Mostly Film writers pause and reflect on the blink-and-you’ll-miss em parts that make the film work.
Kronsteen – From Russia With Love.
By Paul Duane
In a vast hall, a creepy, languid character resembling Ren the cartoon chihuahua plays chess against somebody who seems to be called Canada MacAdams. Kronsteen has only one word of dialogue here – “Check” – but it’s impossible to look away from him. See him manipulate chesspiece and cigarette in one hand with movements that hint he’s skilled in horrible varieties of martial arts. Observe the way his mouth opens impossibly wide to receive the cigarette, as if he was a deep-sea fish that somehow, eerily, smokes. Watch the impossibly slow movement of his head, then his eyes, as they register the fact that some lackey has brought him an unrequested glass of water. See the thought form as if in a bubble of noxious gas above his head – “he will suffer before I allow him to die” – while his eyes slide to the glass. And now look – who in the history of drinking has ever drunk like that, holding up the little paper napkin that sits under the glass as he drinks? The next shot explains why, but there doesn’t need to be an explanation – this is just part of the ineffable creepiness of Kronsteen. He probably eats his mashed potatoes with one single black obsidian chopstick. Reading the message on the napkin, he mops his fishlips, then – without warning – that cigarette is back, perched, languid. How the FUCK did he do that? Never mind, soon he’ll be dead.
George Sanderson – Monsters Inc.
This is a story of a monster confident in his job, who is brought into unwitting contact with the human world, who finds his certainties unravelling when he can’t even rely on his best friend and co-worker, but who ultimately gains a new strength and inner confidence when he stands up to those who have betrayed him and discovers that human children are harmless. His name is George Sanderson.
If you ever noticed George, you probably think of him as “that orange one who gets a sock stuck to him”, but he is much more than that. He is the central character in his own psychodrama. Imagine his feelings of hurt and betrayal at being ratted out by a colleague singing his praises just moments earlier. Returning home, naked but for a funnel. Explaining to his wife “I got a sock stuck to my fur. Charlie did this to me!” His despair and resignation at the repeat occurrence in the changing rooms.
But George isn’t broken by his experiences. By the end of Monsters, Inc. he has found the iron will deep inside his furry body. At the last moment, as his betrayal by Charlie is complete, he refuses to allow his humiliation to repeat itself, refuses to submit to cleansing by the CDA. He stuffs his companion’s mouth to gag him and saunters away, confident that the sock on his body will do him, and the denizens of Monstropolis, no harm at all. George Sanderson: Monster, hero, role model.
Attorney Kong – Mother
By Indy Datta
When Hye-Ja Kim’s titular (and otherwise nameless) character hires the most expensive lawyer in town (played by Moo Yeong-Yeo) to defend her mentally disabled son Do Joon from a murder charge, she probably wasn’t expecting him to turn up for a handful of scenes, treat her and her son with comically broad contempt, buy her a Jägerbomb in a karaoke bar and then disappear from the film, having achieved pretty much nothing other than taking her money. It was probably less of a surprise to fans of Bong’s previous films (I am one – is there a film I’m anticipating more eagerly than his Snow Piercer? There is not) that life for his working class protagonists is defined by their invisibility and irrelevance to the social elite. What makes Kong (or, according to the subtitles on my UK BluRay, Gong) such a great character is his shamelessness. From his first scene, where he’s seen stuffing his face on seafood at his impoverished client’s expense (‘When I come to a buffet, I never sit down … I just keep scooping it up and eating it.’) to his sublimely creepy last, just a few minutes later, draped with compliant karaoke bar hostesses in a private room, arrogantly sure that the deal he’s done for Do Joon (four years in a mental hospital) is the best outcome anyone could hope for, he’s a man who knows the world owes him a living.
Tommy’s Mother – Goodfellas
By Phil Concannon
Goodfellas is a film full of memorable sequences, but its funniest and warmest scene occurs when Tommy (Joe Pesci), Jimmy (Robert De Niro) and Henry (Ray Liotta) turn up at the home of Tommy’s mother one night in search of a shovel. Despite their best efforts to be quiet, Mrs DeVito (played by Martin Scorsese’s mother Catherine) is immediately awake and quickly starts fussing over the boys as any Italian mother would. Initially disconcerted by the splash of blood on Tommy’s shirt (he tells her they hit a deer), she insists they sit down and have a good meal before they venture back out into the night. Sitting around the table together, they eat and share stories while Mrs DeVito gently chastises her son for not settling down with a nice girl (“I settle down with a nice girl almost every night, mom!”) and shows maternal concern towards the quiet Henry. This three-minute encounter acts as an unexpected and welcome interlude between two scenes of extreme violence, and there’s a great tension between the homeliness of what we’re seeing and the darkness of what’s come just before. Mrs Scorsese, always an endearing presence in her son’s films, is in her element, proudly showing off her painting of a bearded man and his two dogs towards the end of the scene (“One is going east and the other one is going west. So what?”). The table collapses into laughter, oblivious to muffled sounds coming from the boot of the car outside.
