Here’s to the Henchmen

Odd JobYou’re familiar, I’m sure, with the old saying, “Behind every great man there’s a great woman.” Well, in the movies, behind every great villain there seems to be an easily replenished supply of underlings ready to be abused and berated by their boss, usually right before they run off to battle–and ultimately lose to–the movie’s protagonist. From white-smocked lab assistants in secret lairs, to trigger-happy cowboys and gangsters who die protecting the head man in shootouts with the law, to the faceless minions who fill the ranks of Cobra, SPECTRE and other world-dominating cabals, these nameless nasties apparently exist only to follow orders and expire in the most photogenic manner they can, often with an optional Wilhelm scream. There are, however, actors whose performances not only allowed them to rise above the usual ranks of lackluster lackeys, but who often threatened to upstage their employers/masters/dark lords. These are the men–and the occasional woman–whose dedication to their work is the focus of this retrospective.

Now, let’s set a few ground rules before we begin. Remember, we’re talking henchmen here, not sidekicks. Sidekicks are who the good guy has at his side.  For brevity’s sake, I’m also going to be skipping non-human and cartoon companions, so here’s a passing shout out to the winged monkeys from The Wizard of Oz, Lucifer the cat in Cinderella, Return of the Jedi’s Salacious Crumb, and Mirage from The Incredibles. And since many successful big-screen hit men are “independent contractors,” that knocks out a roster ranging from Philip Raven (Alan Ladd) of This Gun for Hire to No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Okay? Lets go…

Dwight Frye, Dracula and Frankenstein – 1931 saw the release of the two key films from Universal Pictures’ horror heyday, and each boasted henchmen performances that set the standard for the genre, courtesy of bug-eyed character actor Frye. A trip to the Carpathian Mountains and an encounter with undead count Bela Lugosi turns Frye’s solicitor Renfield into a leering, bug-eating slave in Dracula. Frankenstein found Dwight playing Fritz, hunchbacked aide to Colin Clive’s mad doctor, who steals an abnormal brain from a medical school and can’t resist tormenting creature Boris Karloff one too many times. And mind you, that’s Fritz, not Ygor. Ygor was the name of Lugosi’s crooked-necked shepherd-turned-monster’s pal in 1939’s Son of Frankenstein, a name that was picked up (with a new pronunciation) by Mel Brooks for Marty Feldman’s role in Young Frankenstein.

Slim Thompson, The Petrified Forest – Leslie Howard and Bette Davis were the top-billed stars, and Humphrey Bogart garnered acclaim for his breakout role as fugitive gangster Duke Mantee, but one of the more interesting aspects of Warner’s 1936 filming of the popular Broadway drama was African-American actor Thompson’s performance as the aptly-named Slim, part of Mantee’s criminal gang. Treated as an equal member of the group, Thompson, who played alongside Howard and Bogart on the stage, shows a (for its time) fiercely independent streak, such as when he invites chauffeur John Alexander to drink with him and then berates his “colored brother” for asking permission from his boss.

Adventures Of Robin HoodMelville Cooper and Basil Rathbone, The Adventures of Robin Hood – Leave it to the definitive film version of the Robin Hood legend (I’m talkin’ to you, Costner!) to feature two unforgettable supporting players alongside Claude Rains’ power-mad Prince John. Cooper’s hapless, bumbling Sheriff of Nottingham is mostly played for laughs, but Rathbone oozes sophisticated scheming as Sir Guy of Gisbourne, who lusts after Olivia de Havilland’s Maid Marian and squares off against hero Errol Flynn in a classic swordfight to the death.

Boris Karloff, Tower of London – The year after The Adventures of Robin Hood, Rathbone got bumped up to lead bad-guy status, playing the twisted royal schemer Richard III with this dark 1939 historical drama from Universal. He also got a first-class helper in the form of a bald Karloff as Mord, the club-footed castle executioner who assists Richard in his bloody ascent to the throne while longing to one day enter the field of battle and kill “in hot blood.”

Elisha Cook, Jr., The Maltese Falcon – Trigger-happy henchmen in the movie world didn’t come any twitchier or creepier than Elisha Cook, Jr.  as Wilmer Cook, the hot-headed young “gunsel” (Which doesn’t mean gunman. Look here.) by the side of the sinister Fat Man (Sydney Greenstreet) in the acclaimed 1941 detective thriller. Always acting like he’s ready to shoot it out with Humphrey Bogart, Cook’s expressions in the scene when he realizes Greenstreet is turning him over to the law in exchange for the title statue  (“I want you to know I couldn’t be fonder of you if you were my own son. But, well, if you lose a son, it’s possible to get another. There’s only one Maltese Falcon.”) are priceless. He even got a chance to reprise his role in the comedic 1975 sequel The Black Bird, with George Segal.

