Met Pick

No More Mr. Nice Guy

Henry Fonda and others prove it’s good to be bad

By Steve Wiecking June 12, 2009

“Open wide, kid.”

With John Travolta going psycho holding subway passengers hostage in this weekend’s The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, I couldn’t help but think of other films featuring normally nice leading men trying to play mean—and surpassing all expectations.

I’m willing to find out how Travolta fares (I’m dubious) but I bet he doesn’t best my two favorites.

Robert Montgomery, who spent most of the 1930s being dashing in frothy comic confections like the Hollywood version of Noel Coward’s Private Lives, must have truly disturbed most of the movie-going public in 1937 with his crafty Cockney sociopath in Night Must Fall. The film’s based on a hokey Emlyn Williams stage play—and still feels like an old-fashioned evening of theater on screen—but Montgomery’s killer grin doesn’t date a bit. He coos and coddles an old biddy he’s looking after while plotting to do her in. Montgomery imbues his sycophantic psycho with skin-crawling subtleties and not a little carnal menace; the performance is right up there with Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter. Rent the movie at Scarecrow Video, the only place I’ve been able to find it, and see if you don’t agree.

My second favorite is Henry Fonda’s legendarily villainous Frank, the son-of-a-bitch gunslinger in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, which you can see at the Harvard Exit this Saturday at 1:30 during SIFF. Fonda, perhaps the gentlest of all Hollywood stars, oozes oily amorality in the movie. He also does something so terrible with a harmonica (no, he doesn’t play it) that I still remember watching it as a kid and hoping Charles Bronson would blow Fonda’s brains out. If you’ve never seen the film—or never caught it on the big screen, where its stunning visual compositions belong—get your ticket now.

And if you’ve got your own favorite good-guy-gone-bad, let me know.

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