Background Noise: The Benefits of Luggage and Film’s Funniest Minor Major Character
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Today’s NOISE: The Minor Major Characters
Not long ago I was rewatching Clint Eastwood‘s 1993 political thriller In the Line of Fire, which is really a great film if you haven’t seen it. I’ve written about it here. Eastwood plays an aging Secret Service agent, one who was there when John F. Kennedy was shot, now trying to stop another assassin (John Malkovich) from taking out the current president. It’s directed by Wolfgang Petersen and is one heckuva a good time, full of smart dialogue and authentic action. However, I’ve always been struck by one character who doesn’t even has a line, who is actually barely even in the movie and in fact isn’t even listed in the official credits of the movie. Here he is in the movie:
That’s star Eastwood on the left and a taxi driver at the wheel. Yup, a taxi driver. He’s awesome. I love this character. Here’s a guy who was sitting at the terminal probably expecting some same ol’ fare, a loud vacationer or self-absorbed business type who wouldn’t even bat him an eye, and what does he get? A badass Secret Service agent on a badass mission. Does he panic and drive his car into a fire hydrant? No. Without a single damned word, he hurls that yellow car down the street like a motor champ while the man sitting next to him loads his pistol. That’s … well, badass.
What I like about this guy is how Peterson wholly and utterly avoids every cliché in the book about our movie expectations of a taxi driver. A) He’s not some obvious stereotyped immigrant with a whole chatterbox of silly wild-eyed dialogue and B) … well, pretty much just A. Instead, he voicelessly, calmly, directly, delivers his passenger with the same urgency of a state police officer racing to a crime scene. He’s the hero in this scene and while our attention is on Eastwood, he stands out with incredible presence because he’s doing what he’s doing without interrupting the movie at all. He’s a terrific minor major character.
Movies are chock full of characters like this of course, and I’m not talking about supporting players with extended parts but people who come and go in a short time, probably in only one scene and then disappear. Think of the immortal Bill Murray in the classic Ruben Fleischer comedy horror film Zombieland (2009). Guy stole the whole movie … playing himself.
But how about characters who are not big name stars, like Frankie Faison who played Barney, a ward at the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Jonathan Demme‘s 1992 thriller The Silence of the Lambs. He’s also barely on screen but is incredibly popular for his believable work in the role. Who could forget Edie McClurg in John Hughes‘ timeless 1986 comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, playing Ed Rooney’s (Jeffrey Jones) secretary? She got what many might consider the funniest line in the movie and then did it again a year later in Trains, Planes & Automobiles.
Another memorable minor major character is 1st Officer Murdoch (Ewan Stewart) from James Cameron‘s epic biographical drama Titanic, a film that earned high praise from critics for its staggering breadth and wonder but raked in billions at the box office because of young Leonardo DiCaprio. Murdoch, you will remember, is but an officer on the doomed ship who is hardly in the film, popping up here and there, until suddenly, as the ship meets its fate and panicking passengers clamor for seats in the limited lifeboats, the young, helpless sailor finds himself shooting two people before finally turning the gun on himself, an action in history that is up for debate.
It’s a stirring scene made all the more so by Stewart’s fine performance. But heck, there are almost too many minor major characters to count, from Siobhan Fallon Hogan‘s brilliant but fleeting appearance as Beatrice, Edgar’s wife, in Barry Sonnenfeld‘s 1997 comedy Men in Black to Robert Pastorelli‘s terrifying fate in Kevin Costner‘s award-winning 1990 western Dances with Wolves. However, I want to settle in on one of the best ever, a small part in a small movie where a minor major character went well above the call of duty and delivered easily the most memorable of the lot. And that’s this guy:
You surely recognize Tom Hanks back there, but maybe not the movie. It’s John Patrick Shanley‘s quirky comedy Joe Versus the Volcano, a very funny bit of odd from 1990, produced by Steven Spielberg. I adore this film, always have, its gleeful descent into silliness and charm with a highly charismatic turn from Hanks and, for their first pairing, the incomparable Meg Ryan.
The movie follows a lovable hypochondriac named Joe (Hanks), who works in a dead end job and is convinced he’s got the world on his shoulders and the worst possible ailments. At the doctor’s one day (with another funny cameo by Robert Stack), he’s told he has a ‘brain cloud’ and only six months to live. Visited by wealthy businessman Graynamore (Lloyd Bridges), he’s offered a chance to make those last days count, by traveling to a remote island in the South Pacific where a rare mineral is found, and jumping into a live volcano to appease the locals and their angry god. Makes sense.
He agrees and is given carte blanche to go shopping in preparation for his journey and ends up in this rather eccentric-looking boutique that sells only luggage. It’s run by this nameless proprietor played by the spindly Barry McGovern, and it’s hilarious. The luggage salesman, as he is credited in the film, is a man whose central preoccupation, as he notes, is luggage and that’s a good thing because he’s surrounded by it.
The scene is just shy of two minutes long, led by the bowtie-wearing dealer as he muses over the needs and benefits of good baggage, his deep, gravely and slippery voice giving his every word a comical edge. Who is this guy? He caters Joe about the showroom, saying, as a luggage problem, with Joe taking a plane and then a ship and then staying on an island, he has just the thing, his long sinewy fingers pointing up to the sky.
He presents the ‘premier steamer truck’, displayed behind a door that looks like a stained glass window and proceeds to make his sale. What makes this unusual scene work is how it feels so weirdly out of place, despite the otherwise fantastical elements of the movie. Joe has shopped around, driven in a limo by the great Ossie Davis, the montage set to music and is upbeat-ish to be sure as he spends lavish amounts of money. It then stops here and and pauses, introducing luggage that will play a vital role later in the story, but giving the salesman an opportunity to run away with the movie. It gets me every time, one of those scenes you can’t get out of your head and start quoting to your friends who end up looking at you as if you need special medication. Watch this movie and let it happen to you.
Who are some favorite minor major characters you like in movies? Let us know in the comments below.