The Charming Psychopath of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS

There are so many types of villains in the movies- mobsters, monsters, scoundrels, crooks, creeps, vixens, killers… and they come in all persuasions of evil, smarmy, spooky and scary. The variety of ‘bad guys’ reminds me of the scene in Mel Brooks’ BLAZING SADDLES (1974) when Harvey Korman as Hedy (err, that’s Hedley) Lamarr rounds up every nasty ne’er-do-well in the wild west. Check out this clip of:  “Boy Is He Strict” Video.

The Bandit needs no stinkin' badges. Along with Slim Pickins and Harvey Korman, we see villainry in western parody.

This bandit needs no stinkin’ badges. Along with Slim Pickins and Harvey Korman, we see villainry via the western parody.

A truly outstanding villain is pure cinema gold. Audiences root for the courageous and upstanding hero or heroine to save the day and we crave happy endings. But we clamor for a hard-fought battle of good vs. evil along the way. Let’s face it, the good-doer protagonist earns no glory without a truly heinous antagonist in equal measure of nasty.

When I think of all the memorable villains in film, I’m mesmorized by  the charming ones. There’s something fascinating about the hustle of a highly social persona who draws in his/her victims. There’s no need for lurking in dark shadows or ill manners when they lust the dance of enticement, right in the bright spotlight. Christoph Waltz as Colonel Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) is a perfect example of this particular hybrid of the charming psychopath of the silver screen.

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The story takes place in a parallel universe of nazi-occupied France during World War II where a small troop of Americans, nicknamed the ‘Basterds’, seek to fulfill a heavy thirst of redemption against ‘nazi Jew hunters’ with a bloody vengeance. The year is 1941. We are introduced to their unique nicknames and fighting styles- like “the Bear Jew” who prefers bashing SS skulls with a baseball bat, or their other trademark of scalping nazis upon capture. When it comes to a universally known symbol of villainy, you can’t get much more iconically evil than the nazis.

Tarantino is known for a flair for violence in his filmmaking. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is no exception to this reputation and we see violence coming from both sides. This renegade band of soldiers’ gruesome approach to justice is an unorthodox secret weapon. Yet as vile as their violence may be, I can’t help but taste some sour but sweet satisfaction as the Basterds serve up their revenge on the nazis.

While there are many scenes depicting the plotting schemes of the Basterds to counteract the Third Reich’s occupation in France (including a grand plan to take down an entire movie house filled with members of the SS and Hitler himself), some of the most eery and disturbing moments come from Waltz’ portrayal as Landa.

NOT DINNER TABLE CONVERSATION Scene:

In this opening scene, we feel the extreme tension build when a dairy farmer and his family receives a visit from the nazis. Here we get an intimate introduction to the Landa method of the social predator. He starts in by following a strict adherence to formality of cordial manners. He initially speaks in their language (French) not his own (German), then later asks his permission to continue the rest of the discussion in English. He smiles warmly. He’s not just polite, he’s highly complimentary. He’s enjoying himself as he closely examines the farmer and his family, expectant that they should respond in kind like a neighbor dropping in. After this facade of politeness and respect, he firmly controls the conversation and the tone by painstakingly taking his time through every single step of an interrogation. The audience feels the mounting tension in pace with the farmer, Monsieur Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet).

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Landa continues his upper-hand by letting it be known to the cautious farmer that there’s absolutely nothing that he can hide from him- in ecsquisite detail as he lights his pipe. Cooly and calmly confident, Landa has complete control. He’s snared his victim into a corner. Swiftly, the Jewish family trapped under the floor boards is gunned down in a shower of bullets. One of the hunted has escaped through the crawlspace, Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) is covered in mud as she runs for her very life across the open field in a John Ford-esque door frame shot. Landa has a clear shot within range, but he chooses to wait; holding his gaze upon her with his pointed gun without squeezing the trigger. He wants this moment to linger, then he calls out to her just to let her know he chose to savor in her horror. She flees but does she ever fully escape from his haunting threat? See a snippit of the scene here and note how the music adds to the emotional horror, as the strings reflect to the chaos and building tension.

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Like a cat that toys with the mouse, Landa loves the game. It’s not enough for him to catch and kill his victims, he desires to tease and play with the victims’ fears. It whets his appetite by manipulating them into their false sense of security by exhibiting his prowness for charm and social manners. He then turns the table as he eliminates any hope for his victim. But not before he takes little pauses to express child-like joy in watching them squirm. He literally cooes and squeals at times.

I LOST MY APPETITE AT THE CAFE Scene:

In this scene, Shosanna finds herself in another horrific predicament. She’s now operating a local movie theater when a popular German actor/nazi officer has taken a shine to her. He insists that she tag along with him when he joins several SS officers at a local cafe, including Hans Landa. Reunited with her demon tormentor, the tension is nearly unbearable as she finds herself facing the exact same nazi that ruthlessly killed her family.

Yet again, he brings on the charm; showing off his intelligence, culture and appreciation for the ‘finer things’ via his joy for a special dessert. While he regales in his delectable desire for cream topping, she is barely holding it together. Of course she recognizes him instantly and hopes he doesn’t recognize her. The horrors of their last encounter is washing over her in contrast to each of his probing questions masked as superficial chit-chat. This excrutiating verbal dance can be seen in this Video clip.

THE ITALIAN JOB:

In yet another tense scene, the German actress/double agent Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) who is working with the ‘Basterds’ attends the premiere film screening for the grand plan of nazi destruction. She introduces Hans Landa to three of the ‘Basterds’ who are working undercover, as Italian filmmakers- Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) as a stuntman, and the other two, Sgt. Donny (Eli Roth) and PFC Omar (Omar Doom) as camera men. Playing with his food like a killer whale with a baby seal, Landa tosses them about and watches them squirm and flail in their awkward attempts to deceive him.

