What’s in a vice? How would you define your virtue?
This isn’t the first themed edition of Captain Canada’s Movie Rodeo (one of these days, I’ll do another Halloween special), but it’s definitely the first time I’ve ever tried a theme this specific. I guess it’s just something that never really occurs to me. I work with a stricter criteria for my Make the Case column at Cultured Vultures, so I guess I just like that Captain Canada’s Movie Rodeo doesn’t really have to do anything except get written. The only real rule is that I can only draw from the films I’ve seen since the column started, which at this point was a little over five years ago.
Going after vice, virtue, or movies that try to strike an intriguing balance between the two is something different from this column. Suddenly, I can choose any movies I want, and not just the few hundred I’ve seen since mid-2012. Vice and virtue as a single entity is obviously a cornerstone of not only cinema, but also storytelling in general. Some films emphasize one over the other, and that isn’t always intentional. Others try for that intriguing balance, and there are so many ways in which to try. Some depict vice and virtue as concepts fighting it out, often for someone’s soul. Then you have movies in which these things simply try to exist. Almost inevitably, one wins out over the other. On that front, virtue tends to have the tougher fight. Contrary to what some people actually believe, being a good human being is a fucking challenge sometimes.
Noir is a natural fit for a battle of vice and virtue. That genre is going to be well-represented here. What we’ll do is list my five personal movies on the subject. I had to consider every film I’ve ever seen in which this theme might be seen at the forefront, or at least as one of the more important elements. I got a lot of help from friends on Facebook, who gave me a massive list of suggestions to consider. Some of those suggestions made it into the five. The rest will be listed at the end of the column, if only to show you the amazing range of movies in which vice and virtue dominate the story and the characters. It’s also important to remember that vice and virtue will not be found in every movie. To put it another way, a battle between good and evil can include a confrontation or cooperation between vice and virtue, but vice and virtue stories are not inherently good vs evil stories. Noir films from the 40s prove that.
At any rate, I’m defining films about vice and virtue in pretty broad terms. Judging by the movies people suggested for this, I’d say most of you define vice and virtue in cinema in pretty broad terms, too. This is not a list of the all-time best movies on the subject. Just five movies I like, which I believe cover that subject pretty well, and which I want you to see, too. If you haven’t.
Thank you to Kolleen Carney and Dani Neiley for including Captain Canada’s Movie Rodeo in this month’s theme issue. I should participate in those more directly in the future. And thanks to everyone who threw in answers. I was surprised by the volume of movies I was given.
Night of the Hunter (1955)
Charles Laughton spent a career playing monsters, drunks, and quick-witted men of distinction. On just one occasion in his long career of film, television, and stage, he brought together the resources needed to direct a film of his own. Strictly in the context of the enduring, multifaceted greatness of Night of the Hunter, it is a tragedy that Laughton didn’t make more.
Night of the Hunter is generally seen as a horror movie with the visual cues and oddly stilted, haunted atmosphere of a southern gothic fairytale. That is the best way to categorize it. You could also say it is a deep character study, which focuses on one character in particular. James Agee wrote the screenplay from Davis Grubb’s 1953 novel, although some believe Laughton had more influence on the script than Agee. Regardless, the movie remains a dizzying, singular blend of style and substance. Robert Mitchum is iconic as the sinister, charming, fucking-crazy-in-capital-letters Reverend Harry Powell. As one of the founding leading men of film noir, which offers some of the best vice/virtue stories in cinema, Mitchum’s characters and performances are enough in the way of quantity and quality to fill this entire list. One of the greatest actors of his generation, he embodies a decadently corrupt, hopelessly cruel preacher.
An alleged man of god, we watch Powell lust for women, try to murder children, actually murder his wife, and more. Along the way, he wins people over again and again with his passionate sermons. One of the scariest things about the film is Mitchum creating a character who truly believes in everything he preaches against. Whatever Powell’s relationship with God might be, it’s sincere, and it’s pretty bloody complicated. As he stalks the children of the woman he married and killed (a particularly tragic, unappealing performance by Shelley Winters), we find virtue to be in short supply among the adults. It isn’t until we meet Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) that we finally see a true embodiment of good in the world. The murkiness of the world is thick and profound, the movie suggests, but it’s not all bad. That is just one of the elements to Night of the Hunter which establishes it as a relevant classic.
Drunken Angel (1948)
Akira Kurosawa depicted vice and virtue in his essential body of work on several occasions. Decades after his passing, his movies are still some of the greatest vice and virtue stories ever committed to film. His inclusion on my own personal list was pretty much a guarantee. In the end, it came down to choosing between Drunken Angel or The Bad Sleep Well. Both directed by Kurosawa. Both feature Toshiro Mifune in the prime of his peerless career. Both tell a story that can essentially be boiled down into a story of vice and virtue.
Drunken Angel won out for the relationship between a “drunken angel” of a doctor (the endlessly great Takashi Shimura, whose grounded, often inspirational characters graced several of Kurosawa’s greatest films), and a local Yakuza hood (Mifune). Even with the layers that define this relationship, as well as the layers that depict one of the most fascinating depictions of post-War Japan, Drunken Angel is one of the most straightforward films Kurosawa ever made. One man in this story represents vice, and the other obviously represents virtue. The writing and performances allow these characters to be far more complex than those words. Their relationship becomes a quiet battle between those words. Not surprisingly, the war ends when the film ends. There is little in the closing moments to suggest a clear winner.
