart is thinking and feeling. Lorre’s most memorable scenes come at the film’s end, as he pleads with an angry citizenry to convince them that he is not the much sought-after child killer, then switches to try to make them understand the compulsion that drives him to murder. Lorre is wholly believable, and actually makes the vile Beckart a sympathetic character. Still, these scenes are not Lorre’s best. He is at his best in quieter scenes: sipping a drink in a bar as the urge to kill again overtakes him, distorting his face in his mirror into the monster he pictures himself to be, and luring a child to her death with balloons and candy. Beckart the man is a likable fellow; Beckart the murderer is a monster on the par with Hannibal Lector and Nosferatu. The strength of Lorre’s performance is making both of these men real, and showing that this dichotomy of character is possible. Michael Abernethy

Malcolm McDowell and more

Malcolm McDowell

A Clockwork Orange

(Stanley Kubrick, 1971)

A case could be made that McDowell’s performance as Alex DeLarge in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange mark the beginning (or at least one of the beginnings) of what we might now term the punk movement. McDowell plays Alex as equal part psychopath, sociopath, wounded child, anarchist, and social revolutionary. We have countless reasons to dislike and even hate Alex, but we don’t. There’s hardly a crime he doesn’t commit or a social code he doesn’t flout. McDowell plays Alex as chaos incarnate, someone any reasonable person would fear and despise. Yet we don’t. In fact, despite our better inclinations, we actually like Alex and even come to respect him, at least to some measure. This is what McDowell’s performance does to us: he makes us like and empathize with one of the most despicable characters ever put on screen. He does this by granting Alex charm and a pronounced measure of sexiness that is fundamentally tied to his capacity for violence — hence his relative punk-ness. Despite his sins, McDowell makes sure that his character possesses a certain measure of undeniable confidence, witnessed in his cocky stride and his righteousness. He doesn’t suggest that his character feels any remorse for what he’s doing, nor does he even feign or suggest any sort of apology. McDowell captivates us from the first scene of the film, which consists of a close focus on and pull back from McDowell’s cold, knowing and wicked face — to the last. This isn’t simply “acting”, this is an onscreen seduction. James R. Fleming


Ian McKellen

Richard III

(Richard Loncraine, 1995)

It may just be Tudor propaganda, but thanks to Shakespeare Richard III has become the most notorious villain in English literature. It’s also a plum role and notable actors from David Garrick and Edmund Kean to Lawrence Oliver and Al Pacino have all had their go at it. McKellan adds to the list of memorable performances with a uniquely 20th century personification of evil. In a fictional 1930s England he is the leader of a fascist army temporarily successful in conquering England. McKellan hits all the right notes: we first see him from behind a gas mask, identifiable only by his useless left arm, coolly dispatching King Henry to the next world. Then he’s an observant outsider at the Victory Ball celebrating the ascent of King Edward, then a shockingly bold suitor to Lady Anne in the presence of her husband’s corpse (previously dispatched by Richard). Above all, Richard is an actor who can convincingly assume any form or character required at the moment, and can equally convincingly address soliloquies to the camera. Actor McKellan helped his own cause by writing a screenplay which captures the essence of Shakespeare’s play while also working perfectly as a movie. This is Shakespeare as popular entertainment, not a dreaded school assignment. And that famous speech about “My kingdom for a horse”? McKellan delivers it, without a trace of irony, to a malfunctioning jeep. Sarah Boslaugh


Robert Mitchum

The Night of the Hunter

(Charles Laughton, 1955)

It can be all too easy to write Mitchum off as a dependable but dull actor, and it’s certainly true that some of his later performances didn’t exactly set the screen ablaze. But in several indelible characterizations throughout the ’40s, ’50s and early ’60s Mitchum proved himself a resourceful and accomplished performer who was willing to take all kinds of physical and emotional risks on screen. Most memorable of all was his bone-chilling performance as Reverend Harry Powell in Laughton’s brilliant, expressionistic 1955 chiller. Mitchum’s diabolical preacher-man is also a serial-killer of vulnerable women, a big, bad wolf-like predator in the Depression-era countryside. He is the step-father from hell, a relentless pursuer of kids who know too much and might be the most heinous Man of God the screen as ever seen, and certainly one of its best arguments for atheism. With the words “love” and “hate” tattooed on his knuckles and the most perverted strain of American Puritanism coursing through his veins, Mitchum uses those extraordinary hooded eyes and that barrel-deep voice to devastating effect, the menace intensified, not mitigated, by the peculiar touches of charm and droll humor that he brings to the character. It’s tantalizing to consider what Laughton and Mitchum might have gone on to achieve if they’d had further opportunities to collaborate. But The Night of the Hunter remains a thrilling one-off and, over 50 years later, Mitchum’s performance has lost none of its power to shock, provoke and disturb. Alexander Ramon


