I’ll just leave the cast list right here: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Basil Rathbone, in a film directed by Jacques Tourneur (Cat People).
Do you need that repeated? No? Just read it a few more times. Now inform me of how this movie can possibly go wrong.
The fact is that it can’t. Price is Waldo Trumbull, an obnoxious and drunken undertaker on the verge of being cast into the street by his landlord John Black (Rathbone). He has a crazy opera-singing wife he despises (Joyce Jameson), an incompetent assistant named Felix Gillie (Lorre) and a father-in-law who has seen better days (Karloff). In an effort to buoy his failing business, Trumbull undertakes (HA!) to murder rich elderly men so that he can give them a funeral.
This is a Laurel and Hardy film with four of the finest horror movie actors to step onto a screen. Price and Lorre bully, shove and tear into each other constantly, Karloff chews the scenery whole and Rathbone … Rathbone has to be seen to be believed. The plot hinges on Trumbull’s idea to simply knock off his landlord, thus making some ready cash and getting rid of a man he hates into the bargain. But Rathbone proves (hilariously) hard to kill, prompting the funniest funeral ever.
The Comedy Of Terrors could not have been performed with any other cast – each actor brings their own inimitable star personas to theirparts, and proves once and for all that they were all capable of playing comedy. I knew that already about Price and Lorre, but Karloff! Now Karloff was a revelation, giving Rathbone one hell of a eulogy. The comedy depends on an audience’s awareness of the roles the four men have played in the past – it’s one of the first and finest of the self-referential horror-comedies that Price would cash in on so brilliantly later in his career.
There are things that could be better about The Comedy Of Terrors. A little less time dwelling on Price and Lorre breaking into houses and a little more time on the plot to kill Rathbone. Less of Jameson warbling, more of Karloff wandering about looking befuddled. Price is incredibly unlikable, yet you want him to get away with it just to keep everything moving. The running jokes get a little wearing after the fourth or fifth repeat, and Price’s vicious hatred of his wife becomes off-putting – however obnoxious she is. The film really picks up in the second half, once Rathbone has fully committed himself to spouting Macbeth at regular intervals and Karloff begins indulging in histrionics.
I don’t know what else to say about The Comedy Of Terrors, except that I enjoyed just about every minute of it. Price and Lorre are a great comic team, their differing physicality working very much to their advantage. Despite some plot holes big enough to fit a horse-drawn hearse, by the end of the film I was laughing so hard I did not care.
OK, a little misleading. I’m not talking about REAL bad men. Not really nasty no-good sonofabitches. I’m talking about fake ones. Bad boys. Bastards. Assholes. Villains.
There’s just something about them, isn’t there? They’re not anti-heroes; they’re just the bad guys. You know that at the end of the movie, or the book, or the play, they’re going to either be dead, or heading to jail, or at least punished for their misdeeds. Most of the time. Not always, anymore, but at least in mainstream media the bad guys still tend to get it in the end. And we don’t really want it any other way.
I have a fascination with villains. My favorite character in Disney was I was a little tyke? The cat Lucifer in Cinderella. He was mean and fat and wanted to eat all those annoying little mice and I loved him. Not that I wanted him to win in the end; no, not at all. But I enjoyed watching him be bad. I enjoyed the fact that he just did not care. He was a jerk, and I loved him.
Many years on and my fascination with villains has not waned. Best Shakespearean character? Iago. And he’s listed as literally ‘A Villain’. Not a soldier, a commander, a husband, a lieutenant, a friend … nope. Just ‘A Villain’. That’s what his character is and he fulfills it, better than any other Shakespearean villain. He’s mean and evil and hates everyone, including himself. He murders his own wife, he destroys his own friend, he drives Othello to destruction, he gloats and grimaces and makes the audience complicit in his nastiness. He’s hateful and cruel. He has no real motivation, no reason to do what he does … except that he’s a villain. And he’s delightful. He’s far more interesting than Othello, at least to me. He’s defined by his villainy. At the end of the play, does he beg for forgiveness? Does he confess to all the terrible things he’s done? Nope. He refuses to say a word. He’s responsible for the untold destruction of almost all the other main characters and he does not care. He just doesn’t give a shit.
So, why villains? What makes them so fascinating that they sometimes even overshadow the heroes? John McClane is a badass in ‘Die Hard’, but where would he be without the sneering, sexy Hans Gruber? We all hope Robin Hood saves the day, but Guy of Gisbourne is pretty fucking cool (and he’s Basil Rathbone). George Sanders made his career out of being an erudite, purring villain. And he’s more delightful to watch than most of his antagonists.
Part of it, I think, is simple sex appeal. Villains, often because of their villainy, get to be sexy in ways that heroes simply don’t. The hero has to fulfill all these stereotypes. He must be pure, intelligent, gentlemanly. If he has flaws, he must overcome them. He never gets to do bad things because he’s the hero. We’ve got to root for him. When he does something nasty, he must justify it in the end. Otherwise we won’t accept his triumph.
The villain has no such difficulties. Shoot innocent people? Done. Kidnap the heroine? Sure, why not. Cancel Christmas? You don’t get any presents. He gets to sneer and make snide remarks (Rickman, Irons, and Oldman are heirs to Rathbone, Rains and Sanders in that department). He’s often erudite, urbane, an aesthete, an intellectual. He tends to get the best lines, in books, in movies and in plays. He can be mean and sarcastic and do horrible things, and at some level we forgive him, we’re not bothered by it, because he’s the villain and that’s what he does. The villain, in other words, does not carry the moral weight of the world on his shoulders.
Hitchcock understood this. His villains tended to be likable, complex individuals, while his heroes tread the lines of hypocrisy. Consider the lackadaisical All-American boy detective (more or less the ‘hero’) in ‘Shadow of a Doubt’. A duller romantic figure never existed. The battle of ‘Shadow of a Doubt’ is really between Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright, the Old and Young Charlies. And Cotten is charming, funny, frightening but incredibly enjoyable to watch. Then there’s the sociopathic Brandon in ‘Rope’, while Jimmy Stewart find himself descending deeper and deeper into a hypocritical netherworld. The dedicated lovesick Alexander Sebastian in ‘Notorious’, versus the cold and even cruel hero Devlin. And the charming Johnny of ‘Suspicion’, who gets to be both hero and villain in one.
The most distressing of these villains in the Hitchcockian oeuvre is Bob Rusk in Frenzy. He’s a rapist, a murderer and a psychopath. He’s also more interesting, funnier and more charming than the supposed hero. We follow him throughout the film, having seen him murder a woman in one of the most terrifying and heart-wrenching scenes I’ve ever had to sit through. And what is really disturbing is that we actually begin rooting for him. He scares the hell out of us, but as soon as he’s caught, the movie’s over.
Rusk is an extreme example of charming villainy, but he makes the excellent point that part of what we like about villains is how easily they charm us. The villain forces us to examine a dark side of ourselves. Half the movies we see and books we read (detective stories, thrillers, adventures) are directly wrapped up in the darkness. We want to see the murder, hear the screams, laugh at the one-liners. We want to see good triumph, but there’s something delightful in evil getting its day. Hitchcock always pushed us closer to discomfort, making us shift in our seats as we realized that the man we like the best is also the man doing the worst things. He reminded us that the good guys aren’t always so hot, that there’s something attractive, fascinating in the bad. It’s disturbing, it’s uncomfortable, it’s … dark as hell. But it’s true.