Film Top 10: Surprise Villains

O Henry was considered to be the original master of the twist ending in his popular short stories, at least in the sense that this is what he became famous for – and certainly there are a great many movies in particular which have been marketed on the basis of a twist in the tale. This can be a burden as well as an asset (just ask M. Night Shyamalan!).

However, here I am celebrating films which conclude with a narrative development that while potentially a surprise is also persuasive as a dramatic flourish, one which doesn’t feel like just an extra shock at the end of a movie that is already over, like the wonderful nightmare snap at the end of CARRIE for instance.

So, in strict chronological order and as completely spoiler free as I can make it, here are my top 10 movie ‘reveals’, mysteries and thrillers in which the final unmasking of the villain is both dramatic and a genuine surprise – these are the ones that surprised and thrilled me and best of all, that I just didn’t see coming … did you?

1. AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (Rene Clair, 1945)
This adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel uses a variant title and plot derived partially from the play text which, understandably perhaps, uses a less nihilistic ending. The way the revelation of the murderer is achieved is a wonderful tease, with the camera moving around the set to deliberately obscure the face until the last possible moment. This was copied shot for shot for the 1975 remake by Peter Collinson, but it is the classic treatment by director Rene Clair and screenwriter Dudley Nichols that we should celebrate – it’s a blackly comic murder mystery by turns stylish and hilarious that just about gets everything right – a model of its kind, endlessly copied but never improved upon.

2. LES DIABOLIQUES / THE FIENDS (Henry Georges Clouzot, 1954)
This classic French movie from the novel by the team of Boileau-Narcejac has been enormously influential, taking a seemingly standard domestic romantic triangle and then subverting it with an extended series of dramatic plot reversals and an ironic coda that leaves you as breathless as the leading lady Vera Clouzot (wife of the director). Its impact has been inevitably blunted by all the ripoffs (though some of them, like the Hammer Taste of Fear, in the US Scream of Fear, are actually pretty good) and the 1996 Hollywood remake starring Sharon Stone is certainly best avoided altogether.

Agatha Christie’s best play gets the Billy Wilder treatment with a double whammy of twist endings but also some great humorous exchanges between Charles Laughton’s grouchy barrister and Elsa Lanchester (his off-screen wife) as his nurse, which counterbalance the passionate but shifting relationship of the much more glamorous couple played by Merlena Dietrich and Tyrone Power. This is a story that has a great courtroom climax and a disguise that when I first saw the movie I certainly didn’t penetrate.

4. PROFONDO ROSSO / DEEP RED (Dario Argento, 1975)
Dario Argento’s movies are not for the faint-hearted, and this goes for his whodunits like Bird with the Crystal Plumage – an uncredited remake of the classic Fredric Brown classic novel The Screaming Mimi (one of my Top 100 Mystery Books) – and the utterly terrifying Suspiria, a tale of witchcraft that is as visually stunning as it is narratively incoherent. Profondo Rosso (aka Deep Red aka The Hatchet Murders) is the greatest and most flamboyant of his Gialli, thrillers that owe as much to Victorian melodrama conventions as they do to Agatha Christie, as I discussed in one of my first posts here. The violent murder scenes will not be to everyone’s taste but the resolution, hinging as it does on a brilliantly clever visual motif, is utterly stunning in its deployment. There would be no Scream or Saw series without the success of Argento’s horror/mystery hybrids, but they’re not for all viewers though this one, even if you close your eyes through the murder scenes, is really worth seeing.

5. MURDER BY NATURAL CAUSES (Robert Day, 1979)
Richard Levinson and William Link will always be remembered as the creators of Columbo, and justly so perhaps, but they also wrote some brilliantly clever murder mystery movies – this was the first and has a seemingly unending series of twists, clearly patterned after Les Diabolique (above) but that is just the premise. Sadly this is a title that is very hard to track down and it may be easier to get their other wonderful thrillers, which include Rehearsal for Murder (1982) with its perfectly fair ending and a star-studded cast headed by Robert Preston and Lynn Redgrave, Guilty Conscience (1985) with Anthony Hopkins as a lawyer planning to bump off his wife and Vanishing Act (1986), a variation on Chase a Crooked Shadow (1958) about the mystery of a missing spouse. They are all delightfully ingenious.

6. ANGEL HEART (Alan Parker, 1987)
A considerable imrpovement on William Hjortsberg’s entertaining but pedestrian novel Falling Angel, an hommage to the work of Cornell Woolrich, this is a powerful private eye story, among my top 20 of the genre, which takes a remarkable left turn in its closing stages but which it seems to me has ben more than adequately prepared for in the lead-up though not everyone agrees. It would be a crime to say more about the plot except to say that it is a private investigation into a missing mine unlike any other you have ever seen …

7. NO WAY OUT (Roger Donaldson, 1987)
Despite being a remake of the classic film noir (see my top 10 in the genre hereThe Big Clock (1947), itself a fairly close adaptation of Kenneth Fearing’s fine crime novel, this version smartly updates the story and relocates it from a publishing house to the ultra-paranoid environment of the Pentagon during the Cold War. Kevin Costner is the hero, Gene Hackman the weak-willed politician, Sean Young the woman they both have affairs with and Will Patton is the fixer – when Hackman kills Young, Costner is put in charge of the investigation … The huge twist in the finale to some may seem extraneous but anyone who sits through the film a second time will be able to see how smartly writer-producer Robert Garland has in fact laid the groundwork for the revelation.

