With the rather startling news that Werner Herzog will be playing the villain in the next Tom Cruise flick, I couldn’t help but be reminded of all the other times that a great director has been enlisted to play a villain in another director’s movie, with often awesome results. There are a surprising number of them, and I’m sure I’ve missed a few, but here’s a quick rundown of some that came to mind…
Otto Preminger, STALAG 17
Preminger was the very image of cold Teutonic cruelty as the POW camp commander Von Scherbach in Billy Wilder’s classic. Given Wilder’s proclivities, it’s hard not to think of the casting choice as a kind of in-joke on Preminger’s directorial reputation as something of a slavedriver. The irony, perhaps, is that thanks to his turn in Stalag Preminger was able to create a side-career playing this type of ruthless authority figure – up to and including Mr. Freeze on the Batman TV show.
Orson Welles, THE THIRD MAN
Well, take your pick with Welles, but really, how can anyone argue with this?
Quentin Tarantino, PLANET TERROR (GRINDHOUSE)
Tarantino’s one of the credited directors on Grindhouse, but since Planet Terror was directed by Robert Rodriguez, I feel confident including QT’s totally oily performance as “The Rapist” here. It’s also worth noting that Tarantino, not a particularly talented performer, seems to do consistently terrific work for his pal Rodriguez – I’d argue that his turn in From Dusk Till Dawn is the best acting he’s ever done.
Erich Von Stroheim, GRAND ILLUSION
To call Von Stroheim’s character in Grand Illusion a villain is kind of to miss the point of Grand Illusion, but nevertheless, an iconic performance in an iconic film.
John Cassavetes, THE FURY
Of course, Cassavetes had a lengthy acting career alongside his directing. But this film, and this part, are both so strange that the fact that this cold-hearted bastard is being played by the guy who made Faces just adds a certain, well, something. And let’s not forget that insane final scene.
The most breathtaking noir villain of them all, played by a man who himself made some of the most legendary noirs (including The Maltese Falcon, which some would consider the first). Strangely enough, the thing I can never shake from this performance is the way he so casually pronounces “Gittes” as “Gitts.”
Roman Polanski, A PURE FORMALITY
Almost nobody remembers this terrific (and terrifically tense) two-person chamber drama from Giuseppe Tornatore – perhaps because not that many people saw it to begin with. Gerard Depardieu is a reclusive author being interrogated by Polanski’s cop. A crime has been committed, but we’re not sure what it is. To spoil the plot a bit, Polanski isn’t actually a villain, but at first he seems like one, never missing a beat, pursuing every thought, every avenue of possibility, not letting up on Depardieu one bit -- until the film gains the unreal quality of a morality play. Then, Tornatore gives us one final, startling, sublime twist. And I’ve now said too much.
Lars von Trier, THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS
What gives, you ask? The Five Obstructions is, after all, a film credited to Von Trier. I’m cheating, if only because he shares the credit with veteran filmmaker Jorgen Leth, to whom Von Trier poses his “obstructions” in an attempt to get Leth to create new versions of his short film “The Perfect Human.” It’s an amazing turn by Von Trier -- not just a director playing a villain, but a director as villain: As the obstacles and limitations pile up, you can see the Melancholia Dane relishing his role – flaunting the caviar and fine living in front of his no-doubt significantly poorer fellow filmmaker. All he needs is a white cat to stroke.