Vaudevillain

Not only does the bad guy get all the best lines (if you’ve made your movie properly) — sometimes he has all the best moves.

A viewing of Gamer (2009, fully absurd) had me thinking about the ways cinematic villains count coup on their adversaries. They’re kind of limited, really. There’s the Auric Goldfinger death-ray strapdown, of course, and … everything like that. The bad guy gets the hero at his/her mercy, explains the whole plot, and strides ahead with confidence.

The only meaningful variation from this tipping point is when the bad guy does something completely unexpected and out of context while maintaining his hold over the protagonist. What could be more out-of-left-field than a dance number?


The archnemesis in this segment still holds all the cards, he still goes on to outline his masterstroke. He just gets in a little softshoe en route. The villain’s big monologue is his final act of hubris — after this, the moment of his glory, it’s all downhill until he catches a shiv with his intestine. He’s not doing anything Goldfinger didn’t do, he’s just doing it with style.

In watching Gamer, this might not have leapt out at me save that it’s the second time in the film a bad guy expresses his potency via musical theater. The plot has to do with live human video game avatars, controlled by remote players; Terry Crews’ character is unique in that he is acting against the other game avatars without any such controls.

In Blue Velvet, it’s not Big Bad Frank Booth doing the musical routine personally. But it’s clearly his theme song, his calling card, something that, in his psyche, fuels and flavors and justifies his sadism and his supremacy over lesser men and women — that is to say, over everyone.

By dragging captive Jeffrey to his audience with Ben, where a lip-synch rendition of “In Dreams” threatens to crack Frank wide open, and by again citing the song as he terrorizes Jeffrey, he is performing an act of expressive song and dance.

The nee plus ultra of the Vaudevillain trope must be found in the savage home invasion of A Clockwork Orange, with Alex expressing his power over the trapped rural couple with a fabulous turn at “Singin’ in the Rain.” Every phrase is punctuated by a new act of violence, his choreography lands devastating kicks to the bound and helpless homeowner, and he is “ready for love” in the most vile possible twisting of that sentiment.

Vaudevillainy seems to be catching on. See Russell T. Davies’ iteration of Doctor Who, in which the Master assumes control of Earth with a Scissor Sisters soundtrack, if you want proof. I can only hope the megalomaniac who grinds my liberties under his boot has such taste.

Other examples?

Thin Lizzy — Bad Reputation

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