Richard Leskosky: Cinematic challenge
My previous column looked at genre movie heroes and villains who had lost the use of one or more limbs or even the limbs themselves. A more serious disadvantage in the movies, though, is blindness — and not just for the obvious reasons.
The cinema is intrinsically a visual medium. We look at it and curiously watch the characters in it. Many film scholars have earned tenure on the basis of what they've written about voyeurism and the importance of the gaze in the cinema (what we look at and why).
The camera, guided by the director, acts as our eyes. And some directors, such as Alfred Hitchcock, are tightly in control of what they let us see. But even within the film, sight and lines of sight are crucial. Movie characters look at the persons to whom they're speaking. A shot of a character looking at a significant detail will be followed by a close-up of that object. And scenes of characters watching other characters, either openly or in secret, help define power dynamics within the story.
So blind heroes and villains would seem to be at a particular disadvantage in genre films — but especially villains. After all, heroes in action films are usually reacting to the villain. The villain is typically the one who initiates the action, and you would assume he would need all his faculties for that.
Most recently, Robert De Niro played a sinister blind mentalist in "Red Lights" (2010). But blind villains or at least scary blind henchmen go back at least to 19th-century literature with Blind Pew in "Treasure Island" (and all its movie adaptations), who terrorizes young Jim Hawkins (but winds up dead before any ships are boarded).
Assassin and martial arts expert Elle Driver (played by Daryl Hannah) in Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" films has one eye but winds up with none in the second film. Since we don't see her actually die, she could very well show up in Tarantino's proposed "Kill Bill, Vol. 3."
Then there's the title villain in the Taiwanese "Master of the Flying Guillotine" (1976), the second film featuring the heroic One-Armed Boxer. He had dispatched two of the blind man's disciples in the previous film. And the blind MOTFG, seeking revenge but not knowing what his enemy looks like, slays any one-armed fighters he comes across.
(The Flying Guillotine, by the way, is like a Frisbee on a chain with a hole in the middle ringed by extendable blades.)
In Japan, Shintaro Katsu played an evil blind masseur in "Agent Shiranui" (1960), which led to the sighted actor building a career playing a heroic blind masseur.
The 2008 intellectual science fiction film "Blindness" upsets society and movie conventions when a plague of blindness settles on a large city and brings out the worst in pretty much everyone but the still-sighted heroine (Julianne Moore) and a handful of others.
Being physically threatened by someone you would ordinarily expect to be dependent on others is creepy enough as a movie trope, but the 1970s Spanish series of horror films about the Blind Dead kicks that up a notch with its army of blind and dead Knights Templar who, despite being dead, apparently have very good hearing. (The Knights are blind not simply because they're dead: Their eyes were pecked out by birds postmortem.)
Most blind heroes in action films derive from martial arts stories about blind experts and, I suspect, from Eugen Herrigel's popular 1948 book "Zen in the Art of Archery," which described a philosophical approach whereby the archer does not consciously aim at the target.
Most recently, "The Book of Eli" (2010) followed a hero with superb fighting abilities who turns out to be sightless. The accident that blinded the Marvel comics costumed hero in 2003's "Daredevil" also bestowed on him a "radar sense," which, added to his other heightened senses, allows him to swing through cityscapes like Spider-Man.
In the 1970 "Circle of Iron," David Carradine played several fighting roles, including a blind kung fu master.
For blind martial arts masters, though, no one exceeds Zato Ichi the Blind Swordsman of Japanese cinema. Shintaro Katsu played the wandering masseur and gambler with a sword hidden in his cane through 26 feature films from 1962 to '89 and 100 episodes of a TV series (1974-79). That's a long time to act with your eyes rolled back in their sockets, which is how Katsu played the role.
The character was so popular in Japan that a rival studio tried a series (1969-70) with a blind swordswoman masseuse, the "Crimson Bat." Fans remained loyal to the original, however, and the series lasted only four films.
Western imitators of the Ichi films were less successful. In the 1971 spaghetti western "Blindman," a blind gunslinger (Tony Anthony) with an implausibly deadly aim escorted 50 mail-order brides to their miner husbands while fighting off various grotesque villains (one played by Ringo Starr).
A bit more believable was the blind Vietnam vet trained in samurai skills played by Rutger Hauer in "Blind Fury" (1989). That film at least had credible direction from respected Australian director Phililp Noyce ("Dead Calm," "Patriot Games," "The Bone Collector").
Probably the best blind protagonist in western cinema, though, remains the heroine in the thriller (adapted from a stage play) "Wait Until Dark" (1967) who has to outwit and survive three devious felons in her basement apartment. The film features a surprise reveal shot that can still make audiences gasp, and Audrey Hepburn received an Oscar nomination as best actress for her performance here.
More from before
A hard-drive crash while I was writing my previous column led to some omissions in the printed version. So to those earlier lists, you can add heroes RoboCop (basically a brain and bits and pieces in a metal body) and Edward Scissorhands (actually an android rather than a human). There's also the One-Armed Boxer mentioned above.
Dr. Strangelove with his wheelchair and possibly artificial hand could be hero or villain, depending on your point of view, I suppose. There's no question, though, about Rotwang, the mad scientist with the mechanical hand in Fritz Lang's classic "Metropolis."
Lon Chaney played villains without legs ("The Penalty" in 1920), with paralyzed legs ("West of Zanzibar" in 1928), and without arms ("The Unknown" in 1927).
Candyman in his own horror movie franchise has a hook for a hand.
A cartoonist (Michael Caine) loses his drawing hand, and then either he or the hand goes on a killing spree in Oliver Stone's "The Hand" (1981).
And, of course, Mickey Mouse's longtime nemesis, Black Pete, often appeared with a peg leg.
Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at email@example.com.