Edge

The Wolf, the Butcher, and Inspector Clouseau: ‘Staches on Film

Film is a visual art form, and despite what your favorite porn star said in her journalistically sound Maxim interview, looks do matter. This is especially true in the plastic city of Los Angeles, where, with the exception of Rob Reiner, physical imperfections are as rare as cloudy days, or honest police officers.

A cinematic character’s hair, skin, eyes, mouth, and nose define who he or she is as much as the dialogue spoken. While some feminine attributes get a lot of attention – Nicole Kidman’s nose in The Hours or Demi Moore’s hair in G.I. Jane for instance – there is one undeniably manly feature that has transcended all eras and stylistic changes: the mustache.

With these three famous ‘staches as your guide, you too can learn how to become a masculine movie icon aftering growing some well kempt facial hair all your own.

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CHARACTER: Winston Wolf
‘STACHE: Harvey Keitel’s
FILM: Pulp Fiction

Wolf is, without a doubt, one of the suavest ‘stache gods ever captured on film, sporting a very telltale and memorable mustache.

Writer/director/psychopath Quentin Tarantino has a knack for creating characters that ooze with updated old school charisma and trigger finger pride, and what better way to communicate these attributes than by slapping on some whiskers on the upper lip?

Pulp Fiction, easily Tarantino’s best work to date, is also one of the top films of our time – and drawing significant virility from ‘stache power is most likely the sole reason. That bad motherfucker himself, Samuel L. Jackson, plays Jules Winnfield, an angry black man blessed with a Coming to America jeri curl and a suitably pissed off ‘stache, but let’s face it, Wolf leaves him biting hot rod dust like Queen.

It’s the preposterous suggestion (and hopefully not a full “blow-n” reality) by QT that people like Wolf actually exist in our world, and that makes him oh so cool. When Fiction’s two main characters run into trouble, their casual cool mob boss calls up “the Wolf,” a well-respected, mysterious problem solver aka a cleaner. Rolling up to the hideout house in a fetching combination of black and white tuxedo and a straight-laced, no joke mustache – the Wolf is the consummate professional.

His dialogue (“Let’s get down to brass tax gentlemen.”) matches up perfectly with his non-flashy Godfather appearance. He talks fast, works fast, and drives “real fuckin’ fast.” His coffee? Lots of cream and lots of sugar; the man obviously has a little soul behind the discipline. And he disposes of “The Bonnie Situation” easily, with enough time left to take a platonic family friend out to a sunlit breakfast.

Yeah, the Wolf’s screen-time is limited, but damn if that ‘stache doesn’t stay in your mind like that stoned metal head babysitter who beat your score in Adventure Island. Of all the great characters Tarantino has created in this last decade, this guy, Winston Wolf, is the most memorable. All hail the ‘stache.

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CHARACTER: Bill the Butcher
‘STACHE: Daniel Day-Lewis’
FILM: Gangs of New York

In Pulp Fiction, Keitel generated more dark energy and fun from a Wolf than Warren Zevon using just a handful of minutes. In Martin Scorsese’s epic Gangs of New York, Daniel Day-Lewis pumps murderous, sexy life into one of the best villains of all time, and he does it for almost three hours. Ladies: Do a curtsy for stamina.

Never mind the critical indecisiveness over Gangs, no one can deny that DDL’s performance is why cinematic villains overshadow the hero. Bill the Butcher is a hero – there’s the super-cool “New Yoark” accent (not “New Yahk”), the classy costumes and top hats, a glass eye, and most importantly, one helluva mustache.

The first thing you notice about a handlebar mustache is its excessiveness. Why do men go to such extravagant lengths to grow this big ridiculous squirrel-shaped lump of hair above their mouth, especially since the rest of his face is always clean-shaven? Well, maybe because such men are great men, but unfortunately, a lot of them are also psychopaths. Bill rules over his American cutthroat streets as they explode into parades and parties for no apparent reason – like old groupie applause for Van Halen.

Ever the lover of attention, he absorbs complementary helpings of it from all around him – chalk it off to the handlebar. Replace it with a wiry John Waters’ or even a bushier Selleck and this character would have immediately turned much more despicable and annoying; but Scorsese wants his key villain to be loved and hated at once, and he succeeds via this monster of grooming.

In a lot of ways Bill the Butcher’s lust for excess and power is America. And, oddly, maybe that’s why domestic moviegoers and critics were most drawn and enticed by his actions. There’s a term for when a great performance overshadows everything else in one part of a film: stealing. DDL steals every scene he’s in, prancing around like a cartoon, until someone crosses him, and learns first hand of his namesake as his last breath is spent in admiration of the holy ‘stache.

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CHARACTER: Inspector Jacques Clouseau
‘STACHE: Peter Sellers’
FILM: The Pink Panther

No actor in the history of modern film has had a year like Peter Sellers had in 1964. It only took him a few months to create two of the most memorable characters ever. He played three parts in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, but it was the title role that carved out his place among the best actors, again – ever.

He followed this masterwork up quickly with two Clouseau movies that very same year – The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark. Starring at the bumbling inspector would become Sellers’ trademark, and it’s a character he turned to repeatedly throughout the rest of his career.

The Pink Panther set out to spoof the jewel thief genre, casting Sellers as Clouseau, a detective struggling to catch the man who stole a diamond known as The Pink Panther.

It makes for a strange film in the fact that Clouseau is really the lone funny character, and almost all of the comedy in the film is derived from his actions. Basically, it’s a standard crime story with one funny guy inserted into the scenes. Luckily, the one funny guy is very funny and has a ‘stache.

The comedy of Clouseau is just a series of bumping into things and making dumb decisions, but Sellers’ facial expressions – exaggerated with a classic movie detective ‘stache – make nearly every joke a great success. Obviously this film was well liked, because the sequel, A Shot in the Dark, came out in the same year, and would be followed by seven more films, four of them starring Sellers, and a TV series.

So, instead of masterminding crimes like the Wolf and Butcher, Clouseau is solving them, and yet, his choice of ‘stache is just as serious-looking, working with a pair of sharply raised eyebrows to give a twisted and confused look. Those who remain skeptical of the ‘stache, well, just look at the cover of this DVD and you can tell exactly what the film is about: Sellers plus ‘stache equals nonverbal communication of the highest degree. And ladies love a sense of humor that’s easy to grasp.

Shawn Wines can be reached at shawnwines@aol.com.

October 31, 2003

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