As the TV show continues to expand on the universe of this film (indeed, on the entire universe of Coen brothers’ films), Fargo continues to stand as a modern noir classic. It moves between scenes of eccentric, awkward Coen brothers comedy, and scenes of Coen brothers dark crime drama with an ease that helps explain why some people cannot fathom ever getting tired of this film. I certainly can’t. Although there are crime and punishment/vice and virtue stories all along the Coen canon, including No Country for Old Men and Blood Simple (not to mention Raising Arizona), Fargo is perhaps still one of their most accessible, enjoyable movies. It was a surprising success with both critics and audiences, and it was a darling during awards season. In spite of all that attention, the movie continues to be popular with its original audience, and with those who are discovering it on Netflix and elsewhere.
Why? I don’t think it’s all that complicated. The Coen Brothers tend to avoid making movies that feel significantly dated later on. Their sensibilities and writing talents create films that focus on characters, behaviors, and circumstances that never really go out of style with audiences. Fargo inspired a weird slew of crime stories set against an endless landscape of pure, white snow. It remains an original for performances by William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, and Oscar-winner Frances McDormand. Equally important is the film’s balance of quirk with savage flashes of believable violence and menace. As a story of vice and virtue, Fargo is another example of a film that only seems simple in its discussion of these elements.
To date, Casino stands as my favorite Martin Scorsese movie. Yes, I like it even more than Taxi Driver or Goodfellas. It is a true story of vice and virtue, partially because it is literally the story of how the mob fucked themselves over in their control of Las Vegas. The city was built by the mob, but those days are long gone. You can visit an actual mob museum in Vegas, but Casino continues to be perhaps the most authoritative voice on the men and women who established, before ultimately surrendering, the tone for one of the strangest cities in the world. The movie is based on real events and personalities, although this epic story of Sam “Ace” Rothstein, a gambling handicapper who works with the Italian Mafia at the pinnacle of the mob influence on Las Vegas, naturally gets a number of flourishes and stylistic touches from Scorsese. Also featured are some of the most intense, hideous acts of violence Scorsese has ever filmed. Many of them are caused by Joe Pesci’s Nicholas “Nicky” Santoro. Vice is obviously realized here in the form of Vegas, which is one of those cities that tends to become a character unto itself, if the director wants to go that way (and Scorsese certainly does here). However, vice is also found in many of the decisions the characters make. Is pride a vice? It certainly spells disaster for Rothstein. Greed? That is the hallmark of Sharon Stone’s Ginger McKenna, who spends most of her life in a doomed relationship with Rothstein.
And then what about virtue? Are there virtuous men and women in Casino? Does virtue even have a chance in a world like this? You tell me.
The Naked Kiss (1964)
Samuel Fuller made a number of movies about the conflicts and general mingling of vice and virtue. The Naked Kiss is one of his most fascinating films on the subject. It also remains a movie with striking social commentary, powerful performances to match the bleak story, and moments of visual intensity that inspired films and filmmakers for decades afterwards. The Naked Kiss can be seen as a cynical story, but I’ve always imagined it has a little more than that. If nothing else, it suggests perseverance to do good in the face of overwhelmingly evil is a virtue unto itself, even when it ends in death, or the kind of blunt tragedy that robs us of life, even though we are still alive.
But vice isn’t simply the former profession of the protagonist, Kelly (Constance Towers), who is now trying to escape from her previous life as a prostitute. The film doesn’t make things easy for her, dropping her from that situation into a town filled with people who can’t even pretend to be as virtuous as they claim to be. The so-called righteous turn out to be far more sadistic and dangerous than the pimp Kelly is trying to leave behind forever. The movie doesn’t hide any of this. It simply shows the fallacies of a supposedly decent society. In the end, very few of us are as virtuous as we like to believe. Yet we try. Whether or not you’re trying harder than the characters in The Naked Kiss is for you to decide. Very little about human behavior has really changed between 1964 and now.
The following films were suggested when I mentioned this column. I have no idea if these suggestions are people messing with me or not. I’m inclined to think not, but I know a lot of strange assholes, so who knows.
I have more than a few personal choices I’d love to include below, but I’ll stay away from that. Otherwise, we’re never going to get out of here in time for church.
Every David Lynch movie (suggested by DM Honcho/Overlord Kollen Carney)
The Treasure of Sierra Madre
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
He Never Died
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Requieum for a Dream
When Good Ghouls Go Bad
Debbie Does Dallas
Leaving Las Vegas
Out of the Past
Muppet Treasure Island
Little Shop of Horrors (I suppose either version would do?)
Warriors of Virtue
A Serbian Film
My Neighbor Totoro (talk to Mark Pope about that)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1989)
The Invention of Lying
The Thomas Crown Affair (either version)
The Long Kiss Goodnight
Romeo is Bleeding
Farewell My Lovely
In A Lonely Place
The Hitch-Hiker (1953 Ida Lupino film)