8. THE USUAL SUSPECTS (Bryan Singer, 1995)
Great fun and as much about storytelling as it is about crime. Superbly constructed by writer Christopher McQuarrie with a series of stylistic flourishes built-in for its tyro director Bryan Singer, it is doubtless also remembered for the star turns by a cast of great character actors and a soaring musical score, all leading to a fabulous payoff – and which thankfully can withstand multiple viewings given the ferocious complexity of its tale and storytelling technique. Flamboyant storytelling of the highest order.

9. FIGHT CLUB (David Fincher, 1999)
A millennial satire on the end (and ends) of consumerism, the eponymous club proves to be a real red herring as this is a multi-layered tale of narrators that perhaps cannot be believed – the final revelation is superbly well done and even if it then over-explains it for those in the cheap seats it remains a cleverly plotted story that pulls off a coup that is usually only really doable in prose – and which also has something pertinent to say about the world its protagonists choose to live in. A cruelly funny nihilistic nightmare with an apocalyptic edge and a dark secret at its heart.

10. OLD BOY (Chan-wook Park, 2003)
This fiendishly complicated Korean thriller piles on the reversals at its conclusion to reveal a magnificently elaborate scheme built upon oedipal lines. Once again there is some unpalatable violence in it, which tends to catch the headlines, but it is built up from a very carefully worked out premise that should keep virtually anyone guessing until the end.

This entry was posted in 'Best of' lists, Agatha Christie, Columbo, DVD Review, Film Noir, Giallo, London, Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome, Spy movies, Top 10. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Film Top 10: Surprise Villains

  1. J F Norris says:

    That’s quite a list and I agree with most of them. I’ve seen all of them – a first for one of your lists! I didn’t think the surpise in FIGHT CLUB was as shocking as most people do.

    Try as I might I cannot stand the pseudo-artiness of Dario Argento’s movies. I found absolutely nothing terrifying about SUSPIRIA when I saw it. The ad campaign, however, was brilliant in getting people in to the theater. I was pretty much pissed off at the end of it. After years of trying to get into his films and just plain being annoyed I gave up on him. Then on a whim and because it was a few days before Halloween I thought I’ll try him again. I rented MOTHER OF TEARS – which is a sequel of sorts to one of his very early films (was it INFERNO?). Surprisingly, this turned out to be one of my favorite horror flicks ever. As is the case with DRAG ME TO HELL (a classic of 21st century horror) it’s gloriously loopy, completely indulgent in his violent excesses, and outrageous in its madcap plot. Somehow I was willing to go with that movie and accept all of it no matter how insane it seemed. But FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET, TENEBRE, INFERNO, PHENOMENA and especially DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK? (with its cast of absolutely awful young Italian TV actors) are all incomprehensible messes to me. There is no doubt he has been influential in a certain type of horror/crime movie, but when it comes to giallo I prefer Mario Bava over Argento.

    • Hello John, well we are definitely going to have to agree to disagree about Argento’s merits! I thought MOTHER OF TEARS was absolutely woeful, and not just because it was the end of the trilogy started with SUSPIRIA and INFERNO which I thought were much more impressive but simply because SUSPIRIA, especially with its amazing opening sequence, really seemed to set a new benchmark for this kind of flamboyant horror. You are clearly made of much sterner stuff than I if you didn’t find it even remotely scary. I really rate DEEP RED though , sorry it didn’t do it for you though as I always assumed that is the one of his films that everyone can agree upon.

      In the case of FIGHT CLUB I know what you mean but it took me by surprise because I just didn’t think that this was the way the movie was going to go. The HITCHCOCK TV project is truly best forgotten – SLEEPLESS / NON HO SONNO was a partial return to form (if you assume he ever had any of course …), at least in its first half. PHENOMENA I have always greatly disliked – i should probably stress that, despite what some of my selections might suggest, I am not necessarily much of a fan of graphic horror, being much more of a fan of the Val Lewton school shall we say and agree completely that Bava’s was in every sense a superior filmmaker.

  2. On the YouTube for WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION did you lay in the song. It’s great, let me know how you did that.

    • Hello Michael,

      well, that’ll learn me – I thought I had just linked to the trailer but obviously should have paid more attention. I certainly didn’t upload it – I shall investigate further …

      Thanks for the comments.

  3. Patti Abbott says:

    Love, love, love this topic. Can’t wait to see some of these I have missed. OLD BOY is just a terrific film, isn’t it?

    • Thanks Patti – Old Boy is a really extraordinary film though not for everyone, I’ll admit, but in an age when you think you’ve seen everything, you get a greek tragedy from korea that just blows your socks off – amazing! I don’t believe the proposed American remake can be even remotely as satisfying!

  4. Yvette says:

    Oh woe is me, I’ve only seen WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION and AND THEN THERE WERE NONE and I agree with your assessment of same. But I will say I did see through the disguise in WITNESS so the ending came as no real surprise. I read the book after seeing the film years before – the book is a doozy.

    This is my favorite version of AND THEN THERE WERE NONE, as well.

    The rest of these films are probably best kept for away from me. 🙂

  5. Yvette says:

    Oh wait, I did see NO WAY OUT and loved the ending. Been meaning to re-watch to see if it works as well as I first thought it did.

    • For me it’s bit like The Sixth Sense in that you can re-watch it and still enjoy it – and again, maybe with a sense of wonder at how the twist keeps being paraded in front of us and we still didn’t guess!!

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