Rondo Hatton, The Pearl of Death – Posthumous cult fame is the sad legacy of Hatton, a journalist and World War I veteran who as an adult developed the disfiguring condition acromegaly and–in a bizarre case of making lemonade out of life’s lemons–went to Hollywood, where he played brutish characters sans make-up in several ’40s thrillers and horror flicks. The first of these roles came in this 1944 Sherlock Holmes adventure starring our old pal Basil Rathbone, with Rondo cast as the Hoxton Creeper, murderous accomplice to jewel thief Miles Mander. His monstrous visage lived on in the 1991 adventure saga The Rocketeer, where one of Nazi agent Timothy Dalton’s underlings (Tiny Ron) is made up to resemble the long-dead Hatton.

Ralph and Roy Bucko, numerous B-westerns – I’ll confess to not being well-versed in my cowboy movie bad guys, but I have to at least mention the brother acting duo of Ralph and Roy Bucko (née Boukou), real-life ranch hands from Washington state who together made more than 500 (!) appearances in frontier features, serials and TV shows from the silent days to the early ’60s, usually as unnamed henchmen. Five hundred westerns…and their name was Bucko! What more can you ask for?

Tor Johnson, Bride Of The Monster, The Unearthly and Night of the Ghouls – Swedish-born pro wrestler-turned-actor Johnson lent his formidable presence to a number of films from the mid-1930s to the late ’60s, but is best remembered for his turns as the hulking, mute lab assistant Lobo in the Ed Wood “disasterpiece” Bride of the Monster and its follow-up, Night of the Ghouls. Oddly, he played a similar character also named Loboin another grade-Z shocker, 1957’s The Unearthly, where he uttered the immortal line, “Time for go to bed!”

Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin, Bad Day at Black Rock – In this 1955 modern-day western, “businessman” Robert Ryan has an iron grip on the tiny Southwest town of Black Rock. This allows him and the locals to keep a deadly secret buried, a secret that the arrival of “one-armed” stranger Spencer Tracy threatens to reveal. Ryan, however, has a pair of burly future Academy Award-winners, Borgnine and Marvin, at his beck and call to harass and intimidate Tracy…or at least try to.

Harry WilsonHarry Wilson, Some Like It Hot – Now there’s a face you’re not likely to forget. Like fellow acromegalic Rondo Hatton, Wilson turned his unique features into a 37-year Hollywood career of playing mush-mouthed mugs, pugs and thugs. For Billy Wilder’s classic 1959 cross-dressing Roaring ’20s comedy, Harry and another veteran movie heavy, Mike Mazurki, were the opera-loving gunmen (“Us? We was wit’ you at Rigoletto’s!” “Honest!”) at the side of nattily-dressed bootlegger Spats Columbo (George Raft).

Martin Landau, North by Northwest – So, just how dedicated to his boss, international dealer in secrets James Mason, was Landau’s character in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 suspense ride? In interviews over the years, the Oscar-winning actor has said it was his idea to play the gunman Leonard as a closeted gay man who is not happy with cool Hitchcock blonde Eva Marie Saint coming between him and Mason (While voicing his suspicions on her loyalty to Mason, Landau says “Call it my woman’s intuition, if you will,” to which Mason replies “Why, Leonard! I do believe you’re jealous. I’m actually very flattered!”).

Peter Falk, Pocketful of Miracles – A year after garnering an Academy Award nomination for playing a cold-blooded hood in Murder, Inc., Falk got his second nom for a comic turn as apple-loving mobster Glenn Ford’s poker-faced right-hand man, Joy Boy, in this 1961 Frank Capra film that was a remake of the director’s earlier Lady for a Day. Falk also had another fine henching role opposite a villainous Jack Lemmon and a heroic Tony Curtis in Blake Edwards’ 1965 slapstick epic The Great Race.

A slew of James Bond villains, from too many films to mention – There are undoubtedly more than enough henchmen in the 007 canon to fill a separate article, so I’d like to just quickly look over how the field originated in 1962 with the unbilled “Three Blind Mice” in Dr. No, blossomed with assassins Red Grant (Robert Shaw) and Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) in From Russia with Love, and hit its stride with Harold “Tosh Togo” Sakata as Odd Job, Goldfinger’s master of the lethal flying hat. Other key characters were Diamonds Are Forever bodyguards Bambi and Thumper, Baron Samedi (Geoffrey Holder) and Tee Hee (Julius H. Harris) in Live and Let Die, the diminutive Nik Nak (Herve Villechaize) from The Man with the Golden Gun, and of course Richard Keil as the steel-toothed Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, where his love-fueled conversion to goodness more or less signalled the end of the golden age of Bond baddies (don’t get me started on Grace Jones in A View to a Kill).

