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Friday, March 14, 2008

The Psychos (originally published 9/02)

He's back. Hannibal Lecter, the psychopath we love to hate, once again haunts our screens in the "Silence of the Lambs" prequel, "Red Dragon." We just can't seem to get enough of the guy.

In truth, however, psychopaths have always been popular with movie audiences. Take a thoroughly vicious head case of a character, find a good actor to incarnate him on the screen, and you can be guaranteed that ticket sales will be brisk. Anthony Hopkins's portrayal of Lecter certainly qualifies as one of the great examples. Here are some earlier classic psycho portrayals to look for on home video.

Robert Mitchum in "Night of the Hunter" (1955). In this extraordinary piece of work, the only film ever directed by famed actor Charles Laughton, Robert Mitchum portrays an ex-con posing as a clergyman in order to seduce the widow of his former cellmate. The man had been executed for killing two people while robbing a bank, but the money he stole had never been found. Mitchum's character is determined to find it, and he is the sort of twisted sicko who will go to any lengths at all to get what he is after. This is the film in which Mitchum sports tattoos on his fingers spelling out L-O-V-E on one hand and H-A-T-E on the other.

Richard Widmark in "Kiss of Death" (1947). This was Widmark's first screen role, and what a debut it was. His character is so mean and rotten and takes such delight in his own nastiness that he routinely bursts out laughing while committing sadistic acts. In what is probably the film's most famous scene, he pushes an old woman down a flight of stairs. Pretty nasty, right? But in fact it's even worse than that: the old lady he pushed was in a wheelchair.

James Cagney in "White Heat" (1949). I know I'm going out on a limb saying this, but this just might be Cagney's greatest role. He is a gangster with such an intense mother-fixation that he continues to converse with his mom after she is dead. When he can't cope, he is stricken with piercing, intense headaches. You can imagine what this does for his disposition. He is an utterly remorseless killer. In one scene, he closes a man up inside the trunk of a car. When the fellow makes the mistake of begging to be let out because he can't breathe in there, Cagney remedies the situation. He fires his gun into the trunk to make air holes - his little joke. If you've never seen this one, give it a try; I promise that you'll never forget the ending.

Arch Hall, Jr. in "The Sadist" (1963). For sheer out and out meanness, it's hard to top the nasty piece of work portrayed by Hall in this film. Three people on their way to a football game stop at a lonely rural gas station only to be held at gunpoint and mercilessly tortured by the ultimate angry young man. It doesn't seem to matter that they are perfect strangers. He's pretty much mad at everybody. It's not a great film by any means, just a low budget thriller that hasn't aged all that well, but Hall is convincing and the tension builds up quite effectively.

Joseph Cotten in "Shadow of a Doubt" (1943). On the subtle side, there is this subdued but thoroughly unnerving Alfred Hitchcock film in which Cotten portrays a beloved uncle who comes to visit his niece in her idyllic little home town. Only gradually does she come to realize that he is in fact the man known to the police as the "Merry Widow Murderer." There is virtually no violence in the film, but Hitchcock doesn't need violence to get you biting your nails and squirming in your seat. Cotten's performance, quite simply, is inspired. Just watch the scene in which he sits at the dinner table and quietly, calmly explains why some people don't deserve to live, and see if the little hairs on the back of your neck don't stand on end.

And, speaking of Hitchcock, let us not forget the granddaddy of all movie psychopaths: Anthony Perkins in "Psycho" (1960).

By the time you've watched these films, you will be primed and ready for "Red Dragon." But you may not want to unlock your front door to go out and see it.

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