When we were kids going to the movies we always identified with the villains. Always favored them. They seemed to live lives that were carefree and wild. They could do anything they liked right up to about ten or five minutes before the end of the film. Then they would be caught, beat up, put in prison or killed. But before that they always had one hell of a time being bad.
Heroes were dull to us. Heroes had morals; heroes had to live by the rules. Villains didn’t give a damn about the rules. As far as they were concerned rules could kiss their behinds. Rules were for ordinary people like grocers, postmen, bankers and clerks. Boring people like the people we knew. People like our mothers and fathers, teachers and neighbors. Next to them villains led exciting and thrilling lives. We wanted those kinds of lives and didn’t mind if we had to pay for it at the end. Because after all the end would only last for about ten minutes or so.
One of our favorites was Dan Duryea (1907-1968). He was a quintessential villain in two of my favorite genres, westerns and film noir. He had a narrow face and sharp cunning eyes. Film noir femme fatales always lied and the heroes (saps that they were) always believed them. But Duryea never did. He always knew they were lying through their teeth and would tell them so. More than talk he would sometimes slap them around to let them know they weren’t fooling him. Then he would kiss them and they would more than like it, they would love him for it. That was our kind of villain.
Now there are two kinds of bad guys as far as we were concerned. The ones who did bad things and try to get away with it and the ones who took great glee from doing those bad things. They were doing it not just for the money or power but because they just liked being bad. Because they were the bad asses and anybody who didn’t like it would have to lump it. Duryea was one of them. He would giggle and cackle and taunt and tease when he was doing his bad stuff and seemed to virtually get an orgasm when he was killing some innocent, unarmed dupe. Then when the end came, this was the best part for us, he would lie and cry and snivel and beg the hero to save him. And if the hero knew what he was about he would grab his collar, slap him around for a bit, punch him and kick his ass all over the room while we screamed “Beat him! Beat him!” And Duryea could beg and cower and snivel with the best of them and we loved him for it.
The truth is in real life he was a wonderful actor and a very nice man who was born in White Plains, New York, went to Cornell University and distinguished himself in Broadway classics like Dead End and The Little Foxes before moving to Hollywood and establishing himself as a wonderfully entertaining bad guy in films like Winchester ’73(1950) and my absolute favorite Too Late for Tears (1949). For his villainy on screen he achieved a cult status of sorts which says that we weren’t the only one attracted to his terrific brand of badness mixed with humor.
As an actor he was of course capable of playing other parts and did them well. But it was for his villainy he will always be remembered and revered by those of us who love movies and especially film noir.