by John M. Floyd
Rob Lopresti’s column about heroes and their sidekicks the other day got me thinking. It’s true that the best Kirks need good Spocks, or Hawks or Tontos or Watsons or Samwise Gamgees, as the case may be. But let’s be fair, here: the villains need interesting helpers as well.
I also began wondering what the advantage could be, to the writer and the story, of giving the villain a sidekick. I came up with several:
- the villain can reveal, via dialogue with his Number Two, important plot facts or character traits that might otherwise be hard to disclose;
- the more allies the villain has, the worse the odds are against the hero;
- comparisons and conflicts between the sidekick and his boss can confirm for the reader/viewer how much more evil and threatening the head villain is;
- a sidekick can provide skills the villain might not possess; and
- an expendable sidekick (few of them survive until the last reel) can “test” the hero before the hero’s final confrontation with Villain #1.
Buddies for the baddies
Sometimes villains’ sidekicks (henchmen?) are even more sinister than their superiors. I thought From Russia With Love’s Rosa Klebb was more creepy than her archvillain boss, and in Tom Rob Smith’s novel Child 44 a subordinate named Visili Nikitin was one of the most evil characters I’ve ever read about. On the big screen, one who comes to mind is soulless killer Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), who in the remake of 3:10 to Yuma was far more ruthless than his gang leader Ben Wade (Russell Crowe).
At times, though not often, the “other” bad guy can actually steal the show. Hannibal Lecter wasn’t the only villain in The Silence of the Lambs; the main plot, investigation, and manhunt was focused on serial killer Jaime Gumb. But guess which one everybody remembers. Another example is the silent and loyal Oddjob, who — silly as he was — made more of a lasting impression on me than Auric Goldfinger did, in both the novel and the film. And I’d be willing to bet that more moviegoers remember squinty-eyed, hawk-nosed actor Lee Van Cleef, one of the three outlaw sidekicks in the film High Noon, than either of his two buddies or his boss Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), even though Miller was the main villain of both the movie and its Tex Ritter theme song.
One of my favorite sidekicks was the murderous but cheerful Mexican bandit in Hombre. I can still hear him calling out, from his hiding place after being wounded, “Heeey, Hombre, you put a hole in meeee. I never had a bellyache like this since I’m a leetle boyee.” His character added a touch of humor to a deadly serious story, but in more lighthearted movies plenty of villains had comic-relief sidekicks: Otis (Ned Beatty) in Superman, Max (Peter Falk) in The Great Race, Ralph (Danny DeVito) in Romancing the Stone, etc. Playing a comedy villain’s sidekick is good duty– nothing truly bad ever happens to those guys.
The facts about malefactors
The criminals with lower billings are of course not always sidekicks; sometimes they’re killers hired by the villain (Billy Drago in The Untouchables), junior members of a team (Danny Glover in Witness, Gary Busey in Under Siege, Alexander Godunov in Die Hard), or just other evil characters unconnected to the villain (Doug Hutchison in The Green Mile).
There are plenty of variations on this subject. I can think of one novel where a villain’s sidekick (the pyromaniac “Trashcan Man” in The Stand) was the final undoing of the villain, one film where the villain’s accomplice (William Hurt in Body Heat) was also the protagonist, one where a villain’s employee (Ben Johnson in Shane) turned away from the Dark Side and helped the hero, and even one where the hero’s sidekick (Alan Hale Jr. in The Eiger Sanction) turned out to be the villain. Hey, if it works, it works.
Aiding and abetting
Who are some of your favorite bad-guy sidekicks? I particularly liked Pete Postlethwaite in The Usual Suspects, Jack Weston in both Wait Until Dark and the first Thomas Crown Affair, Daryl Hannah in both Blade Runner and Kill Bill, and Chuck Connors (actually the villain’s son rather than his sidekick) in The Big Country– but I’ll probably think of a dozen more as soon as I send this column off to press.
I should mention here that the lesser villain role has its disadvantages. Let’s face it, if you get that part, you’re admitting you’re not quite good-looking enough or sinister enough or interesting enough for the top slot. And, as I said earlier, you’ll probably die an unpleasant death before the end of the story. (Remember Jabba the Hutt? There’s not much dignity in being strangled at the end of the first scene, by the young lady the hero’s trying to rescue.)
If you like sidekicks, try out for the buddy of the good guy instead: you’ll get more respect. Unless, of course, you’re a Wookiee.