Edward Norton

American History X

(Tony Kaye, 1998)

Norton is no stranger to brave and brilliant performances (Primal Fear, anyone?) but in American History X, he hit a personal stride with his strongest, most visceral performance to date. He transforms into Derek Vinyard, a smart yet vulnerable young man who is recruited into a neo-Nazi group by Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach), an opportunistic, odious leader who finds lost souls and indoctrinates them into an army of hate. After killing two black men, Derek enters prison where he quickly joins a white supremacist gang but soon becomes disillusioned by their association with Mexican inmates. He leaves the group (to his detriment), eventually being raped in a harrowing sequence, by the same men he’d befriended and then abandoned. His gradual friendship with a black inmate saves his life and changes his perspective. After his release, his sole mission becomes to save his brother Daniel (Edward Furlong) from the same hate-filled life path he once followed. When actors explore the dark side, it is often either a hit or miss experiment with some making cinematic history and others creating blubbering messes that incite little more than public humiliation. Norton solidified his brilliance with this Academy Award-nominated performance, and his physical work — the white power tattoos, the hate-speech, the gladiator-in-training muscles — are as intrinsic to Derek as Norton’s intellectual ferocity is. His refusal to dumb down such a total bastard, and to even give him a shot at redemption, is a testament to Norton’s fearless lack of personal vanity: a proud tradition amongst actors who take risks. Like Robert De Niro or Marlon Brando before him, Norton is best when exploring innocence turned evil and the path to redemption. Courtney Young

Laurence Olivier and more

Laurence Olivier

Marathon Man

(John Schlesinger, 1976)

As actors go, there may have been, historically, scant few equals to Sir Larry’s talents but there are might be none that surpass him, in terms of sterling reputation and sheer dedication to craft. A man who could handle Shakespeare like Kobe handles a basketball, most any of his performances could have made this list; but it was his demented role as war criminal Dr. Christian Szell that truly displays an accumulated range of 50 years experience into one scene-stealing Nazi dentist. Dustin Hoffman stars as Thomas Levy, a New Yorker slowly chipping away on his doctorate, whose brother (Roy Scheider) was a mystery man he believed to be an oil executive, at least up until he was suspiciously murdered. The truth is that his brother was actually a government operative in possession of some sensitive information, information that leads to Thomas becoming one of Szell’s torture victims. Strapped to a dentist’s chair, as a drill whines hysterically in Szell’s hands, Olivier is directly responsible for perhaps one of the most tense scenes in film history (When he heard Hoffman was staying up all night to methodically prepare his body for a grueling scene of physical torture, Olivier famously retorted: “my dear boy, why don’t you try acting?”). As he attacks Levy’s sensitive nerves he repeatedly, asking “is it safe?”, Olivier’s own deliberateness and exactness as a performer, his own masterful suspension of disbelief, helps him create one of the screen’s most memorable villains. He seethes. He charms. He rages. And when his arrogance leads him into a retail district filled with Jewish merchants, some of them Nazi death camp survivors, Szell fears. Olivier does not appear during the first 40 minutes of Marathon Man, but it is the genius-level quality of his work that ultimately impacts the viewer with simply a few key scenes. Tim Basham


Sean Penn

Dead Man Walking

(Tim Robbins, 1995)

