A Fine Madness | Miles David Moore | Scene4 Magazine | August 2020 | www.scene4.com

A Fine Madness
The Great Insane Performances of the Cinema

Miles David Moore

"Mother!  Oh, God, Mother!  Blood!  BLOOD!"
Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho

"Look, Easy, if you ain't want him killed, why did you leave him with me?"
Raymond "Mouse" Alexander (Don Cheadle) in Carl Franklin's Devil in a Blue Dress

"Do you know the world is a foul sty?  And if you ripped the facades off houses, you'd find swine?"
Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten) in Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt

"Why am I funny?  Why am I funny?  Am I a clown? Do I amuse you?"
Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) in Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas

"Heeere's JOHNNY!"
Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining

"Heineken?  Fuck that shit!  PABST BLUE RIBBON!"
Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) in David Lynch's Blue Velvet

"Vair ist Pancakes House?"
Gaear Gunsrud (Peter Stormare) in the Coen Brothers' Fargo

"I will not be ignored!"

—Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) in Adrian Lynes' Fatal Attraction

"I ate his liver with fava beans and a nice Chianti."

Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) in Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs

"Don't worry, I'm not going to shoot you, Mr. Haines.  It might disturb Mother."

Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) in Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train

"I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids."
Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove


Admit it.  Most or all of the above quotes made you smile. The cinematic monsters I have just quoted are the movie equivalents of an elongated ride through a Halloween funhouse.  For two hours they leap out at us as we careen through their convoluted stories.  At the end, regaining the light, we release ourselves from the terror they instilled in us and say, "That was fun!"

Madness, from the divine to the depraved, has been a mainstay of dramatic art since the ancient Greeks, and since their inception the movies have used insane characters to emphasize horror, humor, or (sometimes) both.  One of the greatest was Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet--cynical, despairing wit and gallant--whose precipitous actions are catalyst to the final tragedy.

Some mad movie characters have become so popular that they figure in multiple films.  The triumphal run Anthony Hopkins had as Hannibal Lecter obscures the previous—and equally fine—performance by Brian Cox as Lecter in Michael Mann's Manhunter. 


The Joker, meanwhile, has become a virtual cottage industry, almost separate from the Batman comics and movies where the character originated.  Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, and Joaquin Phoenix made the Joker progressively darker, each distancing the character further from the farcical conception of Cesar Romero in the 1960s Batman TV series.

The quotes that began this review emphasize that two directors of the past century, more than any others, featured deranged characters in their films as projections of their own world views. 


The madmen in the films of Stanley Kubrick—Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) in Dr. Strangelove, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) in The Shining, and Pvt. Pyle (Vincent D'Onofrio) in Full Metal Jacket—can all be said to have become mad in reaction to the extreme societal malaise in which they are trapped. 


In Dr. Strangelove, most of the major characters are mad to some extent, including the title character (Peter Sellers), Maj. "King" Kong (Slim Pickens), and Gen. Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott).  But all of them pale in comparison with the lunacy of Ripper, who sees nuclear war as the only defense against the creeping menace of fluoridation.  (One should also note that Kubrick's most famous madman was not a man at all: it was HAL 9000, the demented AI presence of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  HAL too reacted to the insanity of his time.)

Conversely, the mad characters in Hitchcock's films are all reacting to a very private, individual derangement.  Phillip (Farley Granger) and Brandon (John Dall) in Rope dream of proving themselves Nietzschean supermen by committing the perfect murder.  Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in Psycho lives in a constant miasma of violence and guilt borne of his twisted relationship with his mother. 


Unlike Norman, Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten) in Shadow of a Doubt lives in violent reaction not to one woman but to all women—the "silly wives" who live off the wealth of their dead husbands, "eating the money, drinking the money, losing the money at bridge." 


Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) in Strangers on a Train reacts not against his mother but his father, and proposes to Guy Haines (Granger again) that they exchange murders, "criss-cross"—Bruno will kill Guy's wife, and Guy will kill Bruno's father.  Guy assumes Bruno is joking—a very misguided assumption.  The least interesting of Hitchcock's madmen came in one of his lesser movies, made at the end of his career—Bob Rusk (Barry Foster) in Frenzy, jolly produce merchant by day and serial killer by night, framing the eminently frameable Richard Blaney (Jon Finch).

Hitchcock's psychopaths are an especially refined subset of the mad-dog killers who have menaced generations of moviegoers.  Often the actors who play those characters have to fight all their lives avoiding being typecast, as Richard Widmark did after playing Tommy Udo, the thug who pushes a wheelchair-bound woman down a flight of stairs, in Henry Hathaway's Kiss of Death.  The "dishonor roll" of crazed murderers is long and illustrious—James Cagney in Public Enemy and White Heat, Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar and Key Largo, Paul Muni in Howard Hawks' Scarface, Al Pacino in Brian De Palma's Scarface, Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West, Bruce Dern in The Cowboys, Lee Marvin in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Lawrence Tierney in Born to Kill, Elisha Cook in Born to Kill (again) and The Maltese Falcon,Christian Bale in American Psycho, Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare in Fargo, the much underrated Neville Brand in
D.O.A., and the much underrated Ben Foster in James Mangold's remake of 3:10 to Yuma. 


