Best of the badmen
I wrote a post on the Western badman some time ago but it seems to have got lost when the blog changed host. In any case, since then, I have read Best of the Badmen, an enjoyable compendium of Western villains written by Boyd Magers, Bob Nareau and Bobby Copeland. Albuquerque resident Mr Magers is Editor-In-Chief of Western Clippings. So it was time to redo the article. Here goes.
Most film genres put the bad guy in an important place. You have to have a bad guy to make the hero heroic. This is obviously true of cops-and-robbers and heist dramas and such but horror, sci-fi and many other types of movie require a villain to be overcome, be it Darth Vader, Dracula, the Bond villain or whoever. And the badder the bad guy is, the gooder the goodie.
But perhaps nowhere is this more than true than in the Western. This partly due, I think, to the sheer variety of Western bad guy: he (or sometimes even she) could be an outlaw, a train, stagecoach or bank robber, a rustler, a ruthless rich rancher, a hired gunslinger, a smarmy saloon owner (usually also a criminal town boss), that saloon owner’s thuggish henchman, a gambler with a derringer, a get-it-through-at-any-cost railroad man, a crooked sheriff, judge or lawyer (bankers were often villains too, though only rarely a doc, yet preachers could be bad ‘uns). There was every kind of villain, from thug to dress heavy. As the authors of Best of the Badmen say in their introduction, “No other group of pictures has ever produced such a colorful, varied and marvelous horde of villains as has the western.”
Though of course the survival rate of these nefarious types is extremely low, they do often get the best lines to say before they expire. At least the leading bad guys did. Many of the heavies were there not to say anything but just to look mean, ride in posses, shoot people, rustle and so on. For this reason, there was quite an overlap between stuntman and heavy. Stuntmen would often get a walk-on part as bad guy. Yak Canutt did it all the time.
Ideally, the bad-guy actors would have ugly mugs. Neville Brand once told a reporter, “With this kisser, I knew early in the game I wasn’t going to make the world forget Clark Gable.” Being plug-ugly would also make the hero look more handsome. Stubble was de rigueur. Wall-eyed Jack Elam was ideally suited. A scar helped a lot (that could always be added by the make-up people). With these actors, the less beauteous, the better. Of course, that often made them more striking.
For some unexplained reason, villains could be fair-haired more than heroes. Saloon owner/town bosses David Brian and Lyle Bettger, for example: smarmy types in suits were blond. When James Arness was a baddy in Hondo, he was Swedishly blond; when he took the role of arch-goody Matt Dillon, he dyed his hair dark. It was more heroic.
A persistent though erroneous notion is that the villains wore black cowboy hats and the heroes white ones. In fact, bad guys could just as easily be termed blackhats. Regular henchman Pierce Lyden wrote some years ago, “They [the baddies] traditionally wore black hats as opposed to the good guys who dressed in white. This may have been true in the silent pictures because of bad lighting, poor filming or because black was depicted as the devil. White represented purity, honesty and goodness. Techniques, lighting and film changed, however, and so did the villain with the black hat. With the advent of talkies, he became more clever, sophisticated and able to fool the audience as to his identity – if the black hat was missing.”
In reality, I’m not sure it was ever true. Tom Mix wore a black Stetson as often as not, and you don’t get goodier than Tom. Hopalong Cassidy was attired all in black. The color was down to personal preference, not goodiness or badiness. Silverbelly (or gray) hats tend to look better on people with ruddy complexions, like John Wayne. “Black hats make me look beet red or deathly pale,” said Duke. “My silverbelly makes me look normal.” Anyway, onward.
House Peters Jr, in a foreword to the Best of the Badmen book, recounted how William Witney, the director of so many Roy Rogers flicks, said he was inundated by letters at Republic when in one movie Peters’s character hit Roy’s dog and clubbed Trigger with a rifle butt. They all demanded that Peters never be hired again. A proper bad guy is loathed. On the set of The Cowboys, one of the few Westerns in which Duke was killed (badman Bruce Dern shoots him), he warned Dern that America would hate him for what he was doing – although Dern retorted, “Yeah, but they’ll love me in Berkeley.” Splendid heavy Neville Brand even shot Elvis Presley in Love Me Tender. The screaming teenyboppers in the audience never forgave him.
Regular Western bad guy James Griffith once said, “I understood what many actors did not understand — that playing bad guys afforded me more opportunities to work and thus be in different settings. Most Westerns have only one hero, and he’s pretty much restricted in what he can do … whereas the heavies run around in gangs and do all kinds of colorful things.” There’s a lot in that.