Repeatedly referred to as a “monster” in Dead Man Walking Sean Penn’s Matthew Poncelet is a death row inmate days from his execution for aiding in the murder and rape of a young couple. His story is told through his complex relationship with a nun, Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon), who agrees to visit him during his last days. Penn’s Poncelet is initially everything he’s reported to be: racist, cavalier about the murders, ignorant, and unrepentant. Penn, an actor who fully embodies any character he portrays, is alternately chilling and sympathetic. The scenes chronicling Poncelet’s day of execution are so stark in their simplicity that they allow Penn and Sarandon to make subtle choices that speak volumes. The expression on Poncelet’s face when he convinces Sister Helen to sing the hymn she promised to get him is stunning. His confession to Sister Helen, and the moments right before his death, marks a shift in Penn’s portrayal in that he humanizes Poncelet in a way that seemed unthinkable at the beginning of the film. Penn’s ability to imbue Poncelet with a full, three-dimensional representation is no easy feat and one that marks him as an actor of rare gifts. J.M. Suarez


Anthony Perkins


(Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)

Remembering that once upon a time — 1960, to be exact — the true identity of the killer in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was a spoiler every bit as carefully guarded as those of The Empire Strikes Back, The Crying Game and The Sixth Sense decades later, the key to Anthony Perkins’ portrayal of Norman Bates lies not in his ability to convey a sense of delicious, cackling evil, but rather tones of cloudy deceit and quiet unease. It is a lot harder to be afraid of someone when we perhaps halfway sympathize with him, as he shifts with boyish nervousness around mysterious blonde Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and later dutifully cleans up “mother’s” mess, twitching in suspense as one crucial bit of evidence begins to sink and then pauses before finally sinking fully into a murky swamp. It is this last moment that defines the sheer acuteness of the collaborative relationship between Perkins and Hitchcock here-as Perkins squirms onscreen and Hitch generates suspense behind the camera with his famous pianist-like precision, we are being lured into wanting Norman Bates to get away with it. For all of its ingenuity, Psycho would never have worked without Perkins’ delicate performance allowing us always see Norman as something other than a deranged monster, nor would it ever have been anywhere near as shocking when we finally see him lose it. Jer Fairall


Alan Rickman

Die Hard

(John McTiernan, 1988)

As the supposed terrorist who seizes a Los Angeles high-rise, Rickman brings order to the chaotic settings, seemingly anticipating all of the angles and never seeming to be anything less than fully in control. The actor’s sets the tone for the movie, replacing what could have been brutish and gruff with something that strives for the sleek and smart. Rickman’s triumph is also in how skillfully he lets us slowly watch Hans’ cool slide off into the sadism that he had hoped to mask. Early on, he quotes Plutarch to his first victim. Later, his plan increasingly collapsing into disarray, he orders his men to shoot out a hallway full of office windows (eventually just taking the gun and doing the dirty work himself) forcing Bruce Willis’ barefoot John McClane to navigate his escape across a field of shattered glass. It’s a vicious, calculating move; if Hans can’t catch his prey, he’ll break him down one piece at a time.

Unlike other stand-out action villains, say the James Bond model, accompanied in our memories by somersaulting names or attention-grabbing props or costumes, Rickman pulls Hans out of almost thin air. His perfect hair and beard, his thin frame, his shrugging shoulders and expressive brow, and his ability to slide in and out of accents, are all he needs to establish his character. Had Rickman taken things much further, he would have come off as a mustache-twirling heavy. Instead, he’s a cold killer that had hoped to put that all behind him and win the day with his brains and plotting. When that fails, he wastes no time embracing his roots. And as Rickman finally makes his grand exit, hanging hundreds of feet up in the LA night, dangling by a wristwatch, he assesses his impeding end and, turning a bleak, resigned, face, uses his last chance to try and bring everyone down with him. Jon Langmead

Max Schreck and more

Max Schreck


(F.W. Murnau, 1922)

Schreck’s portrayal of vampire Count Orlok in this silent adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula turns on the elaborate makeup he dons for the part — pale skin, bald head, bushy eyebrows, raccoon eyes, rat fangs, pointy ears, and especially, long-nailed fingers — as well as the expressionist repertoire of atmospheric lighting, shadow, stop-action motion, and film-speed alterations. But it’s Schreck’s acting that makes the performance. Slow, uncanny movements distinguish his work — especially against the expansive emoting of the other members of the cast, typical for the silent era — as does his restraint. Murnau reveals Orlok’s true nature slowly through the first third of the film, and Schreck alters his portrayal accordingly.

