Alan Rickman, who passed away recently (to great disappointment and surprise), was a terrific movie villain, one of the best to ever stride the screen. Like all fans of movie bad guys, I was thrilled to my toes by his debut as Hans Gruber in 1989’s Die Hard, a scene-stealing turn worthy of Sidney Greenstreet’s in The Maltese Falcon.
In most of his villainous roles, Mr. Rickman played the civilized and smooth ultra-sophisticate type: courtly, often British, definitely with an international flair. They speak with mellifluous diction and take their tea every afternoon at four on the chimes, heartlessly sipping Earl Gray with their pinkies up, as they watch their minions torture and toy with the hero. If they tend toward the Germanic—like Herr Gruber--they might listen to Beethoven Quartets as they beam at der Fuehrer’s portrait. (You can always tell the Bad Guy: he’s the one with manners and good taste!)
Rickman was both a great villain and the very best of actors, as he proved time and again throughout the 1990s and 2000s, in films such Sense and Sensibility, and the achingly bittersweet Truly, Madly, Deeply.
And he could also play characters from society’s lower depths. If you can find it, watch his Emmy-winning, unforgettable turn as the title character in HBO’s Rasputin: Dark Servant of Destiny. Here, Rickman played the flip side of Hans Gruber, as the rough, pseudo-mystical peasant opportunist who helped bring down the Romanov Dynasty. Alan Rickman could play lowlife villainy with a panache equal to his upper crust characters.
Rickman demonstrated one of my favorite Hitchockian adages: the better the villain, the better the movie. He was the only—really the only—good thing about Kevin Costner’s lumbering Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves as George, Sherriff of Nottingham (putting him in direct line with another great well-mannered scoundrel, Claude Rains from the still-best Errol Flynn Robin Hood.) A hammy performance? Sure, just what a movie like that needed.
Another striking Rickman memory comes from the first Harry Potter film, The Philosopher’s Stone. Just when that picture was threatening to sink to the bottom of my cold pond of memory, Alan Rickman as Severus Snape bounded into the classroom and for a short time, ruthlessly grabbed the movie all to himself like a kitten he’s eager to drown. The rest of the movie is vague to me, and I never saw any of the sequels.
And now that he’s gone, I’m considering setting out on the Harry Potter journey after all, just to watch Alan Rickman (I can doze through the rest.) I said it once before here and I’ll say it again: Snape starring Alan Rickman, and then everybody else, preferably cowering and running in terror. It would have been a great movie.
Like all the greats in his particular class (among them Basil Rathbone, Conrad Veidt, Vincent Price, and James Mason), Rickman’s villainy played to a sneaky feeling that civilization is but a disguise for the brute beneath; their pinpoint style and snobby manners are mere seductive filigree and Satanic hypocrisy. Their elegant surfaces reflect in an inner vileness; these surfaces can’t be trusted. They may even be sexually fluid, though you very seldom see them locked in embrace.
Such men, as they mostly are, float over or glide past like airships, separate from the physical grime and sleepless nights experienced by the those with the Spirit of Conscience. Regarding themselves as free from consequences, they do as they damn please, and make it look very easy.
That’s part of a splendid villain’s appeal, that sense of wish fulfillment. While Alan Rickman and his ilk allow us to focus and unleash our hatreds in a relatively harmless direction, they can also live out a secret dream. Especially for many males who live with fear and boil with resentment and disgust at our tormentors who may also be simultaneously be our inferiors.
His characters may live in some kind of Movie Hell, but Mr. Rickman himself surely lives in heaven.
Copyright 2016 by Thomas Burchfield