This is the third Great Villains Blogathon in a row where I’ve chosen to write about a bad guy in a western movie. That genre’s open spaces, big ideas and conflicts, lawless or isolated communities make it fertile ground for colourful villains. All kinds of interesting opportunists and outlaws have the room and tools to be bigger than life, limited only by their gun skills, money and charisma, until they’re satisfyingly defeated by a hero who rides into town, or a lawman who finally pushes matters to a showdown. Anthony Mann’s The Man from Laramie is one of my favourite westerns for many reasons, one of which is its memorable villain Dave Waggoman (Alex Nicol). He’s not very layered or complicated, but thoroughly detestable and just begging for comeuppance. I enjoy watching the slow reveal of the long-simmering Shakespearean mess that created Dave, and the festering resentments he’s symbolic of, that web of family tragedy, premonition, spurned lovers, inheritance denied, and impending massacre, all of which finally sorts itself out when the titular Man, Will Lockhart (James Stewart) comes looking for vengeance.
Dave Waggoman was, as his own father Alec (Donald Crisp) and others point out, raised by his late mother to rebel against the land and husband she hated. He’s a selfish, spoiled, vain, entitled marshmallow of a man-child, ill-equipped to deal with adult realities. He’s paranoid and touchy, given to throwing tantrums and making faces like he’s about to burst into tears at every perceived slight, but he’s also a sadistic bully who delights in senseless violence, cruelty to animals and any other unfair fight against a helpless, unarmed or outnumbered victim. He preens and admires himself in his fresh new buckskin (it’s not like he actually works at anything that would get it dusty), but outside among the other cowboys he just looks like a silly boy playing dress-up. He’s never been forced to face the consequences of his own actions, so he blames others for “starting trouble” when they respond to his attacks, and hates anyone who “steals” the affection and respect he feels is owed to him. He clearly never understood those are things earned through good acts and character, and we can gather he never had a kind, generous thought for anyone. He’s terrible, but just as bad is the enabling by his indulgent and blind (in every sense) father and the mindless obedience of the Waggoman ranch crew, who are obviously disgusted by Dave’s commands but just “follow orders.”
Dave’s villainy makes the other “bad guy” look like an angel. Waggoman foreman and adopted son Vic (Arthur Kennedy) was promised a share of the ranch equal to Dave’s, as reward for years of real work and loyalty, not to mention the headache of babysitting the spoiled Prince well into adulthood. However, as the family drama comes to a head, Vic realizes he’ll get shut out, just like his sweetheart Barbara Waggoman (Cathy O’Donnell) always warned he would. In his hurt and anger he goes ahead with his part in Dave’s Apache gun trade, is spared during the showdown with Lockhart but ends up surrounded by furious Apaches. Thanks to a well-developed part, a fine performance by Kennedy, and the Dave-monster providing contrast, it’s hard for me to see or accept Vic as even a secondary villain. He’s too sympathetic and relatable, even similar to Lockhart in having good qualities as well as dark secrets, being motivated to vengeance by painful losses, and acting to protect his own interests against Waggoman betrayal. That’s why I love The Man from Laramie; it’s a rich and rewarding movie that gives us these fascinating ambiguous characters in addition to the one undeniably awful villain in Dave Waggoman.
This is part of The Great Villain Blogathon hosted by Silver Screenings, Shadows and Satin, and me. Click HERE to see more movie baddies.