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The Basterds trio pretend to only speak Italian (eventhough they only know a few words between them) assuming the Colonel doesn’t know a single word. But this smooth killer is too slick. Not only does he speak fluent Italian but he further toys with them by asking them to repeat their names, as much as three times over- just to show he’s the one in charge of this ruse. When she lies to him about how she broke her ankle, he laughs hysterically to the point of making a scene. He knows her explanation is incredulous and he drives home that point, abundantly. Another controlling tactic. [See the clip here.]

THAT’S NO GLASS SLIPPER and NO PRINCE CHARMING Scene:

When Hans Landa methodically unveils Von Hammersmark’s  betrayal, he begins the hunt as before. At first he keeps his usual strict code of manners and formality. But he closes in faster this time. Less time spent enjoying the victim squirm. Just enough time to watch her slip into the shoe found earlier where nazis where gunned down in a basement pub (his confirmed evidence of her working with the Basterds). It’s not long before he leaps into his primal side. The beast is now unleashed. His dark side, which is ever-present but usually masked in a different method, is now completely exposed. He feels no need to play the game here- he goes straight for the kill. [See clip here. *Note profanity alert.]

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For any of you who have yet to have seen this film, I chose to only highlight a few scenes as opposed to a detailed synopsis of the full film, in order to focus on this unforgettable villain. But don’t worry, this nazi may have mastered serial killer charm, he also receives his own branding of justice and come-uppance in the end.

Christoph Waltz was relatively unknown to American audiences yet a seasoned actor of the stage before landing this part. It was this talented portrayal of Hans Landa that quickly turned him into an ‘overnight sensation’. He followed by working additional great roles, including partnering again with Tarantino as an atypical hero in DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012). He continues to be a fan favorite at the box office and has become a household name.

This was my contribution to THE VILLAIN BLOGATHON hosted by the lovely ladies at Speakeasy, Shadows & Satin, and Silver Screenings. Explore each of their blogs for complete listings of each day’s recaps (April 13-17) with fascinating contributors. Enjoy!

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A Little Peek at BIG EYES (2014)

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Those disproportionately large and creepy eyed children with those vacant expressions staring out from the canvas. We all know the art even if you’re not familiar with the artist’s name. Never considered high art, but it was quite popular at the time and certainly unique enough to influence a ‘look’ that became a commercial success.

Tim Burton’s BIG EYES (2014) takes a look at the artist’s journey who created such recognizable art. Margaret (portrayed solidly by Amy Adams) leaves her first husband with her young daughter in tow. She escapes to San Francisco to find a new life but it’s the mid fifties so it’s challenging for a single mom in a sexist world. She barely scrapes by with her only ‘work’ experience being her art skills of drawing portraits of her daughter and some art classes under her belt.

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Then she meets the charming Walter Keane (portrayed brilliantly by Christoph Waltz). He eventually claims to be more of a “Sunday artist” with more of a passion for promotion and sales. She finds herself in a position to accept his sudden marriage proposal although she barely knows him, when her first husband threatens to take custody due to ‘instability as a struggling single mother.’

Walter is an enterprising fellow despite his inability get any interest for his own art from local galleries. He’s persistent though and finds an opportunity with his wife’s art. But this opportunity and their subsequent rise to fame (without revealing too many spoilers and details) allows Walter’s true colors to shine through as the slimy shyster that he is. The climb to notoriety is paved in a trail of lies. Lies that Walter is very comfortable in spinning but Margaret finds increasingly suffocating to continue. She lies to her daughter, and to everyone, to create this fraudulent web of deceit.

As an artist, she is losing her soul. As a woman, she has finds herself again in a similarly compromising and weakened position as what led her to leave her first husband. It takes a stronger threat, the very livelihood of her daughter, to thrust her into action. She finally leaves Walter, escaping to Hawaii. He continues his intimidation from afar, insisting that she continue the lies that he solely profits or he won’t grant her a divorce. She complies initially then is inspired via a new-found interest in religion to stand up to him and expose the truth.

From the onset, one of the most surprising things about BIG EYES (2014) is the direction. Tim Burton has a unique style to all of his films, that you can quickly point out as that ‘Tim Burton look.” Other than the creepy and dark ‘Keane art’ eyes, or perhaps a brief peek at 50’s suburbia style that may be seen (although more overstated) reflected in EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (1990), this film is void of any predictable Burton style trappings, which is a rather refreshing change. Here, Burton seems to self-censor his normally heavy hand of that ever-expected style. He focuses more on the story with an appropriate-to-the-period style blending in naturally.

BigEyes_Burton As a result, the biggest focus shines through in the performances mainly Amy Adams and most certainly Christoph Waltz. There are some nice small roles too such as Jason Schwartzman as the brutally honest gallery owner, Terence Stamp as the high-brow art critic, James Saito as the no-nonsense Hawaiian judge and Krysten Ritter as the on-again, off-again friend. Adams is authentic and sympathetic as the 50’s mother who gradually makes a well-paced evolution of compromises and finds herself at the crossroads of sexism vs. survival and on the fence of sacrificing ideals vs. empowerment.

Waltz is convincing as the snake-oil salesman masquerading as an artist. He is believably charismatic as the wolf-in-sheep-clothing enough to see how Margaret could transform from falling for such an unethical character to her repeated forgiving, and even agreeing to losing her identity. At moments, she almost begins to believe the lies are real or somehow in her best interest, as Margaret works hard to support the charade that chips away all of her self-respect and worth. It’s astounding what the human spirit is willing to tolerate even while it faces its own extinction. Everyone has a breaking point they say and it made for an interesting story to see how far it took for Margaret Keane to discover hers.

a turning point of truth for mom and daughter

a turning point of truth for mom and daughter

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