The maniacs audiences love best are the ones who are so over the top that they make us laugh—Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet, Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, Don Cheadle in Devil in a Blue Dress.  The scariest of all, however, is one who is not lovable or relatable in any sense—Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh in the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men.  More about him later.

As much as we have said about mad men, the mad women are at least as memorable.  Kathy Bates won stardom and a much-deserved Oscar as Annie Wilkes in Rob Reiner's Misery, wielding a sledgehammer in revenge against novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan) for killing off her favorite character. 


Glenn Close won an Oscar nomination as Alex Bennett, the woman scorned by Michael Douglas' Dan Gallagher in Fatal Attraction, though too few people remember that Alex had a worthy progenitor in Evelyn Draper (Jessica Walter), the obsessed fan of disc jockey Dave Garver (Clint Eastwood) in Eastwood's Play Misty for Me. 


My own favorite cinematic madwoman is more obscure than the others, at least to American audiences.  Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) is the neurotic, resentful odd woman out among a group of Anglican nuns in the Indian Himalayas who are the protagonists of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's 1947 British film Black Narcissus.  Sister Ruth "wants distinction," as the other nuns say of her.  She also wants Mr. Dean (David Farrar), agent to the local ruler, and she imagines Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), mother superior of their mountaintop convent, to be her rival for his affections.  Byron makes Sister Ruth's disintegration unforgettable, right down to her final confrontation with Sister Clodagh—a literal cliffhanger.

Considering the intensity of all the performances mentioned so far, it is pleasant to note that some mad characters are played, delightfully, for laughs.  Two movies, made during and just after World War II, exemplify the lighter side of insanity.  One of them—Harvey, directed by Henry Koster and based on the play by Mary Chase—will be considered at the end.  The other—Frank Capra's Arsenic and Old Lace, based on the play by Joseph Kesselring—is a booby hatch without restraint, set in the home of the pixilated Brewster family.


It is the irony of Arsenic and Old Lace that Cousin Teddy (John Alexander)—who thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt, blares his bugle day and night, and yells "Charge!" every time he climbs the stairs—is the Brewster who scares the neighbors.  They adore kindly sisters Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair), who have a secret penchant for poisoning elderly men and burying them in the cellar.  The neighbors don't even know about Cousin Jonathan (Raymond Massey), a deranged killer and gangster whose latest plastic surgery left him looking like Boris Karloff, or Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre), the drunken surgeon who made him look like Karloff. 

Cousin Mortimer (Cary Grant) discovers this all on the night he plans to leave for his honeymoon with the beautiful Elaine (Priscilla Lane).  Grant is roll-in-the-aisles hilarious as he goes through all sorts of contortions to protect his aunts from the law and the family from scandal.  Arsenic and Old Lace not only demonstrates Grant's skill as a farceur to perfection, but also reminds us he was an acrobat before he was an actor.

The ensemble cast of Arsenic and Old Lace cannot be faulted in any way.  The MVPs are Grant; Josephine Hull, full of the fluttery charm that won her an Oscar five years later for Harvey; and especially Lorre, who remains the cinema's greatest portrayer of degenerates, Bruce Dern and Dennis Hopper notwithstanding.  Lorre's immersion in madness began with the film that made him a star—M, Fritz Lang's 1931 German-language film, in which Lorre burned through the celluloid as serial child murderer Franz Becker.  Having played multiple permutations of menace over more than a decade—including Mad Love, The Face Behind the Mask, the original Man Who Knew Too Much, and his collaborations with Humphrey Bogart—Lorre projects a perversely lovable desperation as Einstein, so that the audience applauds his last-minute escape.

Arsenic and Old Lace is an out-and-out farce, not meant to be taken seriously for a moment.  However, there have been movies about madmen in which the laughter is uneasy at best.  We have already considered Dr. Strangelove; less famous, but just as mordant, is the 1972 British film The Ruling Class, directed by Peter Medak from a screenplay by Peter Barnes.


The Ruling Class is best remembered for the exuberant performance of Peter O'Toole as Jack, 14th Earl of Gurney, who believes he is Jesus.  Jack sleeps upright on a cross, breaks without warning into song-and-dance routines, and says at tea, "For what I am about to receive, may I make myself truly thankful."  His worthless relatives, trying to shock him into reality, manage only to persuade him that he is Jack the Ripper.  In a particularly unnerving sequence, Jack exhorts his fellow members of the House of Lords to bring back execution and torture.  He surveys them as they cheer him and sees them all as rotting corpses.  The Ruling Class is a savage satire of the British aristocracy, portraying it in its entirety as murderous and mad.

Even with this gallery of crazed rogues, there are three performances I find unique, and so I regard them as the greatest mad performances of all time. 