By the way, the book at hand is titled Best of Badmen. Badmen is one word. There’s a difference between a bad man and a badman. A badman was a recognizable Western type. Often, he had good sides to his character. This was especially true of early heroes like William S Hart. He did the flawed fellow redeemed by the love of a good woman plot so often he could probably have done it in his sleep. Randolph Scott definitely continued in that tradition. Cowboys on the wrong side of the law, who have erred and strayed in their ways, but finally come good, acting nobly, sometimes even making the ultimate sacrifice, these were staples of the Western film.
But I’m not really considering them today. They were, essentially, goodies. I’m more interested now in the out-and-out villains. The habitual baddies.
Now, whom shall we choose to be our badmen? It’s a conundrum, for there were literally thousands. Pretty well every movie had them feature for well over a hundred years, not to mention all the TV shows. So bad-guy actors are myriad. I prefer the players who made a special thing of such parts. Those who rarely played a goody. The true heavies.
Some actors were so professional that they could play anything. What about Henry Fonda? Fonda was the good guy. He was Wyatt Earp for John Ford, after all. Even when he was nominally a bad guy, for example when he was Frank James in Jesse James and The Return of Frank James, he was still noble, brave and true. When the sinister gunman who kills people for the railroad appears in Once Upon a Time in the West, the camera swivels round and to our amazement (the first time we saw the film anyway) it’s Henry Fonda! Those baby-blues are now pitilessly cruel. He shoots a small boy down in cold blood. It was great acting, and inspired casting by Leone. But it just shows that the goodest goody can also be a baddy.
John McIntire, as another example, was a versatile actor who could be a real goodie (as the doc in The Tin Star, for instance) or an utter scoundrel (as Judge Bannon in The Far Country, for example) and he did plenty of other good and bad guys as well. But he isn’t a professional badman.
Someone like Robert Ryan in The Naked Spur was so evil that we might class him up in the high ranks of the bad guys. And Ryan was first class at the bad guy roles. But no, Robert Ryan was another of the strong-silent-type heroes. Just because he was sometimes a villain (Horizons West, Hour of the Gun, etc) doesn’t make him a classic bad guy. He was a bad guy more than Fonda was, true, and even when he was leading as the good guy he was pretty darn tough, but he wasn’t a ‘proper’ badman, not really.
I’m looking for the professional bad guys. The regulars. The ones who rarely did anything else.
When I was casting my ideal Western movie, back last September – click here for those pearls of wisdom – I went through the various types of badman, as described above, and talked about my favorites for each. I won’t repeat that here. I’ll just mention some of the best of the badmen in general. It isn’t a ‘top ten’ or anything; I find those rather tiresome. It’s not a competition. Although having said that, I did do a top ten of sidekicks (Gabby Hayes won, naturally). Anyway, for bad guys I’ve just selected a dirty dozen, in alphabetical order. It’s a little reminder of how good (i.e. bad) some of these character actors could be.
I’ve written little essays on quite a few of these separately over the years, and you can find them in the index to know more. Here just a para on each:
RG Armstrong was for me outstanding as the violent deputy who brutalizes Billy in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid but he had, also for Peckinpah, who said, “RG Armstrong played righteous villainy better than anybody I’ve ever seen” an excellent line in crazed preachers. Just watch him in Ride the High Country and Major Dundee. He was also a ranting reverend on TV, in Jefferson Drum and Bronco. RG once said, “I had repressed a lot of things in me from my father’s actions and behavior towards his children. I didn’t want to be a man like that. I didn’t want to be violent, so I repressed it. When they started giving me these [roles as] villains, I started drawing on that and I saw I had all the fury of hell and violence there, that I was really psychotic inside, because I could go into an instant rage or hostility. It was not acting, it was real. And they just kept giving these parts to me.”
Lyle Bettger was, for me, the slimy saloon owner/crooked town boss, the kind of role Victor Jory did quite a bit earlier on. He was never the scarred, eye-patched, unshaven style of outlaw, but always the groomed, dandyish Iago in a silk vest who smiled and smiled (or smirked and smirked anyway) and was a villain. Try the 1954 Destry remake, or Showdown at Abilene in ’56, or Return of the Gunfighter in ‘66. In Warners’ big-screen The Lone Ranger in 1956 he was the smiling arch-baddy Reece Kilgore, the excellently named big rancher – kill/gore. And his thuggish heavy was none other than our old friend Robert J Wilke (see below). Excellent. Lyle said, “It was tough being a dad at that time. I remember my two sons, then seven and eight, accompanying their mom to one of my movies. I was, of course, the villain, and near the end where you have the big fight my sons yelled out, ‘Gee, I hope my daddy wins’. But they were disappointed.” Indeed.