ManosJohn Reynolds, Manos, The Hands of Fate – No one who’s ever watched this ludicrously inept 1966 made-in-Texas horror flick (this is the one so bad that Dr. Forrester apologized to Joel and the robots for showing it on Mystery Science Theater 3000) will forget the sight of  an unkempt, bearded Reynolds as Torgo, the satyr-like (or so they explained later) guardian, wife-watcher and all-around flunky for the diabolical Master. From his bulging knees and stumbling gait to his slurred speech and haunting theme music, Torgo merits a room all his own in the Sidekick Hall of Fame. Sadly, Reynolds committed suicide shortly before the film’s premiere.

Michael J. Pollard, Bonnie and Clyde – Anyone who watches gangster movies set in the 1920s and ’30s knows that crooks are only as good as their getaway drivers, and in Arthur Penn’s groundbreaking 1967 drama, bank robbers Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) and Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) had a fine one in Pollard’s dimbulb grease monkey C.W. Moss. Pollard even earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his performance as the starstruck gas station worker-turned-wheelman whose visit with his disapproving father inadvertently leads to the gang’s downfall.

Warren Clarke, James Marcus and Michael Tam, A Clockwork Orange – An object lesson in treating your henchmen well lest they someday turn on you, Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 adaptation of the dystopic Anthony Burgess novel shows what happens when bowler-hatted hoodlum Alex (Malcolm McDowell) asserts his sadistic authority over his “Droogs” Dim (Clarke), Georgie (Marcus) and Pete (Tam) once too often. Hit over the head with a milk bottle and left to take the rap for a deadly home invasion, McDowell is subjected to aversion therapy to wean him him off of his need for “ultra-violence,” but the freed Alex is left psychologically unable to defend himself when he encounters his old mates Dim and Georgie, who are now policemen.

Lenny Montana, The Godfather – “Don Corleone, I am honored and grateful that you have invited me to your home on the wedding day of your daughter. And may their first child be a masculine child.” He may need help memorizing wedding day speeches, but brutish and fiercely loyal mob enforcer Luca Brazi, as played by Montana in the seminal 1972 gangster epic, needs no help with eliminating any of Don Corleone’s enemies…until that one time that he finds himself outnumbered, garroted from behind, and eventually sleeping with the fishes.

Virginia North, The Abominable Dr. Phibes/Diana Rigg, Theater of Blood – Say what you will about Vincent Price’s campy performances in these two ’70s horror outings (I, for one, enjoy them), he was certainly on target when it came employing attractive female assistants. Virginia North was Vulnavia, the silent siren who helps disfigured doc Price implement his Ten Plagues of Egypt-themed revenge on the medical team he blames for his wife’s death, in 1971’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Two years later, Price hammed it up as a Shakespearean actor who, aided by dutiful daughter Rigg, doles out Bard-themed demises for the critics who overlooked him during his career in the macabre and deliciously over-the-top Theater of Blood.

Roman Polanski, Chinatown – “You’re a very nosy fellow, kitty cat, huh? You know what happens to nosy fellows?”  One scene and a quick flick of the switchblade was all director Polanski needed to cement himself in the annals of  henchman infamy as the “man with knife” who does an unsolicited rhinoplasty on ’40s Los Angeles private eye Jack Nicholson in the 1974 updated noir gem.

Rocky Horror Picture ShowLittle Nell, Richard O’Brien and Patricia Quinn, The Rocky Horror Picture Show – Like A Clockwork Orange’s Alex, sequin-loving scientist Dr. Frank N. Furter (Tim Curry) could have avoided some unpleasant comeuppance by being a little nicer to his fellow Transylvanians and dutiful domestics, hunchbacked handyman Riff Raff (O’Brien) and his sister Magenta (Quinn), during and after the party to unveil his latest creation. Note: never tick off your help when they have lasers “capable of emitting a beam of pure anti-matter.” As for groupie Columbia (Little Nell), she may have danced with you in the big production number, Frank, but don’t think for a minute she still wasn’t upset over what you did to poor Eddie.

And the foiling of Frank N. Furter’s plans for…whatever it was he was planning…seems like a good place to pause. Check here for the second installment, where I’ll cover films from 1977 to the present, examine the sort of flunkies that the Galactic Empire, Lex Luthor, the Joker, Keyzer Söze and other masters of menace hire, and attempt to answer the question “Can anyone find decent help these days?”