Corporal Ferro – Aliens
The sun rises in the East. Two plus two is four. Aliens is the coolest movie ever made. These are facts. Brutal, incontrovertible facts. And the coolest character in the coolest movie ever made only has three lines, and her name is Corporal Ferro. All three of her lines are cool. When asked who Ripley is, she’s the one who drawls, “Some kind of consultant. Apparently she saw an alien once.” She’s the one who says “On my mark. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Mark” as the dropship that she is piloting is, well, dropped. The way she says that countdown is so cool that I’m pretty sure it was sampled in some song I used to dance like an idiot to in the nineties. She’s also the one who thinks an alien is her co-pilot and turns around to berate it for something, only for it to eat her. Before it eats her, though, there’s a shot of the alien’s face, and its mouth is watering. It is literally streaming with extraterrestrial drool. The alien’s mouth doesn’t water before it eats anyone else. Michael Biehn may cause my wife to salivate, but he does nothing for the alien. No, only Cpl. Ferro is cool enough to make an alien dribble. The third thing she says is the coolest thing, said by the coolest character, in the coolest film ever made. “We’re in the pipe. Five by five.” What? What does that mean? How can a line that is so manifestly nonsense be so cool? Well it can. See?
Murray Futterman – Gremlins
“You’ve gotta watch out for them foreigners, ‘cos they plant Gremlins in their machinery”. So says Murray Futterman, the grouchy neighbour in Gremlins. These same Gremlins were responsible for bringing down US planes in the big one, WW eye eye. Murray drives a US-made tractor/snowplow; a Kentucky Harvester, not one of those goddamn foreign cars that are unreliable. He’s a xenophobic drink-driving prophet of doom.
Murray lives with his wife Sheila, surrounded by lousy imported technology. When his TV reception goes, he decides to do a Rod Hull and check out the antenna (Gremlins have tuned his TV to a channel showing a subtitled foreign film). Outside, he hears a noise from the garage and is then chased by his own tractor, driven by Gremlins, who demolish his house before killing Murray and Sheila … or so it seems. Somehow they survive the ordeal to appear in the sequel, where Murray gets a bigger part and we discover his favourite food is pasteurised processed cheese.
Murray is played by Dick Miller, a name you might not recognise but a face you certainly will. He got his break working with Roger Corman, and has appeared in a number of Joe Dante’s films. His films include Little Shop of Horrors, Terminator, Innerspace, The ‘burbs, and Small Soldiers; as well as TV shows like Fame, Taxi, Star Trek, ER, and Clueless. He had a part in Pulp Fiction playing Monster Joe, but his scene didn’t make the final cut.
Kevin Gnapoor – Mean Girls
By Ricky Young
There’s a lot to like in Mean Girls – Tina Fey refining her schtick pre-30 Rock; Lindsay Lohan shining briefly before becoming a vomit-scented punchline; supporting turns of wit and heft – but nothing quite as delightful as Rajiv Surendra’s mathlete/bad-ass MC, Kevin Gnapoor. The stock ethnic loser who tries to make friends on the first day is no stranger to high-school movies, but few are played with such relentless verve as Kevin G. Making sure you know that the ‘G’ is silent (when he sneaks in your door, to make love to your woman on the bathroom floor), his tiny scenes glimmer with the oniony sheen of over-compensatory, semi-autistic geek sexuality. He’s a mercurial one, though – initially made frisky by Lohan’s intelligence, he later goes out of his way to define his tastes along disappointingly exclusive lines (“Look, I don’t mean to hurt your feelings, but I only date women of colour”). Many hearts broke that day, let me tell you, whatever the melanin levels.
Kevin doesn’t receive the bitter-sweet, reflective coda most of the other characters get as they all head towards graduation, but no doubt he’s out there now, a bad-ass Systems Analyst with a pompadour and a fistful of restraining orders. Let’s remember him at his best; busting rhymes and Red Hand Gang references at the North Shore High School Winter Talent Show. Ladies and gentlemen, Kevin G & The Power of 3.
“Thank you, Kevin, that’s enough.”
Boat Guy – Ghost Dog: Way of The Samurai
By Jim Eaton-Terry
Ghost Dog is a film full of quixotic gestures. Ghost Dog himself, trying to live by a fictional code of honour in the face of a world run by the bottom line. His wordless friendship with a Haitian ice-cream seller. Using pigeons to communicate. Throughout the film, futile gestures of defiance against a never-defined modern world are held up as the only form of resistance open to the characters. But the scene that comes back to me – 10 years after I last saw the film – is the interlude in which the two friends encounter an old man building a boat on the roof. As he only speaks Spanish, while the two friends speak English and French respectively, his presence is never explained, but like Ghost Dog he’s creating his own world, devoting himself to a meaningless craft (in both senses of the word). Even if he finished the boat, it’ll never leave the roof, and even if it left the roof it would be a relic. On one level, this is another pose in a film entirely composed of surfaces. To a cynical viewer Jarmusch merely shuffles a deck of images and sounds to create a mood and the semblance of depth. I’ve always thought of it, though, as the heart of the film; in a world where the bottom line is the only measure of anything, where the only sensible way to live is within a team or a corporation, the hero is reduced to building, all alone, a vessel which can never float.