Neville Brand we discussed just the other day, in our The Westerns of… series. Neville was at his best as the burly, thuggish, unshaven bully kind of bad guy, a particularly obnoxious gang member, for example (see The Return of Jack Slade as a classic example). In his book Television Western Players Everett Aaker says, “While Neville Brand was not universally villainous in films and television, he was always tough. His appearance was enhanced by his belligerent demeanor and his rasping voice.” Only the Valiant, Red Mountain, The Charge at Feather River (in all of those he was a dastardly soldier), The Man from the Alamo (convict/gang member), Gun Fury (gang member), and so on, we are spoilt for choice. He was in the Wild Bunch three times, in The Return of Jack Slade, The Three Outlaws and Badman’s Country, in the latter two as Butch Cassidy. Decidedly, if you wanted a badman for your Western, you’d give Neville a call right away.
Walter Brennan, though perhaps most famous for being John Wayne’s cranky old-timer sidekick (Red River, Rio Bravo), excelled as the Old Man Clanton type of paterfamilias, a lowlife rustler or criminal. Indeed he was Clanton himself, for John Ford in My Darling Clementine. But watch him in Brimstone, say, or Shootout at Big Sag or a couple of others. He beats his worthless sons and does not scruple to commit murder, theft and any other crime that he thinks of. In Support Your Local Sheriff he sent up this type of role and showed a talent for comedy. He was one of those actors who were always ‘old’, like Gabby Hayes and Arthur Hunnicutt, even when they were young. And as mean old man he excelled. He was the best ever Judge Roy Bean in William Wyler’s The Westerner – not the amusing rascal Bean, like Edgar Buchanan, say (again, see below) but a real desert rattlesnake.
Edgar Buchanan (a lot of these bad guys began with B) cornered the market in amusing old scoundrel roles and was the master of the sly chuckle. He was especially good as a corrupt judge. He was outstanding as the sad, broken-down, drunk Judge Tolliver in Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country and he was scoundrelly Circuit Court Judge Thaddeus Jackson Breen in The Comancheros with John Wayne. He was rather touching as Judge Neal Hefner in Cimarron and excellently comic/rascally again as Judge Bogardus in Arizona in 1940. He was a downright crooked one in Rage at Dawn. And of course he was Judge Roy Bean on TV. He could also do a doc or a mayor, and he was a cowardly county sheriff in Abilene Town and a shrewd, also rather cowardly one in Dawn at Socorro He was outlaw Curly Bill in Tombstone, the Town Too Tough to Die.He was never really an out-and-out villain, of the truly evil type, but if you needed a rascal, Edgar was your man.
Bruce Dern was excellently bad, indeed as far as I know he still is. When he killed John Wayne in The Cowboys, Bruce was probably getting his revenge for when Wayne shot him dead in The War Wagon. You have to be a high-class baddy to kill John Wayne. He could produce a splendid snarling face. I mentioned Walter Brennan, well, in Support Your Local Sheriff Bruce was his no-good imprisoned son, too, er, dem stupid to understand there were no bars on the cell yet. And he was also the lowlife son of Donald Pleasence’s Quint in the excellent Will Penny. The boy actor in that movie, Jon Gries, said he was genuinely afraid of Bruce Dern on the set. Bruce was memorable as Miller in Clint Eastwood’s Hang ’em High, the main bad guy against Kirk Douglas in Posse, and more recently, as evil plantation owner old man Carrucan in Django Unchained for Quentin Tarantino – great to see him – and a particularly nasty Confederate general in The Hateful Eight. No doubt about it, Bruce was bad.
Dan Duryea? The IMDb bio sums it up quite well:“Dan Duryea was definitely the man you went to the movies for and loved to hate. His sniveling, deliberately taunting demeanor and snarling, flat nasal tones set the actor apart from other similar slimeballs of the 1940s and 1950s. From his very first picture, the highly acclaimed The Little Foxes (1941), in which he portrayed the snotty, avaricious nephew Leo Hubbard, who would easily sell his own mother down the river for spare change, the tall, lean and mean Duryea became a particularly guilty pleasure, particularly in film noir, melodramas and westerns.” For me, he was best in laughing-killer roles. I think of him first as Waco Johnny Dean in Winchester ’73, (the real) Monte Jarrad in Along Came Jones and Whitey Kincade in Ride Clear of Diablo, raucously laughing that wicked laugh of his, usually preparatory to shooting someone. Night Passage, Rails into Laramie, Silver Lode and more, when you needed a killer who would make any passing hyena green with envy, Dan’s the man.
