Most actors long to test their thespian chops by portraying the heavy. The phenomenon is doubly effective when the actor in question is already ensconced in the public consciousness as virtuous. Some of the more villainous portrayals in film history were delivered by actors who later became known to audiences the world over as good guys. The evil portrayals they assayed early in their careers were far meatier roles than those for which they won acclaim:

Neville Brand in D.O.A. (1949)
Neville Brand landed at Normandy in July 1944 and saw combat in France, Luxembourg, Belgium and Germany. Following his discharge, the decorated veteran traveled to New York and took up acting using his G.I. Bill allotment. Migrating to Hollywood, he found himself typecast as one of the most bloodthirsty psychos in cinema history. As the drooling henchman of crime boss Luther Adler in the noir classic D.O.A., Brand's sadistic torment of protagonist Edmond O'Brien is all too convincing. Brand later portrayed a variety of crotchety good guy sidekicks with a degree of civility, but here he is grizzled, grinning and altogether unwholesome.

Basil Rathbone in DAVID COPPERFIELD (1935)
Despite several well-etched, intervening portrayals, one actor is most identified as Conan Doyle's immortal detective hero Sherlock Holmes. Yet prior to embodying fiction's pre-eminent super-sleuth, Basil Rathbone was the big screen's supreme cad, delivering a string of villainous portrayals unequaled in the annals of film. Quintessentially cultured and unctuously distinguished, Rathbone's masterfully menacing delivery was riveting. Some may argue that his turn as Sir Guy of Gisbourne in The Adventures of Robin Hood is his most evil impersonation, but for my money, his performance as the sadistic Mr. Murdstone in this top-notch production of Dickens' classic takes the prize. The explanation he offers to young foster son David (Freddie Bartholomew) of how he disciplines his horses is dastardly and disturbing.

Lee Marvin in THE BIG HEAT (1958)
Lee Marvin was the scruffy, leering henchman par excellence. Making his initial Hollywood inroads via the intervention of such film immortals as John Ford, Marvin was cast in any number of noteworthy bits as thugs, bikers and toughs. It took a good fifteen years for his screen persona to evolve into that of the hard-bitten leading man we all remember. Peppered throughout that 15-year gap are some of the most striking heavy portrayals on film. Shack Out On 101 and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance are sadistic standouts. But his treatment of pitiful gun moll Gloria Graham in Fritz Lang's The Big Heat qualifies Marvin as the biggest heel on reel. Audience shock is undiminished by the years when Lee heaves a scalding pot of java into Gloria's face.

Raymond Burr in RAW DEAL (1949)
Raymond Burr and Perry Mason are inseparable to audiences the world over. No matter how many adaptations have been or will ever be filmed, Burr will always be that paragon of jurisprudence in the minds of drama lovers. From 1957 until his death, Burr continued to appear as Earle Stanley Gardner's righteous defender of the accused. But Burr had begun his film career putting his imposing bulk to good use as a villain. In Raw Deal, Burr pulls out all the sadistic stops in his growling turn as the cast-iron crime boss with the heart of putty. Casually, he roasts a lackey's earlobe with his cigarette lighter and only moments later, tosses a bowl of flaming cherries jubilee into a nagging gun moll's face.

Richard Widmark in KISS OF DEATH (1947)
It is a minor filmic miracle that Richard Widmark was ever able to live down his fiercely sadistic portrayal in Kiss of Death. As Tommy Udo, the grinning gunsel without a conscience, Widmark perfected a snarling delivery and otherworldly cackle that by rights should have typed him forever as an irredeemably evil hoodlum. But call it a testament to versatility, for within a year or so, Widmark was enjoying heroic roles of every description -- doctors, soldiers cowboys, you name it -- the same Tommy Udo who chuckled as he shoved a wheel-chair bound old woman down a flight of stairs just for the hell of it.

Robert Mitchum in NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955)
Early in his career, Robert Mitchum, the embodiment of cool, turned in a consistent string of B movie performances as dusty cowpokes and menacing gunsels. It was several years before the laconic lothario emerged as the laid-back anti-hero everyone could love. As the rumpled, good-hearted Jeff in Out of the Past, or the naively virtuous marine in Heaven Knows Mr. Allison, audiences identified with his taciturn resolve. But Mitchum blows a gasket in Night of the Hunter, wherein his ferocious portrayal of a psychotic, murdering, fortune-grubbing "preacher" remains as effective today as it was when this viscerally poetic film premiered. His turn as Max Cady in the original Cape Fear will repulse you as well. These two performances establish Mitchum as a big-screen bad guy without peer.

"Beauties the prey of a monster's desire's!"
Werewolf in a Girl's Dormitory

"This lady of the night has taken her last walk!"
Jack the Ripper

"Budding young teeny boppers were this Bluebeard's prey!"
Teenage Strangler

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