Mrs Chambers – Psycho
By Viv Wilby
A rich vein of black comedy runs through Psycho. From Marion Crane’s frumpy co-worker (Hitchcock’s daughter Pat) to the garrulous car salesman, the film is full of small comic cameos. My favourite is Lurene Tuttle’s brief turn as Mrs Chambers, the deputy sheriff’s wife. She turns up in just two scenes, and gets barely half a dozen lines, but it’s a pitch-perfect performance. Tuttle’s comic timing is peerless: just listen to her delivery of the line ‘Norman took a wife?’ Perhaps one or two of her few lines ladle on the small-town mumsiness a tad too much (do we need to know that the dress she helped Norman pick out was ‘periwinkle blue’?), but there’s more to her part than comic relief. What I think I like best about Mrs Chambers is the depth she brings to world of the film, the way she rounds out the rural Californian community where Marion’s flight has led her (and us). This is someone who knows Norman Bates, not as the creepy young motel manager, but as neighbour and quasi-son. She’s the counterpart of those people you see interviewed on the news after the arrest of a suspected serial killer who observe that ‘he was a quiet young man and kept himself to himself’. Her kindness and warmth stand in contrast to the film’s other mother figure: the terrifying Mrs Bates.
Mister Jackson – Double Indemnity
By Matthew Turner
Strictly speaking, Mister Jackson is rather more important to the plot than some of the above examples, but he’s a terrific example of a great character actor taking a relatively small part and making it his own.
The plot of Double Indemnity revolves around femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) seducing insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) into murdering her husband. The grisly deed done, the pair decide to fake a suicide by having Neff, his leg in plaster, “fall” off the back of a moving train disguised as Mr Dietrichson. That’s where we first see Jackson , played by Porter Hall, who appears on the darkened smoking car and cheerfully strikes up a conversation (“My name’s Jackson, I’m going all the way to Medford – Medford, Oregon. I had a broken arm once…”). The next time we see him, he’s sitting outside the office of insurance investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G Robinson), who, sure enough, has figured the whole thing out and just needs Jackson to confirm that the man he saw on the train wasn’t Dietrichson. Wilder frames this whole sequence with Neff standing nervously in the background as Jackson reaches his decision. (“Mr Keyes, I’m a Medford man, Medford, Oregon. Up in Medford we take our time making up our minds … ”) His mind made up (“Mr Keyes, I’m a Medford man, Medford, Oregon. If I say it, I mean it. If I mean it, of course I’ll swear it.”), Jackson attempts to engage Neff in conversation as he tries to work out where he’s seen him before and there’s a beautifully staged, wonderfully tense sequence where Neff tries to dodge Jackson’s direct eyeline and you can see Jackson’s Medford, Oregon mind not quite getting there before Keyes returns and Jackson gets distracted by thoughts of the “osteopath” he’s going to put on his expense account.
8 thoughts on “Mostly Minor Characters”
Bruce McGill is usually cast as a second-tier or minor character and he nails these characters of lesser significance time after time. My favourite is from Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999), in which he plays attorney Ron Motley. Here’s the clip:
Wonderful selections, all. I’d throw in a bid for Binnie Barnes as Cousin Laura in the 1938 version of Holiday, not least for her unmatchably withering delivery of the ordinary-seeming putdown, “Oh dear, where did she get that horrible dress?”.
Got to be Airplane!’s Johnny.
Framescourer > Without looking, is that the “WIPE THAT SMIRK OFF YOUR FACE!” clip? I love Bruce McGill. He’s not in nearly enough films these days but his every appearance is a joy.
We tried to go slightly more minor than established character actors for this piece (though, having said that, I broke that rule myself), otherwise I’d have written about Eve Arden. Or Ward Bond. Or William Demarest. Or…well, you get the idea.
I would like to claim that Bruce McGill is my uncle. But I’d be lying. Have you seen this blog? http://morethanyouneededtoknow.typepad.com/the_unsung_joe/ – it traces people who played REALLY tiny parts, and it’s fascinating
The Unsung Joe is one of my favourite blogs. I’ve tried time and again to get a pitch in to one of the movie channels to turn it into an interstitial feature, but nobody seems to get how brilliant these stories are!
Would Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross count as minor It’s a pretty spectacular performance in any case!
Saying that Baldwin again in Notting Hill as the misogynist boyfriend is also brilliant!
This was a fantastic article. Loved all the contributions. I feel inspired to watch all the films on that list I haven’t seen and rewatch all the ones I have.