The 'new' list this week was the AFI's list of its top 50 'heroes' and top 50 'villains.' Like most AFI lists, it is a weird combination of masscult pandering, lefty ideology in place of honest engagement with art (c'mon, Atticus fucking Finch as "greatest hero" in film? and Gandhi), for not eating and wearing a fucking diaper?!!), and a small leavening of just-don't-fucking-get-it (you would think that most film critics would be aware that Michael Corleone is not the 'villain' of the Godfather) series, and apparently, you would be mistaken, I know I was).
One of the AFI's big problems is a consistent inability to distinguish between 'villains' and 'antiheroes.' In addition to the aforementioned Michael Corleone (#11 on their list), some other characters that are clearly not 'villains' in the context of the films in which they appear made the list, including: Bonny and Clyde (#32) and Count Dracula (#33). Their pick for 'greatest villian' is Hannibal Lecter, another rather ambivalent figure.
Some of the 'heroes' likewise are best understood as 'antiheroes' (James Bond, Han Solo, and Dirty Harry). And could someone explain how Thelma and Louise (and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) made the 'heroes' list while Bonny and Clyde are 'villains'?
All this got me thinking about the idea of the antihero, the morally ambiguous figure who does good things for bad reasons (or bad things for good reasons), or simply has no identifiable motives. These are, I think, some of the most complicated and interesting characters in film precisely because they defy easy pigeonholing (and are more like real people for it), so I've made a little list of my own favorite antiheroes:
1. Don Lope de Aguirre (Aguirre, The Wrath of God) – The genius of Aguirre lies as much in Werner Herzog’s decision to invert the conventions of the heroic journey – turning it into a voyage of undiscovery and a descent into madness – as in Klaus Kinski’s monumentally brilliant performance as the curiously restrained, but obviously bent (and more magnetic for it) conquistador. His mannerisms are arresting, his dreams grandiose, his vision doomed.
2. Sanjuro Kuwabatake (Yojimbo) – Toshiro Mifune’s swaggering bravado is legendary, as are the brilliantly choreographed fight scenes. But why does he do it? Money? Duty? Some strange conception of honor? One gets the sneaking suspicion that he’s found a convenient cover for a personal hobby: killing people. Mifune was the master of creating a character from physical gestures (Brando not excepted), and, in Sanjuro, he created a character of seminal importance, a deadly enigma whose motivations are forever beyond our ken.
3. Jake LaMotta (Raging Bull) – Jake LaMotta was a brutal, uncompromising man in a sport and an era that were both also brutal and uncompromising. But this is a complicated character, even if he is defined by his physicality. His brutality (towards his family, his friends and even himself, not to mention the odd ring opponent or two) is matched only by his raw courage, not only in the ring (his five losses to the incomparable Sugar Ray Robinson included some of the most one-sided beatings in boxing history, yet LaMotta never once went down, much less out), but, ultimately, in coming to grips with himself, his flaws, and the consequences of his life.
4. William Munny (Unforgiven) – In a way, the conflicted, tragic side of the Man With No Name (who was, of course, Sanjuro with a six gun), Eastwood’s most memorable film and role turns the sociopath of his early work for Sergio Leone on its head. The Man With No Name had no past as well. Munny has a name and a past, but no future. He has a conscience, but his only tomorrow is death – for those he strikes down and, presumably, for himself.
5. Mr. Murakawa (Sonatine) – A quintessentially Kitano character: stoically resigned in the proud Japanese tradition, but possessed of a morbid sense of humor, a sly nobility and a manly willingness to engage in violence at any moment. He is a weary man, a yakuza underboss who wants to leave the syndicate life behind, but is also willing to see events through to their inevitably awful conclusion. He is likeable not so much as a man of honor in a den of thieves (in truth, he has none), but because of his quaint willingness to stand and face the consequences of his choices openly, with gun in hand.
6. Michael Corleone (The Godfather Part II) – Michael Corleone is a family man. It is, of course, required of him as the head of a mafia family. It’s also what separates him from being just another charming, murderous bastard. His devotion to his family, and particularly to his children is what keeps him a sympathetic figure within a swirling vortex of nihilistic butchery, backstabbing, lies and deception…a vortex entirely of his own making. And even here, he isn’t easy to like. He abuses his wife (admittedly when she tries to take away his children), and, when an attempt is made on his life that nearly kills his wife as well, his concern is as much for the implied insult to himself as it is for the safety of his family. And, of course, the ultimate victim of Michael’s vengeance is his own brother, executed while he dispassionately looks on.
7. James Bond (Goldfinger) – Bond, James Bond, secret agent, bon vivant, womanizer…sociopath. Bond will always be an anomaly: the Brit that every American man wants to be, a spy with a catchphrase, a “hero” into which all the familiar aspects of villainy have been rolled. Absolute disregard for any concern beyond his own purposes? Check. Willingness to put innocent life at risk for any and all reasons? Check. Manipulative sexual predator who uses women then uses them up? Check. But hey, it’s all cool. He’s 007, getting his wick dipped and keeping his beak wet in service of Queen and Country. Bond is, of course, a franchise, an institution more than a man, but only Sean Connery ever perfectly captured his peculiar blend of panache, indifference to suffering and robust virility, and never better than in Goldfinger
8. Adolf Hitler (Triumph of the Will) – Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will is widely considered the greatest (and most successful) propaganda film ever created. Part of this is due to Riefenstahl’s undeniable brilliance both as a director and editor, part is due to the NSDAP’s unparalleled gift for choreographic public spectacle and drama, but a large measure of the credit has to go to sheer charisma and personal magnetism of the film’s central figure, Adolf Hitler. Here, Hitler is something of a split personality; the film goes to great lengths to show the Hitler of Nazi myth, the messianic figure descending from the clouds (literally, in the opening shot) to bring salvation to his people. Yet its most powerful and arresting sequence shows Hitler bathed in the flickering glow of torchlight and veiled in smoke as he addresses a nighttime rally of his loyal stormtroopers. This is a very different führer, a dark and arresting god, possessed of a demonic energy, pronouncing a blessing (curse?) on his acolytes.
9. Count Dracula (Nosferatu: The Phantom of the Night) - Again, the Herzog/Kinski collaboration proves fruitful. While the film itself is not the equal of Murnau’s silent original, nor even of the Bela Lugosi Dracula, Kinski’s Count comes closer than either to capturing the tragic figure of the source novel. He is not a force of unstoppable evil, nor a suave seducer, but rather a man – an immortal man to be sure – trying to bear up under the crushing weight of time, consequences and a terrible curse.
10. Dr. Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs) - Obviously, Lecter is not the villain the American Film Institute would have you believe, but he is fascinating nonetheless. A true psychopath, but one who lends his aid in capturing another killer, partly out of self-interest, and partly out of sympathy and (and a schoolboy crush) for FBI agent-in-training Clarice Starling. Anthony Hopkins’ performance seems a bit hammy now, but it perfectly captures the menace and theatricality of the Lecter character.