In the latest Mel Gibson revenge vehicle “Edge of Darkness,” Danny Huston turns up as a shady C.E.O., acting as malevolent as possible. When he turned out [SPOILER AHEAD] to be the villain, the compadre sitting next to me at our press screening muttered “of course.”
Though Huston‘s acted all over the place in the last 15 years of his career, every time I see him on-screen, I expect him to do something terrible. He’s slime in “The Constant Gardener,” the antagonist in “The Proposition,” the vampire ringleader in “30 Days of Night,” and Col. William Stryker in “X-Men: Wolverine.” This is what he does.
It’s a double-edged sword. At age 47, Huston is never going to be a Hollywood leading man. Work is work, and — with his unnerving voice and facial features reminiscent of Ray Wise, another career villain — he’s destined to unnerve people. In another era, a suave guy like Huston might’ve been a lead, but these days we as viewers tend to distrust guys like Huston who seem too smooth. And he’s good at what he does.
The problem, of course, is that no matter how many good guy parts he plays, whenever he shows up, the suspense is gone. The same problem affects Max von Sydow and Armin Mueller-Stahl, though they’re considerably older. To see them appear on-screen is to know who the bad guy is. Typecasting is one thing; this kind of signposting is another.
In old Hollywood, everyone knew their place and was cast accordingly. Take Elisha Cook Jr., who — in the words of Wikipedia — “made a career out of playing cowardly villains and weedy neurotics.” But Hollywood’s no longer a place where a given cast member means an understood narrative function. That makes the use of actors like Mueller-Stahl, von Sydow and Huston can be a little annoying — in movies that are ostensibly supposed to contain surprises, they spoil the game before it starts. Not their fault: it’s just how casting goes.
[Photos: “Edge of Darkness,” Warner Bros., 2010; “The Maltese Falcon,” Warner Bros., 1941]