Jack Elam was one of the most recognizable (and best-liked) badmen of the big and small screen. One–Reel Jack, so called because he was so often shot to death in the first reel of any oater (most famously, of course, in Once Upon a Time in the West), was a mainstay of Westerns of every kind. His skinny frame, outward-pointing feet, ugly mug and that squinty glare were instantly recognizable and you knew you were in for a great bad guy. Jack’s first big part and still today one of his best ever was in Rawhide (Fox, 1951), a much underrated Western directed by Henry Hathaway. Jack is superb as the dumb, crazed psychopath and the sheer glee with which he shoots at a child is stunningly horrible. Then I would cite his Mort Geary in the Fritz Lang-directed Rancho Notorious in 1952 and the same year, High Noon, even though he only had a tiny part in the latter as the town drunk Charlie whom Marshal Gary Cooper releases and sends home (though actually he will of course go straight back to the saloon) because, well, because it’s High Noon. But there were so many. One of the greats.
Leo Gordon. Well, if I were only allowed to choose one, it’d be Leo. Leo was the arch-heavy. Time and again he lost out to the star of the movie in a fist fight. Those who knew Leo would have considered this improbable. He was 6′ 2″ (1.88 m) and broad-shouldered, and tough as all get-out. He could have whupped most of the actors with one hand tied behind his back. But the bad guy has to lose. Don Siegel, who directed Leo as Crazy Mike Carnie in (the non-Western) Riot in Cell Block 11, said, “Leo Gordon was the scariest man I have ever met.” In his youth the actor had served time in San Quentin for armed robbery, and he was entirely convincing as tough-guy. His Western debut was in Warners’ Hondo, with John Wayne, in 1953, in which, billed seventh, he played the no-good husband of Geraldine Page who deserts her, and whom Duke is finally obliged to shoot. From then on, in one Western after another, the seriously tough heavy was Leo Gordon.
Skip Homeier was a specialist in punk kid roles, then, when he got a bit older, just punks. In 1950 he reached the top by shooting Gregory Peck in The Gunfighter, one of those young wannabes who had to prove he was faster than the famed Jimmy Ringo, and from then on whenever casting directors needed a punk gunman, they said to themselves Who you gonna call? and came up with the answer S Homeier Esq. Skippy, as he was known, started in troubled-teen roles and graduated to dangerous and slightly weird badmen in a variety of movies. Westernwise, I really like him in The Last Posse, Dawn at Socorro, The Lone Gun and those Westerns with Randolph Scott, Ten Wanted Men, The Tall T and Comanche Station. Among others. They tried him out as the (goody) lead in a Western once, Thunder over Arizona. Mistake.
Lee Van Cleef was many people’s idea of THE Western badman, chiefly, I think because of that memorable start as Jack Colby in High Noon (a role that brought him remarkable recognition considering the fact that he had no dialogue) but later because of Sergio Leone, and all those other spaghettis he did. His hawk nose and slitty eyes certainly helped his villainy. He said, “Being born with a pair of beady eyes was the best thing that ever happened to me.” A regular on Western TV shows (84 episodes of different series), he also did 53 feature Westerns between 1952 and 1977, nearly always as the bad guy. Impossible to choose the best. “Bad guys have always been my bag . . . I look mean without even trying. Audiences just naturally hate me on screen. I could play a role in a tuxedo and people would think I was rotten. You can do much more with a villain part. Movies are full of leading men, most of whom aren’t working. It’s much harder to find a good villain.” Thus spake Lee.
Robert J Wilke is the last of our dirty alphabetical dozen of Western badmen, and a particular favorite of mine, largely thanks to his uncanny ability to sneer. Bob Wilke (like all these actors, the nicest of men off the set) was in the Leo Gordon class of big bruiser. He too made a mark, alongside Van Cleef, as one of Frank Miller’s guns in High Noon, though he’d been in dozens and dozens of B-Westerns before then, and altogether he did an amazing 121 big-screen oaters and 132 TV episodes in the genre. Many people recall him being stabbed by James Coburn in The Magnificent Seven. How to choose favorites from all those appearances? Impossible. But one thing is certain, if your screenplay called for a snarling badman with real menace (and Leo wasn’t available or you wanted more than one) Bob Wilke was your man – if you could get him off the golf course.
So there you have it. Really, it’s silly to try to distill all those wonderful badmen down to a list of twelve. There are loads who could and probably should have made the cut. But still, it’s fun making a selection. And one thing is sure: if a Western contains any of the above in even a half-prominent part, the film will be the better for it.
And another thing: sometimes you could get a combination of these guys in the same Western!