Often, in Hollywood films, The Villain is a highly-motivated character. He or she knows what they want and they pursue it doggedly.
For example, look at the 1946 western, The Virginian.
Brian Donlevy stars as a crooked Wyoming rancher who spends his time siphoning cattle from other ranchers’ herds. Donlevy’s character isn’t a poor, desperate man; nay, he wears an expensive, tailored wardrobe. He doesn’t need money, he wants excitement and power. These he finds in cheating his neighbours.
His chief adversary is Joel McCrea, who plays a principled ranch foreman and a truly Decent Fellow. McCrea’s character is the kind of neighbour everybody likes; he’s honest, generous and resourceful. He also has enough gumption to bring down the likes of Donlevy and his merry men.
McCrea and Donlevy make no pretense out of their dislike for each other. McCrea gives the impression he’s always restraining himself from strangling Donlevy, while the latter seems to derive no end of pleasure from it.
Based on McCrea’s first interaction with Donlevy, early in the film, we know there will be a showdown between the two men. The script practically writes itself.
What isn’t immediately apparent, however, is Donlevy’s character isn’t the only one to worry about.
In our opinion, the most interesting character in The Virginian is Steve, played by Sonny Tufts.
We first meet Tufts’ character at the beginning of the film, when McCrea runs into him after a three-year absence. There is genuine affection between the two men; we sense their shared history and mutual respect.
Tufts displays an unsophisticated, self-deprecating charm, a man who doesn’t make demands. He’s not an ambitious character, he takes life as it comes. He wins money one day and loses it the next. That’s the way life is.
Everybody likes an easy-going fellow, but Tufts’ character has a great flaw: He has no discernment.
For example, in one scene, McCrea discovers Tufts branding another man’s calf using Donlevy’s brand. When McCrea confronts him, Tufts is only slightly perturbed, and blames his poor eyesight. McCrea lays out the parameters: Stop branding other people’s cattle or Face The Consequences.
But Tufts continues to work for the greedy Donlevy, and even takes part in a stampede that diverts cattle away from their owners. Two hundred head of cattle are stolen, at $50/head. (And they say crime doesn’t pay!)
So it comes to this: McCrea must arrest the cattle thieves, among whom is his long-time friend. Even after his arrest, Tufts remains amiable and doesn’t seem to hold it against McCrea. He accepts his fate because he’s not an agent of change, not even in his own life.
Tufts’ character isn’t someone who intends to be a criminal; he falls into it because the money is good, because Donlevy is nice to him, because it came his way. He doesn’t think about the consequences to the other ranchers.
He chooses not to see that far.
The Virginian has been kicking around Hollywood for over a century. Originally based on a novel by American author Owen Wister (1860-1938), it was adapted as a stage play in 1904. Film adaptations were next in 1914, 1929, 1946, 2000, 2014, as well as a television series in the 1960s.
The Virginian spawned the famous line, “When you call me that, smile.” It also explores the twin themes of friendship and loyalty.
The only version we’ve seen is the 1946 film and, while it runs out of steam well before the end, it does have a lot of surprisingly funny lines, as well as a (contrived) romance between McCrea and Barbara Britton.
We can’t wholeheartedly recommend the 1946 version of The Virginian, even though we think the first 60% of the film is terrific. However, Sonny Tufts, the unintentional villain, is a worthwhile character study.
The Virginian: starring Joel McCrea, Brian Donlevy, Sonny Tufts. Directed by Stuart Gilmore. Written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. Paramount Pictures Inc., 1946, Technicolor, 90 mins.