Schreck’s graceful hand gestures, aristocratically authoritative, bidding young real estate agent Hutter sit down or sign a document, yield a few scenes later to the horrific Orlok in full feeding mode, entering Hutter’s bedchamber, bald head no longer covered with a cap, fangs fully exposed, hands held rigidly at his sides: all monster. Every subsequent portrayal of Dracula devolving from noble to bestial derives from Shreck’s transformation of Orlok from eccentric to parasite. Some of Schreck’s most effective acting occurs simply in shadow, as his outline, arms and fingers outstretched, creeps over walls, floors, and victims. The shadow of his hand closing on Hutter’s wife Ellen’s heart at the film’s climax sums up the monster’s threat to goodness and purity. Moments before, Schreck replaces Orlok’s usual blank expression with a gloating look of triumph as Ellen willingly offers herself to him. It’s a short-lived victory. Ellen has tricked him into staying with her until sunup, and Orlok turns to face the rising sun, again expressionless, an inhuman beast barely comprehending its fate. Michael Curtis Nelson


Max von Sydow

Hour of the Wolf

(Ingmar Bergman, 1968)

There have been plenty of films about tortured artists, but few have the unrelenting creepiness of Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf. And none have the clear-eyed commitment that Max von Sydow brings to the role of Johan, a painter living secluded on an island with his wife Alma (Liv Ullmann). As a painter, he’s hit a dry patch, and the appearance of some admiring aristocrats near the couple’s cabin resurrects Johan’s deep-set demons. But while the aristocrats may be the antagonizers — although whether they are really the demonic clan Johan thinks they are is unclear — it is von Sydow’s Johan who emerges as the film’s true villain.

Even as his delusions overtake him, von Sydow never pitches Johan into hysterics. Instead his face purses with the tired pain of it all. To watch von Sydow stare at his watch, dreading over the interminable length of a minute is to be dragged into his bottomless despair. But Sydow’s real triumph, and what makes this all so heartbreaking, is the wooden way he consoles his worried and pregnant wife. After an unsetting visit to the aristocrat’s castle, he follows her like an alien shadow and, when she shakes his half-hearted consolations off; he turns robotically and walks home. She is merely an afterthought to his terrors. And when the demons finally get him, he doesn’t come undone and writhe in agony. He stands there, face flat with despair and acceptance and takes it. Despite plenty of great performances in better-known Bergman films, this is von Sydow’s most hauntingly realized character. He gives us the broken Johan in whispers rather than shouts, and renders him utterly unforgettable. Matt Fiander


Richard Widmark

Kiss of Death

(Henry Hathaway, 1947)

This film’s trademark scene will remain immortal — when Widmark, with little thought, pushes a wheelchair-bound Mildred Dunnock down a stairwell. The macabre flourish is shocking, especially for the late ’40s, as the camera doesn’t even blink when the fall smashes her character to a sure death. Widmark’s Tommy Udo casts darkness over what many call a golden-age noir piece, yet curiously Kiss of Death plays more as a melodrama driven by the sentimentality of Victor Mature’s Nick Bianco. So oppressed by society is he that he turns to bank robbery, and a moralizing voiceover drives the point home. After getting caught, Bianco eventually squeals on his accomplices, which allows him to reunite with his two motherless daughters and a new wife waiting for him.

His stooling also draws him toward hit man Udo, Widmark’s Oscar-nominated debut. The role plays upon a caricatured villain just enough to draw us in, at which point the actor unmasks his character’s deep moral void. Udo speaks as if he were born to reap the innocent and spread evil, and thus works as a deliberate counterpoint to the uplifting Mature. Yet Widmark’s stylized presence runs deeper than the understated lead. The former is a fair-haired menace with eyes wide and tongue curled behind his teeth. He sneers out short laughs like creaks in an old floorboard, while Mature lacks when we’re meant to root for him. If the production code didn’t mandate the villain’s defeat by the film’s end, Udo would have walked away triumphant, tossing a butt at a flat-on-his-face Bianco. Widmark serves up a casual tour-de-force in minimal screen time. This character actor’s cops, doctors, and robbers would overshadow leads for years to come. Matthew Sorrento