The first was from Lorre's frequent co-star, Bogart, who played many villainous roles in his career.  None, however, was like Fred C. Dobbs in John Huston's 1947 film, Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  This is the textbook portrayal of a man destroyed by greed.  The brilliance of Bogart's performance is in how he presents in increments the evidence that Dobbs—not his gold-prospecting partners Howard (Walter Huston) or Curtin (Tim Holt)—will be the one who turns feral in his lust for wealth.  From the servile way he reacts to a rich man (John Huston in a cameo) to his flinging a glass of water in a newsboy's face, we see that Dobbs is weak and cruel, consumed by an inflated conception of his own importance.  Dobbs' dissolution culminates in his final confrontation with the bandits led by Alfonso Bedoya; he is in no way able to deal with the stupid, vicious but perfectly sane bandits.  This scene remains horrifyingly painful to watch, even after three-quarters of a century.


A very different type of madman—indeed, one whose madness consists of the bleakest, most nihilistic sanity—is Anton Chigurh, icy arbiter of life and death in No Country for Old Men.  Only the ever-dour Cormac McCarthy could have created Chigurh, and only the Coens and Bardem could have done full justice to him.  A crime syndicate hires Chigurh to locate $2 million in missing drug money, and the heads of the syndicate live just long enough to regret it.  Chigurh sees himself as much more than a gun for hire; he sees himself alone as possessing the right to live, and to decide who lives or dies.  With everyone he meets, he makes a bet with a coin toss.  You win the toss, you live, he tells them.  I win the toss, I kill you.  Those who refuse the bet, he kills immediately.  The only good luck in the world is to avoid Chigurh entirely, and no one is that lucky permanently.

One could say that Chigurh is the most powerful of all screen lunatics.  But I prefer to think that Chigurh's opposite, the most benign character considered in this review, deserves the last word.  This is Elwood P. Dowd, the sweet-natured tosspot played by James Stewart in Harvey, who makes the daily round of his favorite bars accompanied by the title character—a six-foot, three-and-a-half-inch rabbit whom only he can see.


Elwood not only evades the efforts of his sister Veta Louise (Hull) to have him committed to a sanitarium, but persuades Dr. Chumley, the sanitarium's head psychiatrist (Cecil Kellaway), of Harvey's existence.  Elwood is the world's most companionable soul, inviting everyone he meets to have a drink or come to his house for dinner.  Sooner or later, knowing Elwood, it seems reasonable to accept the existence of a giant invisible rabbit, or even to serve him a martini.

Elwood's philosophy of life is a course in How to Win Friends and Influence People, in only twenty-two words: "In this world, you must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant.  Well, for years I was smart.  I recommend pleasant."  I can imagine Elwood having a friendly drink even with Anton Chigurh, and that is why, for me, Elwood P. Dowd is the greatest mad character in the history of the cinema.

One olive or two, Harvey?


The mad characters of the movies are an irresistible subject for poems as well as reviews. Here is my poem, "Shadow of a Doubt: Charles Oakley's Speech," which appeared in the anthology, A Sea of Alone: Poems for Alfred Hitchcock, edited by Christopher Conlon (Dark Scribe Press, 2011):

    Good ladies, thanks for asking me to speak.
    Though Emma gave my arm a friendly twist
    To get me to accept, I see her point.
    I would have been a blackguard and a churl
    To turn down such a lovely group as you.
    It is a joy to be in Santa Rosa—
    This vine-embroidered gem of California,
    Fair city of the Valley of the Moon,
    Whose beauty rivals even Tuscany's.
    You've much to cherish here, and though I know
    You come from hardy Forty-Niner stock,
    Like all Americans, you wonder how
    You can protect the freedoms you hold dear
    From Hitler, Tojo, and their death-crazed hordes.
    Of course you know that if I had the answers,
    I'd be at Mr. Roosevelt's side right now!
    But I can say this much: We built this land
    With courage and with hope, so when we face
    A peril such as this, we'll stand our ground;
    Shoulder to shoulder, we will fight and win.
    We won at Yorktown and at Appomattox,
    We won at San Juan Hill and Belleau Wood.
    In times of crisis, we endure and thrive.
    Don't think Pearl Harbor will go unavenged!

    (Applaud, you morons.  Clap your trotters, swine.
    Powder your snouts and swill your rubber chicken
    And grunt with pleasure at my flattery.
    Good night, fair sows.  Regain your squalid sties
    And wallow in your stinking excrement.
    I'd shove you all in Hitler's cattle cars
    If he weren't of the same foul stuff as you.
    Tomorrow you will hail me in the street
    And smile and wave and shake your silly jewels
    The jewels that, soon enough, I'll turn to cash.
    How happily you'll greet your murderer.
    When rid of you, I will endure and thrive.
    Don't think my anguish will go unavenged.)

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Miles David Moore | Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com
Miles David Moore is a Washington, D.C. reporter for Crain Communications, the author of three books of poetry and Scene4's Film Critic. For more of his reviews and articles, check the Archives.

©2020 Miles David Moore
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